Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Caroline Munro

Born in 1949, British actress Caroline Munro grew up, quite literally, a Catholic school girl. However, she started modeling professionally at the age of 17 after winning the "Face of the Year" contest in The Evening News.

Muro's curvacious good looks quickly led to film roles, with fans of British 1970s horror films remembering her fondly as Dr. Phibes' deceased wife in "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" and "Dr. Phibes Rises Again"; as a Satanist hippy turned into vampire food in "Dracula 1972 A.D."; and as a feisty gypsy woman with a love of low-cut, tight blouses in "Captain Chronos - Vampire Hunter".

Muro was busiest during the 1970s, appearing in various states of undress in a variety of horror, action, and sci-fi films--with her supporting role in "The Spy Who Loved Me" perhaps being the pinnacle of her fame. During this time, she also had the distinction of being the only actress to ever having been held under contract by Hammer Films.

With the 1980s, Munro started to slip into obscurity, but she continued to appear in horror films, much to the delight of genre fans. During 1990s, she focused on her family and her two children, but by the early 2000s, she once again stepped before the camera on a regular basis. Three of her last four films have been horror movies--"Flesh for the Beast" (2003), "The Absence of Light" (2006) and the bizarre horror musical "Eldorado" (2012).

Friday, March 30, 2012

If you imagine a horror movie by a frustrated director of music videos....

... you'll probably come up with something like this one.

Lady of the Dark: Genesis of the Serpent Vampire (2011)
Starring: Melanie Denholme
Director: Philip Gardiner
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

An even-tempered and normal young woman (Denholme) is possessed by an ancient, vengeful spirit and transformed into a sadistic, blood-thirsty monster.

If I spend waaaay too much time thinking about what this movie "means," I could probably come up all sorts of blather about how it's an allegory for the theological idea of corruption of innocense (there's actually little doubt that's what the writer/director WANTED it to be... altough the introductory dialogue seems to run counter to that), how it chillingly tracks a young woman's decent into psychotic madness (which is does... although it does so as effectively as a treasure map sketched by a drunken pirate, because we so very little of what she was like before she became unglued and violent), or any number of things.

But I'm not going to spend any more time than I already have, because I think the filmmakers weren't entirely certain of their ideas and what interperatations they wanted viewers to make as the film unfolded. If they WERE certain, their points became muddled in the disjointed and chaotic way the story is told.

Because the way the story is told is the biggest problem with the film. In fact, it feels far more like a demo-reel than an actual movie, showcasing director Philip Gardiner's ability to film in different styles or create dramatic effects with camera tricks rather than big budget CGI... or showcasing actress Melanie Denholme's ability to portray a range of emotions. All in all, "Lady of the Dark" feels more like a collection of music videos that a movie, as most it consists of scenes of Melanie Denholme walking around while goth rock or some variety of metal plays.

Denholme, in fact, portrays the only character in the film that gets any significant screen time at all, and this leads to the film's second big problem. We are led to believe, both through her own narration and by the mundane activities that she spends the first half of the movie doing, that Denholme's character Eve is just your average, happily married young woman. However, we never see the husband, nor do we we see her interacting with anyone at all... either second-hand through her narration or through scenes. We basically learn nothing about who she is or how she interacts with others until she turns into a sadistic murderer in the film's second half. While what Eve turns into is horrific and the scenes of her madness and sadism are chilling and horrific, they would have been even more impactful if Eve had been given more depth as a character.

But the way the film is put together doesn't allow for depth. Demo-reels are not intended to convey depth of character or stories, just to provide a sampling of what the creator is capable of.

I think that Philip Gardiner might be capable of making a good movie if he would actually apply himself to making one... but judging from this film and "Men in Black: The Dark Watchers" , I don't know that he's tried to make a full-blown movie. He is one hell of a director of music videos that much is clear... and it's made even more so by the fact that the actual music video included as a bonus feature on the DVD I screened is more interesting than the main attraction.

The rating I'm giving this film is a low, but still generous, 3 Stars. That said, if you're into music videos, or the world's biggest Melanie Denholme fan, you'll probably like the film more than I did.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this review was based on an advanced screening copy that was provided to me by distributor Chemical Burn.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

'Suspect Zero' is strangely lifeless

Suspect Zero (2004)
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, and Carrie-Anne Moss
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A disgraced FBI agent (Eckhart) becomes the target of taunts from an apparent serial killer (Kingsley), but as the case unfolds it becomes clear that the taunts are more like case-notes and the killer is actually hunting other serial killers. Including perhaps the worst serial killer in history.

It's a little hard to tell what went wrong with "Suspect Zero". Given top-drawer cast and the creepy idea of a serial killer-killing serial killer profiler who uses psychic remote viewing to identify and track his targets this should have been quite the thriller.

But I found myself so bored with the first half hour that I almost gave up on the film, and when it finally became entertaining, it held my attention only very loosely.

Part of what makes the movie dull is that the characters feel lifeless, partly because the central characters never rise above the level of chiches (the tortured zealot agent, the inscrutable murderer, the loyal and supportive female agent), but also because the performers seem like they're giving their bare minimum. I expect Carrie-Anne Moss's performance to be perfunctory, but Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley have both been far better with far less to work with than what I can envision that this film COULD have been.

Also, the film's is a little too predictable. When the pieces fall into place and the biggest mysteries are solved at roughly the one-hour mark, the rest of the picture unfolds on a straight line with no further twists. The ending, while stylish and thoroughly set up by everything that preceded it, feels abrupt and unsatisfying. It's clear that the movie ends when it's over--and I appreciate the fact that the filmmakers didn't feel obligated to tack on one of those obnoxious "shock endings" or "final twists" that ruin so many horror flicks and thrillers these days--but I was still left wanting something more. Perhaps more of a point, beyond "when you stare into the abyss, it stares back at you", "sometimes sacrifices have to be made to defeat great evil" or "free will isn't free" (or whatever point the ending was supposed to convey).

Overall, this film left me a sentiment that I more frequently reserve for low-budget pictures by inexperienced filmmakers with green casts: There was lots of potential here, and it would have been fantastic if it had been spent on a better movie.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen:
Carrie-Anne Moss

Canadian-born Carrie-Anne Moss made the switch from modeling to acting starting with roles in horror anthology series "The Hitchhiker" and "Nightmare Cafe" and was soon a regular face either as guest-star or as recurring characters on mystery television series throughout the 1990s.

With the coming of the new millennium, Moss mostly left television acting behind--with the exception of a couple of TV movies and a recurring role on the final season of the action-comedy series "Chuck." She is best known for her role as Trinity in the sci-fi action film "The Maxtrix" and its sequels and spin-offs, but she has also appeared in several horror-tinged films, such as "Disturbia" (2007), "Suspect Zero" (2004), and "Red Planet" (2000).

Moss's latest horror project is "Silent Hill: Revelation 3D", which is currently in post-production and slated for release later this year.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Goregoyles: First Cut (Mutant Edition)

Goregoyles: First Cut (Mutant Edition) (2007)
Starring: Mireille Leveque and Marc Vaillancourt ("Beast" segment), Robert Harvick ("The Holy Terror" segment), and Eric Therrien (Host segments)
Directors: Alexandre Michaud and Augustine Arredondo
Ratings: Six of Ten Stars

I've sung the praises of the anthology fillm format in the past. However, Canadian director Alexandre Michaud recently demonstrated a feature of the anthology that I hadn't considered: If part of the "film" sucks, you can replace it with something else while leaving what worked intact.

And that brings us to "Goregoyles: First Cut (Mutant Edition). This curiously titled DVD, which was first released by Brain Damage Films in 2007, is a revised version of Michaud's 2003 "Goregoyles: First Cut" anthology film.

The only real complaint I had about the original "Goregoyles: First Cut" was the segment titled "Bezerker", a weak attempt at a zombie movie that stuck out like a sore thumb in an otherwise decent package. Given that "Bezerker' is nowhere to seen in the forthcoming "Mutant Edition", I assume that I wasn't the only reviewer who had unkind things to say about it. And it's absence is greatly appreciated, as it smooths out the film, resulting in a even level of quality across all segments.

(Although I need to stop thinking of the elements of a "Goregoyles" package as "segments". They are actually distinct short films, each directed by a different independent horror filmmaker and surrounded by "host segments" featuring a severely perverted and violent male Elvira-type character. Producer/Writer Michaud has stated that the "Goregoyles" series was conceived along the lines of the big-budget extravaganza "Grindhouse", in so far as each installment is a "double-feature" of short films. Not only did Michaud come up with the idea before Tarantino, but he's managed it better... he's offering cheapie horror movies that were made with budgets appropriate to cheapie horror movies... and if Tarantino, Rodriguez, and the Weinstein Company had kept the budget in line with the sort of movies they were presenting, maybe they wouldn't have had a financial disaster on their hands. I digress, but the "Goregoyles" series is, in some ways, what "Grindhouse" aspired to be.)

As with the other two "Goregoyles" reviews I've written, I'm going to review and rate each element of this film seprately, which will lead to an overall evaluation and rating. (Given that this is a revision of the original "Goregoyles: First Cut", I am considering the new material presented in comparison to what it replaced, as well as on its own merits.)

First up, we have the "host segments". In the original "First Cut", each film was introduced by a whacked out character named Uncle Dodo (played by Sebastien Croteau) who came across like a counter-culture, death-rocker take on Cain from the old "House of Mystery" comics. In the "Mutant Edition", the films are introduced by Uncle Vicious, a monstrous, sadistic, murdering rapist who doesn't show any of the wit or charm of the Dodo character. The gory violence he visits upon a tied-up, naked woman in the host segments (including raping her to death with a nail-studded dildo; an act that happens off-camera but which forms for the foundation for "Farewell from Uncle Vicious") was something I found quite off-putting. I understand, however, that this type of material is quite popular with the target market, and I also realize that the fact that I've been stabbed and cut, and have suffered broken bones and crushed fingers might make me more prone to react negatively to detailed torture scenes and other displays of physical pain on film. When these factors are taken into account, I can stand back and say that the host segments are decently presented, Therrien presents an appropriately insane character, and they do the job they're supposed to do nicely. I didn't find them as informative, intresting, or amusing as the host segments in the original version of the film, but they still earn a (low) Six of Ten Star-rating.

The replacement for "Bezerker", as mentioned above, is "Beast" by Alexandre Michaud. According to Helltimate Studio's website, "Beast" was originally produced for a werewolf anthology film, which I imagine ended up never happening, as the film is being presented here. (It was also made some five years ago, according to the copyright date on the end credits.)

"Beast" is part slasher-film and part psychological horror film. It's the story of a woman (Leveque) whose life goes from bad to worse when her mentally unstable brother (Vaillancourt) murders her husband and then abducts her so she can stop him from turning into a werewolf. Although somewhat clumsily written, the film is saved by some excellent acting on the part of Leveque and Dubreuil, and a last minute twist that may cast a different light on the opening murder. Director/writer Michaud is also to be congratulated for finding a way to incorporate the basics of a werewolf story into an ultra-low budget film and avoid transformation and make-up effects that leave entirely too many films of this level looking amatuerish and laughable. Even five years ago, Michaud understood how to work within his means. "Beast" gets a rating of Six of Ten Stars.

Finally, we have "The Holy Terror", the story of a man (Harvick) who becomes possessed by a demon who once gave Satan himself a run for his money. I raved about this short film in my review of the original "Goregoyles: First Cut", and my opnion remains mostly the same. I noticed some problems with the sound that didn't register last time--such as dialogue that's a bit hard to hear due to ambient sound in the scene--but I still think this film is a must-see for aspiring filmmakers. It's amazing what director Augustine Arredondo accomplished for a reported $800... and it's a shame that he apparently hasn't done anything else since.

In the final analysis, "Goregoyles: First Cut ("Mutant Edition") is two steps forward and one step back. Replacing "Bezerker" with "Beast" greatly improved the overall quality of the offering by removing a trashy little flick that wasn't worthy of the material it was surrounded with. On the other hand, the host segments lack the charm of the ones featured in the original... although I suppose they may appeal more strongly to gorehounds and fans of the "torture films" that seem to be in vogue these days. (I'm also slightly dissapointed by the absense of the "making-of docmentary for "Holy Terror", but an interesting interview with Michaud and the stars of "Beast" almost makes up for that... and those DVD extras aren't part of the film anyway.)

It earns a solid Six of Ten Stars and my recommendation to those who appreciate well-crafted low-budget movies.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen:
Sarah Michelle Gellar

Sarah Michelle Gellar started her acting career as a child with a recurring role on the daytime drama "All My Children" and made her transition to adult actress while starring on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

Even while starring on "Buffy", Gellar maintained a busy filming and voice-acting schedule, remaining in front of the camera and microphones pretty much non-stop through her teen years and 20s, and into the present day.

Most recently, Gellar has returned to series television as the star of "Ringer", a show where she plays a woman on the run from the mob who poses as her missing twin sister... only to learn that her sister's life is no less dangerous than her own.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

'Deadfall Trail' is a chilling tale of survival

Deadfall Trail (2009)
Starring: Shane Dean, Cavin Gray, and Slade Hall
Director: Roz
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Experienced outdoorsmen Julian (Dean) and John (Hall) head into the Arizona wilderness together with obnoxious city-boy Paul (Gray) for a survivalist camping trip. When John is seriously injured, Julian apparently suffers a psychotic break and Paul finds himself needing to learn the ways of the wilderness quickly if he is to have any hope at all to survive.

"Deadfall Trail" belongs to the "backwoods survival" horror subgenre, but it is refreshingly free of psycho hicks, toothless townies, and dialogue containing the words "squeal" and "pig".

What it does have are some nice performances by its three stars, each of them coming across as totally believable in the parts they are playing. Shane Dean, as Julian, is particularly noteworthy and interesting to watch, as he does an excellent job of keeping the audience guessing as to whether he is really a dangerous psychopath or just a socially awkward jerk.

Supporting and augmenting the great performances is equally excellent technical work in the photography and sound department. This film has a professional look about it that is entirely too rare among the low-budget pictures that are common stock of distribution labels like Midnight Releasing, Brain Damage Films, and Chemical Burn. I can't even complain too much about the quality of the script... the dialogue and the characters all seem mostly believable. Heck, it even has a "shock ending" that works! Even better, director Roz seems to practice the old adage that "less is more" when it comes to scenes of gore and violence; he leaves our imagination to fill in the details of the film's more horrific scenes, something that lets him avoid the need for prosthetic effects that his budget probably wouldn't be able to support if they were to be done right. It's an approach I wish more low-budget filmmakers would consider taking, as it would make them appear as if they actually knew what they were doing. (Here--most of these movies can show you how it's done.)

That's not to say that "Deadfall Trail" is perfect. There are a couple of moments in the film that were presented to establish aspects of the characters but which also have the feel of "rifle over the fireplace" moments, but we never come back to them. I'm the kind of person who perhaps over-analyzes films I'm watching, but the fact the metaphorical rifles never got fired annoyed me enough to be distracting as the film moved through its climax and I realized that there would be no pay-off to what seemed like perfect set-ups.

Despite minor blemishes, I recommend checking out "Deadfall Trails", especially if you are a fan of the "man vs. nature" or "backwood horror" genres.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Who's Next?

I've featured roughly 120 Scream Queens in this series. So, the question is... who do YOU think the future should bring to this space?

Who haven't I covered that you think the world needs to know about?

Monday, March 5, 2012

'Demon Kiss' is flawed but watchable

Demon Kiss (2010)
Starring: Sally Mullins, Elizabeth Di Prinzio (aka Jessica T. Perez?), Sebastian Gonzales, and Jamie Macek
Director: Dennis Devine
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A demon goes on a bloody killing spree, thinning the roster of an escort service while moving from body to body while searching for the reincarnated Mary Magdalene, the "mother of all whores." Meanwhile, a police detective (Gonzales) and the "psychoanalyst to the working hooker" (Mullins) are desperately trying to identify who the serial killer is and stop him.

"Demon Kiss" is a movie I should come down on like a ton of bricks. Its director, Dennis Devine, has helmed better movies (with "Caregiver" from 2007 springing immediately to mind); the cast is mostly community theatre-level when it comes to both acting skills and acting styles; the production was so cash-starved that the gore effects are weak and almost no effort was made to hide the fact that the same room is recycled as different locations, and the theological and historical under-pinnings of the story are so shaky that it made my old-time Humanities Major heart cry out in pain.

Despite all those negatives, however, the film held my attention... and that's saying a lot these days when I'm being pulled in all kinds of directions by non-movie related demands. I can't quite put my finger on what made this movie more entertaining than annoying, but the fact that ten minutes didn't go by without a attractive woman getting naked was part of it.

Another part was, despite the fact that the tired cliche of a "hooker with a heart of gold, looking for a way out of the profession" was joined with the slur that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute was one part of the script that stuck in my craw more than anything, was that Elizabeth Di Prinzio (or Jessica T. Perez in some credits listings) gave such a good performance that I wished she'd had more screen time. I was interested in seeing how things turned out for this character, especially with all the references in the film to Jesus having returned to Earth and that they two of them were fated to meet again. (And this is the demon's plan: possess the reincarnated Mary and thus later possess the reincarnated Jesus. Not a very good plan, but still a plan... which is impressive given how stupid and shortsighted this demon is portrayed as.)

A fun, over-the-top performance by Jamie Macek as a demon-possessed homicide detective was also something I found entertaining. He gives viewers a villain to hate even when he's not possessed by the demon.

The rest of the cast, as I mentioned above, are about par for the course for movies at this budget level, including the lead actress Sally Mullins (who also produced the film and co-wrote the script with Devine), but none are downright awful--a couple are borderline, but they were obviously hired for their boobs and tattoos rather than acting talent. But with the two fun performances to lift the film up, everyone else is passable.

The only things that keep this film from getting a Five rating from me instead of the low Four it has now is that Devine and Mullins weren't very adept in hiding their sources of inspiration for the story. I'm not talking about Bible sources, but rather films like "Fallen" and "The Exorcist" and/or low-rent rip-offs like "Eerie Midnight Horror Show". Not hiding your sources becomes a danger when the audience keeps thinking how the source borrowed from is better than what we are currently being subjected to... and it becomes downright fatal when the movie's climax is one that has been done better many, MANY times over. And to make matters worse, the whole bit with Jesus walking the Earth and Mary Magdalene being reincarnated never really pays off... and the obligatory "shock twist ending" pretty much established that it never will.

In the end, "Demon Kiss" stands as a deeply flawed but watchable film... assuming you don't mind boobs and gore mixed in with a weakly conceived theological horror plot.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Melanie Denholme

Melanie Denholme is a young British actress who got her start professionally in the theatre in 2009, but by 2010 she had jumped career tracks to low-budget horror and sci-fi films. In two short years, she has appeared in half-a-dozen horror flicks, all directed by Philip Gardiner and several produced by Denholme herself.

According to interviews she has given, she likes roles where she gets to stretch herself, with vampire film "Lady of the Dark" being the film where she so far feels she has gotten to play the greatest range of emotions and become the furthest removed from herself.

Distributor Chemical Burn has provided me with several films starring Denholme, so expect to see her name and face here over few weeks.