Thursday, November 29, 2012

Perhaps the hardest to spell title ever

Ssssssss (1973)
Starring: Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies, Richard B. Shull, Tim O'Connor, and Jack Ging
Director: Bernard L. Kowalski
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

 Dr. Carl Stoner (Martin) is the world's leading snake expert, yet he labors in obscurity, mostly shunning the academic community and gaining some of his research funding by conducting sideshow-like demonstrations of snake venom extraction. But he is working on a very important research project--one which he believes can save the world--and his new lab assistant (Benedict) is about to become his latest test subject.

The awkwardly named "Ssssssss" (that's seven esses) is a well-crafted throwback to the monster movies of the 1940s and 1950s, complete with a brilliant-but-bonkers scientist who is scorned by the academic establishment and who works in his isolated lab with his beautiful daughter, the hunky younger scientist who becomes her love interest, and the creatures he creates for the good of SCIENCE!

But the film is more than that. It takes all the classic elements (and throws in a carnival freakshow and a bumbling town sheriff just to make the film feel even more like one of the classics) and deploys them in such a way that even the most experienced watcher of B-movies will be kept guessing as to exactly what's going to happen next.

The only complaint I can think to mount against the film is that an aspect of the ending is a little hard for me to accept. But, given that this is a movie about a mad scientist who is trying to turn people into snakes, I can't be too picky...

A key to the film's success is the performance by Strother Martin as the mad scientist. Martin is a talented actor who gives an A-level performance in this B-level movie, and his character's affection for the animals used in his research--especially Henry, the snake that is his best friend and drinking buddy--along with his obvious love for his daughter makes it so viewers like him. Even though Dr. Stoner is doing something horrible to an innocent and equally likable character--David the Lab Assistant--we can't help but root for him as the film progresses. Some expert screenwriting that brings perfectly timed encounters with the film's antagonists (an obnoxious jock and repulsive university lecturer) makes sure the audience remains in Stoner's camp up to the end. 

Not since "The Ape" has there been a mad scientist that I've felt more favorably disposed toward, even as I knew it was going to end badly for him and he was going to pull other characters down with him. 

Whether you love or hate "mad doctor" movies, if you have a love of horror films that rely on good acting and interesting characters rather than gore and cheap scares, I think you'll enjoy "Sssssss".

Monday, November 26, 2012

Starts okay, but it's all downhill after that

Perkins' 14 (2009)
Starring: Patrick O'Kane, Shayla Beesley, Richard Brake, Michale Graves, and Mihaela Mihut
Director: Craig Singer
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Ten years ago to the day, 14 children vanished without a trace in the small town of Stone Cove, including Deputy Sheriff Dwayne Hopper's son. When the story told by a drunk driver (Brake) doesn't seem right to Dwayne (O'Kane), he inadvertently solves the mystery that's haunted him and the town for a decade... but in doing so unleashes a horror created by a madman bent on revenge.

"Perkins' 14" starts out strong, with a cast of characters that we can either relate to, or that viewers sense are either going to be heroes or murderers as the film unfolds, and a host of ominous mysteries that further hook and draw the audience in. The strength of the film's first act is such that it makes up for the excessively oppressive atmosphere that is present literally from the film's first frame.

But it doesn't last. The strong opening soon dissolves into a morass of lazy and downright bad writing, where characters do stupid things because of plot-dictates or rampant ignorance on the part of screenwriters when it comes to police procedure in the real world; where several of the mysteries presented in the film's beginning are left behind, mostly forgotten or resolved in a half-assed fashion; and where what was left of the early promise is swept away by a foolish and miserable finale.

An iron-clad truism about the horror genre is that a successful film starts with a strong script. No matter how many jump-cuts or gory scenes of maniacs munching on the guts of their victims that is thrown at the audience, the crew can't cover fatal flaw of a bad script. And in the case of "Perkins' 14", it's a shame that more effort wasn't put into making the script better, because this could have been a really good movie... instead of one that consistently got worse until the end credits mercifully started rolling.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Cheryl Ladd

Born in 1951, American actress Cheryl Ladd's first major role came in 1970 as Jill Valentine on "Josie and the Pussycats". For more than 40 years, she has been a popular and highly sought-after television actress.

Best known for the original "Charlie's Angels" (1977 - 1981) and "Las Vegas" (2003 - 2007). Ladd has had guest-starring roles on just about every mainstream genre of TV series, as well as roles in an equally diverse range of television movies--including horror films.

While not every film Ladd has been in can be described as good by even the most generous-hearted reviewer, she can usually be counted on to be a bright spot even in the most wretched of melodramas--and the same goes for the horror films and thrillers she's been in. Horror highlights on her extensive resume include "Satan's School for Girls" (1973), "Jekyll & Hyde" (1990), "The Haunting of Lisa", "Kiss and Tell" (both in 1996), and "Every Mother's Worst Fear" (1999)

Some of Ladd's few excursions into non-television projects also include thrillers or horror films -- "The Treasure of Jamaica Reef"/"Evil in the Deep" (1975) and "Poison Ivy" (1992).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Day of the Turkey Review: Jennifer's Body

This is the best movie I'll be reviewing today.

 Jennifer's Body (2009)
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Megan Fox, Johnny Simmons, Adam Brody, and J.K. Simmons
Director: Karyn Kusama
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When an evil indie band sacrifices popular high-school girl Jennifer (Fox) to Satan in exchange for fame and fortune, they should have listened to her best friend (Seyfried) when she told them Jennifer had lied about being  a virgin. Their sacrifice returns from the dead as the vessel demon who must consume the body and souls of her classmates.

"Jennifer's Body" is actually a better movie than I had been led to believe. It had been described to me by someone whose opinion I usually trust as "a badly done and dull high school chick-flick jazzed up with a killer demon." 

While I guess I can see the chick-flick aspect--the driving force at the heart of the film is the relationship between "Needy" and Jennifer, a relationship so close and full of love that it survived even the destruction of Jennifer's soul and "tainted" the demon that had taken her body--I hardly found it to be badly done. While it didn't really contain any surprises, but what's here is well executed, the actors all give a good accounting of themselves, and the script moves forward at a steady and logical pace.

Of course, it could be that I like this film better than many horror films with a high school setting because I could actually recognize the characters in it. This is one of the very few high school movies where the characters and their interactions rang true to me. I even recall saying some of the lines uttered by characters in the film.

All that said, I can see why it was described to me as "dull." Even before Jennifer decided to tell her former BFF what had prompted the transformation in her, I found myself wishing the film would get to the point where "Needy" kills her/releases her soul and somehow takes revenge on the men who turned her best friend into a monster. Yes... the film is about a flesh-rending demon on a rampage in a small-town high school--and it's a pretty good one as far as that goes--but there was another story I was more intererested. And that story wasn't where the film's focus was. The revenge seemed like it needed to be part of the story, because there was such a close relationship between Jennifer and "Needy"... it, unfortunately, the film ends without delivering on that.

Well, sort of. Stick around for the end credits, and you'll see what bumped this review from a Four-rating to a Five. Better late than never, as they say... and proof that a satisfying ending really does color the perception you walk away from a movie with.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Emily Blunt

Although perhaps best known for her roles in "chick flicks" and historical dramas (and historical drama chick flicks), London-born English actress Emily Blunt has also been steadily accumulating credits in other genres, such as sci-fi ("The Adjustment Bureau", "Looper" and the forthcoming "All You Need is Kill") and, the subject at hand, thrillers and horror films.

Blunt's first flirtation with thrillers and horror came in the psychological thriller "My Summer of Love" (2005). Since then, she has starred in three straight-up horror movies-- the snowbound ghost movie "Wind Chill".(2007), "Curiosity" (2009) and "The Wolfman" (2010).

One could also add the Jack Black-starring "Gulliver's Travels" (2010) to Blunt's horror resume, but I think that one was probably intended as a comedy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

'The Wolfman' is a disappointing remake

The Wolfman (2010)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Hugo Weaving
Director: John Johnston
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Actor Larry Talbot (Del Toro) returns to his ancestral home in England after his brother mysteriously disappears. While trying to solve the mystery, he is attack by a werewolf.

"The Wolfman" is a remake of the classic Universal "The Wolf Man," arguably the period at the end of the Golden Age of monster movies. It is one of the best of werewolf movies to ever be made, but that's damning with faint praise, as a glance at this selection of reviews from sister blog Terror Titans shows. There aren't all that many good werewolf movies, so it's not hard to be among the best.

The first and biggest problem with the film is that it abandons the "Universal Gothic" setting, that strange Never-ever Land where torch- and pitchfork-wielding peasants and spell-casting gypsies existed side-by-side with European modernity in favor of a late 19th-century England that ends up feeling more like the American West when London becomes a shooting gallery as the Wolf Man runs rampant in the city.

An almost as big a problem is that instead of forging an identity and story of its own--which one might think the writers and director would have wanted to do, given the abandonment of the classic Universal horror environment--it keeps referencing the werewolf movies that spawned it, such as the original "The Wolf Man" and the very first (commercially disastrous yet artistically superior "Werewolf of London" films). From the origin of the secret curse that afflicts the Talbot family (inspired by "Werewolf of London") through the chasing of a beautiful woman through a fog-bound forest (inspired by "The Wolf Man") admirers of the old movies will see them reflected and echoed throughout this picture. Unfortunately, these "homages" will primarily remind you of how empty of ideas and substance this film truly is instead of making you admire it for building upon a grand creative legacy. Oh, and let's not even dwell on the shoehorning of Jack the Ripper into the film.

Where "Werewolf of London" saw its protagonist heroically stand up to evil, and "The Wolf Man" saw its protagonist(s) break under the weight of tragedy brought about by random events, "The Wolfman" has no real moral or emotional core. It's a superficial and melodramatic, all flash and no substance. Del Toro seems to have been cast primarily for his similarity in appearance to Lon Chaney Jr.; Blunt seems to have been cast primarily for her ability to look gorgeous, and twice-so when crying; Weaving is just there to fill space, like the Jack the Ripper backstory his character is tied to; and Hopkins is there... to be Anthony Hopkins. I think he may have retired from acting some time in the early 1990s and now just shows up to run lines. As for Hugo . None of these actors are bad and they are easily as good as the material they are working with, but there is no depth here. And that shallowness is what separates this modern Universal werewolf movie from the old ones from the 1930s and 1940s. And as flawed as "The Wolf Man" was, it wasn't shallow.

If you're looking for a film that will entertain you, spook you, and even gross you out (the transformation scenes will put you off your lunch I think), this is a movie to check out. Just know that it's not the classic that "Werewolf of London" is... and that unlike "Werewolf of London" or even the original "The Wolf Man," no one will be talking about this film more than seventy-eighty years after its release.

And this is a shame, because the talent brought to bear to make this movie should have been able to come up with something far better.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Jennifer Lee Wiggins

Tomboyish military brat Jennifer Lee Wiggins was born on a U.S. military base in Thailand. As a teen, she became interested in a career in law enforcement, and she got so far as earning a BS in Criminal Justice and proving herself to be talented with handguns and at martial arts.

But after she spent some time on the set of a Japanese television show, she fell in love with acting and the entertainment business. Leaving the path she had hoped would some day lead to a career with the FBI, Wiggins moved to Los Angeles for a career in make-believe.

After a small number of bit-parts, Wiggins emerged as a leading lady for The Asylum's modern-day exploitation films like "Shapeshifter", "King of the Lost World" (both in 2005), and "I Am Omega" (2007).

But no asylum could hold her, and she's appeared in horror films from other production outlets as well, including the SyFy Original Picture "Bone Eater" (2007), "Murder Inside Me" and "Bled" (both in 2009), as well as small parts on television series "Life" and "House".

Wiggins's next horror project is "Growl", a werewolf film starring Katee Sackhoff that is will be released some time in 2013.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

'I Am Omega' is better than you might expect

I am Omega (2007)
Starring: Mark Dacasos, Jennifer Lee Wiggins, Jeff Meed, and Ryan Lloyd
Director: Griff Furst
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A man believing himself to be the only survivor of a zombie apocalypse (Dacassos) is slowly being driven insane by the loneliness while working on a project that will completely destroy a city that has become a hive of zombies. One day, he receives a message from another survivor (Wiggins) on his computer. She claims to be alive and hiding in the city. He believes he is hallucinating, until two other survivors (Lloyd and Meed) show up at his fortified hide-out, claiming they are on a mission to rescue the trapped girl.

"I Am Oemga" is yet another film by modern-day exploitation film company The Asylum that was designed to earn extra cash through would-be viewers confusing it with "I Am Legend" (which was released in theaters around this debuted on DVD), and perhaps even the older films "The Omega Man" and "Last Man on Earth."

While I am amused by The Asylum keeping a time-honored tradition alive, and the intentional effort to cause confusion is a little less sleazy than other examples of this in their catalog--this film was inspired by/loosely based on the same source that brought us the other three films, a Richard Matheson novel--I don't think they did the film itself any favors in this case.

As a stand-alone post-apocalyptic zombie movie, "I Am Omega" is a superior effort to many of the other films in the marketplace. In some respects, it's even better than the Will Smith vehicle it was hoping to sponge viewers off, as its low budget actually creates a grittier and grimier air than the CG-overkill of the big budget movie. Further, the zombies and other enemies our hero has to deal with in this film are nowhere near as silly as the antagonists in the Smith vehicle. Unfortunately, because The Asylum is in the business of doing direct-to-DVD shoddy, cash-grab rip-offs of big studio releases, when they deliver something decent, it is easily dismissed sight unseen by much of its potential audience.

And this is a shame, because given the willingness of zombie fans to put up with the worst kind of lazy crap in the films watch, I think they'd find a lot to enjoy here.

In addition to mostly well-chosen locations and well-dressed sets, the film is elevated by a surprisingly effective performances--surprising for a film like this--by the four stars. Mark Dacasos and Jennifer Lee Wiggins are particularly effective in the way they play their characters with relative restraint, while Geoff Meed (who also wrote the film) has a great turn as a survivalist who is crazier than Dascasos's character could ever become.

Further praise must also be offered to the make-up artists who created scary looking zombies on their shoe-string budget, and to the director and cinematographer who show a better sense of how to stage and film action scenes those who have worked on movies with one thousand time the budget and time resources that people working for The Asylum have.

Now, I'm not trying to say this is a great movie. There are many flaws, not the least of which is a boring flashback sequence that wastes time on establishing Our Hero as a "tortured soul" when it should have given us a reason for the zombie apocalypse, or maybe some REAL background on who he is, where he's come from, and why he's decided to blow up the city he's targeted. There are also a few plot-holes so massive that you could drive a dump truck full of zombies through them, the worst of them relating relating to a key element of the film's climax.

In balance, however, there are far worse zombie movies that you could waste your time on. If you dismissed this one because of its source, maybe you should take another look before checking you kill more brain cells with that Italian thing from the '80s. It's included in several DVD multi-movie packs, so you can get it cheap. I recommend "Midnight Horror Collection 8 Movie Pack Vol. 1", because it also includes decent films like "Below" and "Demonic Toys", "Meridian", and the original "Prom Night" with Jamie Lee Curtis.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Frida Farrell

Born in 1979, Swede Frida Farrell became interested in acting after watching a Shakespeare play with her grandmother at the age of six. A winding path through community theatre, dance, professional modeling, and stage performances in London's West End eventually led her to television and movie roles.

Farrell spent all of 2007 starring in horror films--"Killer Weekend, "Lost Colony", "Messages" and "Venus Drowning"--and she also had leading roles in the chillers "Cyclops" (2008) and "Behind Your Eyes" (2011).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On sale now: Cthulhu Haiku!

Never has a tome of eldritch horror been this much fun to read! 
Cthulu Haiku and Other Mythos Madness is a collection of verse and flash fiction inspired by the creations of H.P. Lovecraft, and assembled by Lester Smith of Popcorn Press. Among the many haiku and other verse forms within its pages, you'll find the first poem I've published since the 1980s!
So, if you like the Great Old Ones and want to add a truly nifty book to your reading list, you can't go wrong with this!