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Saturday, 30 October 2010

Drones (2010)

Directors: Amber Benson and Adam Busch
Stars: Jonathan M Woodward, Samm Levine, James Urbaniak, Dave Allen, Tangi Miller, Marc Evan Jackson, Angela Bettis and Paul F Tompkins
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

I'm really not sure what I expected from Drones, the opening night movie for this year's IHSFF. I hadn't read up much on it, but everything I saw underlined a Joss Whedon connection that's hard to ignore as many key players have solid places in the Whedonverse. Directors Amber Benson and Adam Busch were Buffy the Vampire Slayer regulars: Benson, who handled the technical side of the job, spent three seasons as Tara; Busch, who dealt with the cast, had a long running recurring role as Warren. Lead actor Jonathan M Woodward has appeared in five TV shows, three of them for Whedon, who killed him off each time. Tangi Miller is even a spokeswoman for breast cancer with Alyson Hannigan. The connections didn't want to quit, so I couldn't help but have them in the back of my mind as the film began, but I'm very happy to report that you can safely relegate this paragraph to the background. Drones is very much its own film.

So, sure in the knowledge that this is not a Whedon knock-off, I can begin to actually review the film. It's a comedy, far more than it's a science fiction film, but it's the sort of comedy that they just don't make any more, which made it a highly refreshing ninety minutes. Comedies today are supposed to be all about toilet humour and Star Wars references, because every budding movie comedian wants to be Kevin Smith, but this is free of all of that because writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (names that suggest these guys were destined to be a team) apparently have their roots in more classic material. The Thrilling Adventure and Supernatural Suspense Hour, their monthly stage show, takes its influence from old-time radio and has featured many of the cast members here. This film shows that influence too but also classic Hollywood, with a careful pace and a reliance on presence and cleverly written dialogue rather than special effects and sets.

The drones of our story are office workers at a company called OmniLink, whose office provides the one and only set. The title is taken from an analogy given by Pete, the boss, in a PowerPoint presentation as the film begins. He likens OmniLink to a hive where the drones take orders from the queen. That would seem to make Pete the queen, but in the able hands of James Urbaniak, he's ineptly smooth, blissfully unaware of how wrong he usually is, so it's neatly appropriate. He seems to think that drones like Brian and Clark can take inspiration from the humble bumble bee because he can self regulate his temperature. Given that Brian and Clark are you and me, just a little more so, they don't quite get out of the metaphor what Pete might have intended. They're cubicle dwellers who say 'high five' to each other but don't actually do it. Their biggest problems have to do with deadlines and water coolers that don't work.

The talk is hardly what you expect science fiction to be about. Everyone's a little shaken up by OmniLink's decision to change the intercompany database from being chronologically sorted to alphabetically, especially Cooperman. He'll write the sort of strongly worded memo about it that Dan Berg sang about over the opening credits. They all talk about how Brian should ask out Amy who works a few cubes down. Brian sees them as different because she uses capital letters in her instant messages but he doesn't. Clark thinks they'd be great together. Cooperman's all for it too, and he's right about everything. And while we're wondering about why we're seeing this film at a horror and science fiction film festival, we follow Brian into the supply closet where he finds out that Clark is really an alien. Given that Clark's dialogue includes gems like, 'My behaviour is a perfect simulacrum of human mores,' we could wonder why this is news but Brian is a drone.
What follows is a refreshingly different take on using aliens as a toolkit for examining our own humanity. The dry humour reminded me in places of that of Douglas Adams, but these aliens (yes, there are more to come) are successors to Ford Prefect rather than Zaphod Beeblebrox as the cleverness is in how they're forced to appear human and how well they succeed at it. If you worked at OmniLink and I asked you to pick out which of your colleagues were aliens, you'd get it wrong until I revealed the truth and you'd think, 'I knew it all along.' The script focuses as much on similarities as differences, the aliens in our midst just as on the spot as the humans. Clark is observing the Earth in preparation for invasion and ensuing enslavement of the human race by his people, but this is detailed with dry subtlety and a notable absence of fanfare. Brian's all for it as long as he gets a raise and this revelation doesn't threaten their friendship. It's just cool.

Drones really doesn't deserve to be this good. It was written in a week by people who had never written a feature before. It was shot in two more by directors who divvied up responsibilities, one of whom had never directed before. The leading lady wasn't cast until the day before shooting began. There's nothing on screen but an office and a bunch of actors. Some are well known for their film work, others for television, some for nothing at all. Some stuck religiously to the script, others improvised continually. Yet there's an obvious cohesion between those involved that goes beyond the many prior connections from previous projects. Everything feels comfortable, even if it wasn't, and we're drawn into that comfort zone. Amy and Miryam chat away by phone though Miryam sits right outside Amy's office. Cooperman puts his feet up and relaxes as he handles huge projects. Brian and Amy hit it off. Pete calls them Bramy because he thinks it's cute.

I wish Amber and Adam the greatest success with their film but I have a feeling it may not come in quite the way they hope. It plays too slowly, too quietly, too subtly to appeal to mainstream audiences who won't appreciate the depths, but those depths are there nonetheless and inviting enough to suggest a small but solid cult audience. I don't mean anything like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room, but I could easily see this falling into a category with a movie that is worthy of comparison on many fronts. Office Space was never a huge success but it's just as watched today as it was a decade ago and it only becomes more relevant and more referenced. Drones could easily do the same thing, meaning that the directors may not get rich off this film but could well be kept busy answering questions about it for years and, when promoting future projects, being asked to autograph copies of this one.

The characters are certainly archetypes, albeit well drawn ones, but I have a feeling they have meaning on more levels than the obvious. I don't know where Acker and Blacker are from but it was fun to ponder if the characters represented Californian cities: Brian as San Francisco, Clark as Los Angeles, Amy as Hollywood, Cooperman as Venice Beach, Pete as Sacramento. I may well be wildly wrong but there's something in the script that resonates just enough that we know it's there. The personas the actors assume are far more obvious. As Brian, Woodward unmistakably channels the young Bill Murray and he does it very well. Samm Levine plays Clark exactly like Wallace Shawn. Urbaniak doesn't really play Pete, he plays Jeremy Irons playing Pete, especially when he says 'super awesome.' As Amy, Angela Bettis comes across as very French even though she's from Austin, TX. She's somewhat like Audrey Tautou but with more classic influence too.

Technically the film is capable but as subtly so as the script. The camera keeps the beat like a drummer, doing precisely nothing flash but staying almost constantly in motion. There are no special effects at all and they aren't missed. An office is an office, but there's attention to detail in the set design that's admirable. It's so well designed and so well played out that I could even buy into the on again, off again relationship between Miryam and Ian, though she was listed by Ebony as one of the 55 Most Beautiful People in the World and he's the epitome of the invisible cuboid. I think whether you're going to like this film is going to depend on your sense of humour, perhaps your taste in sitcoms. If you're American but you watch the UK shows, you may just love this and come back to it again and again. If you stick with what the networks show you, though, you may not get it. It'll be like plyfoxians with a slurb.

PS: 'Hail Soyka!' I mean, 'Go humans!'

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Criminally Insane (1975)

Director: Nick Philips
Stars: Priscilla Alden and Michael Flood
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Nick Millard would find a career in exploitation film. His father, S S 'Steamship' Millard, was a genre pioneer, one of the legendary Forty Thieves of the exploitation roadshow circuit with larger than life characters like Louis Sonney, Leonard 'Pug' Arenson and Howard 'Pappy' Goldin. Best remembered is Dwain Esper, who directed Maniac and Marihuana and toured Freaks and Reefer Madness, but they all operated the same way. The Forty Thieves would breeze into town on a wave of publicity, like carnival barkers or revivalist preachers; lease a theatre to exhibit their latest atrocities; hawk pamphlets that made more money than tickets; then quickly breeze on out again before the authorities paid too much attention. Millard built films like 1927's Is Your Daughter Safe? from existing footage, its warning against prostitution conjured up from medical footage about venereal disease and stock footage of white slavery.

Steamship's son, Nick Millard, born in 1941, earned his first credit as Don Rolos, directing Nudes on Credit in 1961 for a 1963 release. He'd previously worked with his father on a documentary about shooting John Huston's The Misfits. IMDb lists no less than nineteen pseudonyms that he used on a prolific output of soft porn movies, mostly as a director but occasionally as a writer, producer or cinematographer. Titles ranged from simple (Kept, The Slut or Threes) to descriptive (Confessions of a Dirty Pair, Darling, Are You Bored with Men? or How I Got My Mink). After forty such films in a decade, he switched genre abruptly in 1973, writing and directing two legendary underground horror pictures, Satan's Black Wedding and Criminally Insane, as Nick Philips. His father helped out on a number of his early erotic films; his mother, Frances Millard, didn't get involved until this point, but then acted as producer on many of his ensuing horror movies.

Criminally Insane is a movie out of time, because instead of wallowing in the excesses of 1975, as you might expect for an experienced sexploitation filmmaker, it hearkens back a dozen years to the original American gore film, Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast. Lewis explained how Blood Feast was problematic for local authorities because it didn't break any rules, at least that existed at the time: it contained no nudity or swearing and the bad guy got his comeuppance at the end. There simply weren't rules against the sort of gratuitious gore that accompanied tongue ripping or eyeball skewering. Criminally Insane is a reversion to that ethos, because it seems to lack all the usual exploitation elements except gore, only to add a level of bad taste that's hard to ignore. While there's almost no swearing, the film is full of bad language. It's blatant, crass, lowest common denominator, all the more so because everything is shown as utterly routine.

Millard described his change from soft porn to horror as 'a step up from the gutter to the kerb' and it's easy to see why this film in particular is such a cult classic for gorehounds. A good part of the appeal is the introduction of Priscilla Alden as a lead actress, because she's utterly unlike any horror lead you've ever seen. While you might credit Millard with some flavour of feminism for creating what is likely to be the first slasher movie with a female slasher, you'd only do so if you haven't seen Alden. She plays Ethel Janowski, usually referred to as Crazy Fat Ethel, also the title of the film when released to home video. 'She's 250 Pounds of Maniacal Fury!' the film's tag line suggests, which underestimates her size considerably. She alternates between food scenes and murder scenes, though the continual eating was apparently tough on Alden, in reality a dainty eater. There's no fat suit in play, so presumably she had a glandular condition.

Obviously you wouldn't expect a character called Crazy Fat Ethel to be particularly subtle, but Alden, apparently a classically trained actor, underplays everything. There's rarely even a hint of 'maniacal fury' as she almost sleepwalks through the film. Early on, she's restrained in bed and sedated by men in white coats, then taken to the psych ward at San Francisco General Hospital where she sits in a straightjacket and doesn't move. The electric shock therapy prompts Alden's most active acting, but that goes back to stoic when released into her grandmother's custody. Why did any of this happen? The suggestion is that Ethel simply had rages so Mrs Janowski sent her away to get a 'lovely rest', but that and her drawing the blinds to shut out the world is the entire background, providing a subtext that must surely count as the most horrific part of the story. The rest is just Ethel the walking stomach eating and killing her way to the end credits.

On the DVD commentary track, 42nd St Pete suggests that Ethel reminds him of that one nurse everyone hated at school. I can buy that, though I saw her as the stereotypical Teutonic nanny who would scare the crap out of the kids in her care so much that they'd all end up with deviant sexual fetishes. All she needed was a pair of lederhosen and an Austrian accent. For a while, she doesn't speak at all, making us wonder if Alden was hired purely for her size. Certainly she says nothing in the hospital or on the way home, where her first act is to silently cook breakfast: half a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon and half a loaf of toast. It's only when her grandma sits down at the table and attempts small talk that she opens her mouth. 'Did you know they tried to kill me?' she asks in a pleasant voice. 'That goddamn Jew doctor gave them orders not to give me enough to eat.' Her ethos takes up one line: 'My heart's just fine as long as my stomach's not empty.'

To be frank, we're impressed that this human bumper car can wander around as easily as she does. She's seriously obese, but beyond her insane caloric intake, she's apparently able to do anything that the rest of us can do. Dr Gerard wants Ethel to watch her weight, but it doesn't seem to be holding her back any. Interview footage shot with Alden shortly before her death at 68 in 2007 shows that she was still large but healthy and looking better than ever. In the film she ably hides how much physical exercise she had to do, as she was frequently called on to retake arduous scenes where she had to walk up stairs, run towards the camera or drag bodies around. She's the constant focus too, in almost every shot, because other characters only exist as props for her to bounce off, if you pardon the pun, and once their purpose is served, like Mrs Janowski frustrating Ethel's midnight snack runs by emptying the fridge, she kills them.

Two things shine out during this first murder scene. One is that the violence is poorly done, the knives the only effective component while the blood is just garish red paint. Nothing penetrates skin or clothing either, suggesting that it's pretty likely the budget mostly vanished into Ethel's stomach rather than into effects. She never cleans up any blood either but it constantly vanishes as if by magic. Bludgeoning people into bloody pulp apparently only leaves blood on body parts. The other thing worthy of note is Alden's acting before and after each act of violence. She does get riled up before killing her grandma, repeating 'I Want That Key!' like a chanted mantra, each word punctuated by a vicious stab to Mrs Janowski's hand to free the key to the only cupboard that contains any food. Yet once the deed is done, she calms down immediately to a thoroughly restrained outlook as if nothing has happened and she stays there for most of the film.
So up goes Mrs Janowski to the front bedroom, which is a shame because Jane Lambert is surely the best actor in the film. Ethel doesn't show any remorse, any emotion, any anything. Once she locks the door on her dead grandmother, all she can think of doing is calling Caruso's Market to make a regular weekly order, only with four half gallons of ice cream instead of two. You could philosophise that she locks reality away with her grandmother, just as Mrs Janowski had shut out reality when she drew the blinds at the front of the house, but that's probably giving this picture far too much credit. More realistically, this scene just highlights Ethel as a sociopath who should never have been allowed out in public and whose drug of choice is food. In her mind, if you get between her and food then you're an obstacle and obstacles are there to be overcome, just as if she were a heroin addict. Food just means Crazy Fat Ethel can be consistently calm.

This murder introduces two unavoidable problems. One is that the Janowski household now only contains only one live person, so we have to bring in some more to keep the story (and the body count) going. Ethel's sister, Rosalie, is the only one already mentioned so she gets voted back onto the island, even though grandma had kicked her out during Ethel's hospital stay for being a slut. The other is that it also contains one dead person, who Ethel has effectively forgotten about already, so the front bedroom is about to become a rather stinky MacGuffin, one that gets less and less pleasant to even think about. Eventually Ethel does open the window and add a bizarre green air freshener that to me was the most fascinating thing in the movie, but it's far beyond too little too late. The best special effect the picture can boast is the avocado masque the filmmakers used to simulate putrefaction and Ethel's addiction ensures that it's needed often.

The more I think about food being Ethel's drug, the more the insane simplicity of this plot makes sense. Next on the list is the grocery delivery boy who merely wants her to settle an outstanding bill before leaving anything new. 'I don't have $80!' she explains, after raiding her gran's coin collection. 'I only have $4.50!' So that's it for him, for attempting to walk out on an addict with a big grocery bag of calorie filled drugs: no premeditation, no concern for consequences, just a burning need like in Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream. In Ethel's condition, she probably doesn't even see the boy, just the bag, and she has plenty of weight to put behind a bottle. She may not even see Dr Gerard, just a threat to the next day's menu, when he makes the mistake of coming round, forcing his way in and asking why she keeps missing electric shock treatments. If that's optional, would anyone go? He gets taken down brutally with an iron candelabra.

Unfortunately she doesn't take care of Rosalie that quickly. Personally, I have issues with Fight Club because Marla Singer is so close to the antithesis of my ideal woman. Rosalie fits the same bill but Helena Bonham Carter would look better than Lisa Farros after being hit by a truck. From moment one, Rosalie is a real piece of cake. 'Jesus, it's about time!' are her first words, as Ethel opens the door. 'I don't believe it but I think you've gotten even fatter. What did they feed you in that nuthouse?' At least she's as underplayed as Ethel. Everything is depicted as utterly routine, whether it's bitching about her abusive boyfriend, reporting on the 'little brown man' her mother sleeps with or messing around on the couch in front of her sister. She drinks from a half empty beer can a trick leaves her as payment, even after it's been used as an ashtray. Her nightgown is a frilly blue waterfall almost as tacky as anything I've seen in a Chesty Morgan movie.

The most surreal scene in the movie is when Rosalie is in bed with John, the boyfriend she never wants to see again (for 'boyfriend', read 'pimp'). She won't sleep with him, though they're naked and he's on top of her, so she asks him why he's abusive. The most amazing thing but one is the 'truth' he unfolds on her: 'You need a good beating every once in a while. All women do. And you especially. OK?' The most amazing thing is that response is all she wanted! Now she can have fun! If there's anything less politically correct in a horror movie, I'm not sure what it is, and yet it's hardly out of character for John, who proves as vile a male character as Rosalie is a female one, controlling her through violence and drugs. Compared to this scene, the otherwise bizarre hallucination montage of Crazy Fat Ethel murdering mannequins and frolicking through a San Francisco park in a red muumuu are almost run of the mill.

There's more to relish here, for explorers of Cinematic Hell. Ethel attempts increasingly extreme methods to dispose of the growing number of corpses in her front bedroom, which leads to some surreal situation comedy at a cliffside as she tries to find gaps between tourists to dump body parts into the sea. George 'Buck' Flower turns up as a cop, asking pertinent questions of Ethel, who is as childlike and transparent with the lies she replies as with anything else in the film. She was painted deliberately unsympathetic, but comes across more like a six year old persona in a much older and much larger body. There are quite a few brutal murders, though as always the logistics don't follow the laws of physics, so victims can crawl away even after being bludgeoned in the head repeatedly with a cleaver. And to top it all, the final scene with Ethel and the cop is both memorably gruesome and frankly inevitable given the subject matter of the film.

Millard apparently spent $30,000 on Criminally Insane, possibly the biggest budget he ever had, but it's a stretch to work out where it all went. Almost everything takes place within one house, which only required a tiny crew. None of the actors could have been expensive, given that only Buck Flower was notable elsewhere and this was so early in his career he was still going by C L Lefleur. Filming took five weeks in the spring of 1973, though the picture wasn't released for two years so perhaps post production costs spiralled. Millard chose to make offbeat movies like this as he believed Hollywood couldn't be beaten at genre film, but his DVD commentary suggests that he doesn't quite grasp what his film has. He believes 'the writer is the king' but he couldn't say much about his writing here, which has importance, albeit not in ways he expected. As a straight horror film, it's truly awful. Only as things that weren't intended does it have value.

I don't know that he even realised how ahead of his time having a female slasher was, let alone why Priscilla Alden's portrayal of Crazy Fat Ethel became a cult character. Sure, she's fat as all get out but it goes beyond that. While she doesn't appear to be retarded, she's the epitome of every mentally challenged villain, the little child stuck in the big body unable to deal with life as an adult. I have no idea if it was Millard who suggested that the actors underplay everything they did, but I doubt it. I think Alden chose to do that herself and the less experienced members of the cast instinctively played along. The more you see this film, the more creepy that gets as we're so attuned to expecting overacting, it's shocking to see underacting instead. More than anything, this is a real urban nightmare. All this happens in one house with nosy neighbours who don't ever discover what's going on next door. This is The 'Burbs without a copout ending.

Philips went on to make a number of horror movies, including a direct sequel to this film and two other films that are sequels thematically if not literally. Criminally Insane 2 aka Crazy Fat Ethel 2, released in 1987, used the same set and some of the same actors, but mostly because the first half of the movie is constructed almost entirely from footage taken from this film. Priscilla Alden returned that same year for Death Nurse, effectively making the same film as a nurse. A sequel followed a year later, inevitably called Death Nurse 2. Dotted in and amongst these pictures are other salacious titles such as Cemetery Sisters, Doctor Bloodbath and Dracula in Vegas, most of them straight to video releases without a gimmick like Crazy Fat Ethel to give them an edge. His last film was an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, with Priscilla Alden as the appropriately named Mrs Grose. Maybe without her, he simply had nothing left to say.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Lucid (2010)

Director: Christopher Price
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

We see a man, surrounded by darkness. Out of the black comes a bloody girl, perhaps a corpse. She screams at him. It's a memorable opening for a short film but it's all a dream. Westley Moore is in therapy and we can understand why given that we came in on his fourth run through that particular nightmare. He's a telemarketer, which means he deserves all the nightmares he gets, however bad he is at his job, but his psychiatrist suggests lucid dreaming as a potential solution and he goes for it. This short sprang from an acute interest director Christopher Price has in the subject and so we can sure that he's done his research. Westley writes down all his dreams as he wakes up. He reads random signs, counts fingers and looks at his reflection, all tricks to become lucid in his dreaming. And it works a treat. He successfully banishes the corpse girl and, as an added bonus, replaces her with the postgirl he lusts after at work.

Of course if it were that simple, this wouldn't be much of a short. Just as he gets the control back that he wanted all along, things start slipping again. After all, if you can manage to spend your sleeping hours taking down your despised boss with barbed wire baseball bats and making wild passionate love to Sarah the sexy postgirl, would you want to wake up? Well, Westley doesn't either, so his normal life takes even more of a hit as he spends his days waiting to go to sleep, even stooping to sleeping pills to get him there. No wonder his therapist is pissed, but then she presumably hasn't seen Brazil so doesn't realise how freaky happy endings can get. This is a fun little short, with Lanny Rethabar from Closets and Avé Maria in full on William Shatner mode as Westley's boss, along with a couple of other capable actors who I can't name because there are no details about this film anywhere, not even at IMDb. I'd like to see it again.

Cockpit: The Rule of Engagement (2010)

Director: Jesse Griffith
Stars: Ronny Cox, Hellena Taylor and Karl Champley
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

Bookends for a set of science fiction shorts at IHSFF, Cockpit: The Rule of Engagement is worthy of comparison with Lines in the Sand: Ties in almost every way. They have much in common on the face of it. Both are short military science fiction films carved out of a larger whole, Lines in the Sand a feature in progress and Cockpit just a feature length script at this time. Both were shot entirely on greenscreen, with backgrounds added in through the magic of CGI. Both are products of a single man with a vision, taking not just standard writer/director roles but others too. Yet the differences in what reached the screen couldn't be more apparent. Justin Golightly's short is a set of brush strokes from a bigger picture while Jesse Griffith's is a perfectly formed chapter of a longer story. Golightly's looks like sparse machinima while Griffith's is professional grade, both in effects work and in the casting of stars of the magnitude of Ronny Cox.

It's 2013 and we're fighting an intergalactic war: humans vs Tarceds. The UES Navy is holding the aliens back at the edge of the galaxy, but it's a difficult task, made more difficult by the fact that the Tarceds have the annoying talent of controlling minds. As the film's website states: 'To bomb them from afar is to win. To see them is to fall under their control.' And so a logic has been designed to avoid disaster. The rule of engagement of the title is that 'if you make contact, you eject' because it's better to lose one man than an entire starcraft carrier, or even an entire world. To ensure that this rule of engagement is followed to the letter, government agents outside the military chain of command are dispatched to the starcraft carriers, literally paid not to care. This sets up whole new dynamics for a script to build upon: constant paranoia, a reevaluation of the concept of trust, conflict between the military and those who are effectively overseeing them.

Griffith does it well, neatly referencing The Twilight Zone to invoke paranoia and suspicion in a story about Lt Cmdr Jayson McDaniels, a pilot codenamed Outback, who arrives home from a bombing mission in suspicious circumstances. He has less than 1% air remaining, his wingman is dead and he needs to land quick, but protocol has to be followed and that means time. What the reality of Outback's situation is we can't be sure, because Griffith shows us both sides in such a way that we have to decide. Of course we don't think we have enough information to decide, as there's a man's life at stake, a trusted combat veteran at that, but the whole point is that we do. In this situation, all that matters is that there's doubt, pure and simple. This would be another reason for the rule of engagement, not just to remove a threat but to remove a need for human beings to make such tough decisions about their own men.
Karl Champley is excellent as Outback. He's only an occasional actor but he's used to working in front of cameras because he's a frequent host of or guest on DIY TV shows. For a twelve minute short he gets a peach of a character to flesh out, running the gamut from trustworthy navy pilot through acute paranoia sufferer to potentially compromised enemy agent. Ronny Cox's role as the captain of the starcraft carrier he's flying back to is simpler but just as fraught with emotion. He's has to be 100% sure that his man is telling the truth before he can let him land and he only has a few minutes to work with. The stress inherent in his position is immense and I hope these captains have short tours of duty in the full length script or they'd turn into Gen Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove. Cox is a hugely versatile actor, well known since his early banjo picking role as Drew in Deliverance, but he keeps adding new nuances to his portfolio, even in shorts like this.

That leaves Hellena Taylor as the government agent who has to step in with a tough decision. Best known for her voice work in video games, she has the least of the three parts in screen time and emotional depth but perhaps the most important in the context of the story. And here I can't help but wonder what that larger story is, the full feature length script that Griffith has collected a number of award nominations for. It isn't viable to base an opinion on a feature from only a twelve minute chapter, however tempting it might seem, but this one is so solid that I'm really intrigued as to what other webs he's woven around this initial setup. Given the quality of this, I would hope that he wouldn't have too much trouble getting funding for a full length feature and we can see a serious science fiction film that works on both story and effects fronts. Hollywood doesn't have anything against story, it just doesn't care about it. This could be a real treat.

Radium (2010)

Director: Daniel Fallik
Stars: Leah Kamhazi, Raz Lissitzky, Daniel Botzer and Tomer Ze'ev
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

This Israeli science fiction short, shot in Hebrew, could have been a fascinating piece of cinema. It's set in Tel Aviv, fifteen years after the end of a nuclear war that turned it from Israel's second largest city to a radioactive shanty town quarantined from the rest of the country. Instead of the criminals dumped into New York City by Americans in Escape from New York and those walled off by the French in District 13, here it's those who have become exposed to too much radiation who get a one way ticket into Tel Aviv at the behest of the Israeli government. What writer/director Daniel Fallik attempted to show is a parallel between this city surrounded by an invisible enemy and bounded by walls we don't see; and the state of Israel, which has something of the same situation. Yet Israel, under constant threat of terrorism, carries on regardless. People work and play and get on with their lives as that's what people do, and so that's what happens in toxic Tel Aviv as well.

Into this background comes an old human story. Layla is a new girl in town, dumped like the rest because she's become too exposed to radiation. She quickly hooks up with Raziel, a tough and streetwise local, but promptly starts looking for Varon, her former boyfriend who was sent here two years earlier. Initially this all unfolds well: capably shot by Livnat Gilboa, capably acted by Leah Kamhazi and Raz Lissitzky, and, less overtly, capably designed by Elad Orenstein. He built or enhanced landscapes with garbage, locations like the marketplace constructed from scratch. For a while we get the normalcy with daily life carrying on regardless, even down to a bar fully stocked with alcohol and a live band. The threat is everywhere but routine, like the radiation percentages on the food labels or the enticement on cigarette packets: 'You already have cancer. Why not smoke?' Yet this only lasts so long and that's a problem.

Radiation is as invisible as the best terrorists, but it's far less focused and discriminatory in its attack. We expect terrorists to go unseen until they're either stopped or whatever event they're planning succeeds, but radiation acts on everyone all the time. We can't help but wonder why everyone in this film looks so healthy. Eventually we catch up with Varon, who has some severe radiation burns on his face, but he's a rarity because the outcome of radiation poisoning here is being forced to live in Tel Aviv, rather than necrosis, hair loss and vomiting. Apparently nobody ever gets worse. There are mental changes, Varon not being quite the man Layla remembers in some ways, but while these initially have promise they end up wasted in a bizarre battle scene that plays out like a Monty Python sketch. Other incidents come out of nowhere, like a sex scene and a beheading, and they all make the film seem like a work in subtlety that was given up on.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Fallout (2010)

Director: Paul DeNigris
Stars: Anders Striemer, Ted Herbig, Jose Rosete, Angel Ruiz, Kane Black, Cale Epps, Katrina Matusek, Shane Dean and Steve Briscoe
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

Perhaps the most fascinating short film at this year's IHSFF from the perspective of a budding filmmaker, only the near catastrophic trials and tribulations of the feature Snuff outdoing it, Fallout is about as true a student film as you can get. Made for class credit at the University of Advancing Technology over the course of most of a year, a total of 31 students and staff were involved under the direction of Paul DeNigris, an experienced filmmaker and professor in the university's Digital Video program. It 'wasn't so much about the outcome as it was about the process,' DiNigris has said and as a learning opportunity, that's understandable. However, the film is also a promotional opportunity, screening at festivals like this one as a demonstration of what UAT can do. What I saw on screen was admirable. What I saw off screen in the enthusiasm of the students in attendance was even more so. At least half the crew were there in person.

'Welcome to Phoenix' says the recognisable sign, but this is a post apocalyptic Phoenix where a group of terrorists have a weapon of mass destruction in a suitcase. In come the boys, the Wild Cards, a counter-terrorist unit with the Department of Homeland Security, to stop them and save the day. This is far from a Rambo type action movie though, even when the battle begins: it's a science fiction story that only centres around the mission, which fails in explosive fashion, even though these guys have some very cool equipment indeed. The larger story is the investigation of what went wrong and why, and rather than have young students attempting to play beyond their years, DeNigris drafts in a who's who of local acting talent, including adjunct professor Steve Briscoe who has served many roles in previous DeNigris films, including Cowboy Dreams and The Falls, and who plays the chief military investigator here.

All the actors have experience but some have more than others, Jose Rosete in particular, who is either in or behind what seems like every Arizona film made nowadays. He had two features, Snuff and Avé Maria, at this year's IHSFF and no less than six at last year's, Blood Moon Rising and five Deadly Event shorts, some of which Angel Ruiz was also involved with. Shane Dean is no stranger to local film either, though he's far less prolific. He could be seen elsewhere in this year's festival in the dollar baby Everything's Eventual. Katrina Matusek had a memorable role in Dean's most notable recent film, Deadfall Trail, as Mother Earth herself. It never hurts to recognise actors in a student short, but it's always surprising, especially when so many of them are recognisable. All are solid but none of them really get an opportunity to shine because they are many and the minutes so few, and the focus is really on the effects rather than the acting.

The scene early in Fallout where we see the boots of the Wild Cards as they leap out of the drop ship onto the blighted soil of Phoenix is notable not because it was greenscreened but because it was the only shot in the entire film that wasn't. Everything else was generated through some sort of effects work, from CGI backgrounds to particle effects and motion tracking, with actors spending as much time on a greenscreen set as their counterparts in Sin City or The Spirit. The actors did their work over an 18 day shoot but the film took three and a half semesters to make it through post production into a finished product, showing just where the bulk of the effort was made. The effects are far superior to that of Lines in the Sand: Ties, not just in visualising a city but in the little details too, many of which involve extrapolation of near future technology and how it will change old school dynamics like espionage and traitorous deception.

Posts on the UAT blog cite TV shows Stargate SG-1, 24 and The Wire as influences, with the big budget sci-fi flick Minority Report as the source inspiration for the gadgetry. There's much more here than influences though, as each of the various students seem to have brought something different to the table. Even the opening credits get a decent set of textures. There was a notable video game take on the weaponry, such as the sniper rifle that identifies the squad members it picks up in its sights or the way the good guys get a green border and the bad guys get red. A good soldier has to trust his equipment but this takes it all a little further. In the end the only flaws visible are tied to the effects being too good. We're so easily distracted by them that it's easy to lose track of the plot. The whole thing plays out like it's condensed and if you blink you miss something important. Solid as a short, it would play even better at greater length.

A Call to Arms (2008)

Director: John F McCarthy
Stars: Darren Kendrick, Antoinette Armande, Nicholas Job and Lawrence Brittain
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

An elderly lady is happily washing dishes when something big crashlands outside her house. We see her screaming but we don't hear her, because her voice is stolen by the swelling music that accompanies the ensuing fire. After the credits, we gradually discover that far from being a sci-fi horror flick that would have this lady consumed by an alien monster, it's a serious science fiction story about the planet being consumed by a fundamental problem that this explosion may offer a timely solution to. 'We as a race are on the verge of an energy crisis,' announces President Julia Sulaco, who is blonde and Aryan even though her bodyguards look like mob enforcers, or perhaps Men in Black. Sulaco is up for re-election and solving the energy issue would be the closest thing to a guarantee she could have. So she has her Secretary of Energy, Giles Barker, look at what what came out of the crash site, something apparently alien.

While ambitious with its story and capable with its acting, A Call to Arms felt sparse to me. There are just not enough people in the film, perhaps understandable given that it was a student short put together by John McCarthy as his senior year project at film school. There aren't enough in the lab where Barker does his research, as both politician and scientist, because he only has one assistant. There aren't enough where the President officiates, as she has just two bodyguards and half a dozen ministers. It all feels far more empty than it deserves to feel. There is a subtext of promise that reminds of Asimov's Nightfall, that civilisations may rise and fall in patterns but unfortunately that isn't explored. Instead we get a pessimistic tale with a dubious message: if something can be used for bad then it must be bad. In fact the film may be more satisfactory if the ending was swapped for the exact opposite message.

Lines in the Sand: Ties (2010)

Director: Justin Golightly
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

While watching it, Lines in the Sand: Ties felt like an unfortunate way to start a set of science fiction shorts at IHSFF because it just didn't seem up to being at the festival, especially when shown immediately after a great selection of horror shorts. However it made a little more sense after the set was finished because all the films included were military themed and this one had the most overt connection to today's world, given that it's easy to draw parallels between this fictional Earth vs Mars war and real conflicts like Iraq or perhaps Vietnam. The film's successes all revolve around those parallels, as we presume we're supposed to side with Earth but are drawn instead into sympathising with the Martians, who are presumably colonists as they look very much like us. The invading Earth soldiers believe they have God on their side and bemoan the lack of gratitude from the Martians for what they're doing for them. It's a universal story.

Unfortunately there are a number of fronts where it falls apart. Initially I felt I was watching quite a few different Martians but as the film ran on, it became more likely that I was watching only two of them, merely at different points in time. This played havoc with motivation, especially as we're given no background to what this war is and why it's happening. In the film's defence, I should point out that rather than being a self contained short, it's apparently part of a feature that is still in production and so may well be subject to change. Nonetheless it was screened in public so should stand up as more than a work in progress and it didn't. Shot on greenscreen, it looked more like machinima, as if it had been shot within the graphics engine of a video game, I'm presuming there's a lot of graphic post production work still to come. Presumably there's a message to come too because I couldn't fathom one unless it's that terrorism is relative.

Zombie Team Building (2010)

Director: Nathan Blackwell
Stars: Shay Alber, Logan Blackwell, Craig Curtis, James Hoenscheidt, Grace Steinbach, Eileen Steinbach and Gabrielle Van Buren
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Zombies are fast becoming the universal prop to build any sort of story around and here's yet another zombie short that raised a laugh and a thought at the same time; though to be honest, much more of a laugh than a thought. The concept is simple and enticing: after an outbreak of the living dead in 2004 was contained to a five block area, the building at the centre became a training ground, a corporate team building retreat. What could draw employees together better as a team than having to face off against a horde of zombies for their very survival? Well, that's where we begin, with a team shooting down zombies as fast as they can. This is day seven and we follow the five people left alive back inside to find out how well they've done, which as you can imagine is not too well. Then again, what's to say the fourteen dead weren't set up? What a great way to get away with murder: just don't save the team slacker from zombies.

Inside the building is James, the team's instructor, who serves as the foundation of the film, with his collection of buzzwords and a joyous disconnect from reality. 'Who can tell me what we've learned today?' he asks with the list of attributes he cares about on the board behind him. They include things like 'co-opetition' so he's hardly the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's secure in the knowledge that he's imparting knowledge as per the manual. James Hoenscheidt totally nails the part, safe inside his comfort zone ignoring the uncomfortable reality that surrounds him as he only has to teach, not to do. Anyone who has ever had to deal with corporate team building understands what a complete waste of space people like this are, yet they're often given carte blanche in their efforts. This story is stupid but it's so true to life it's uncanny, right down to team leader Craig subconsciously mirroring James's hand actions like a translator for the deaf.
I particularly liked the detail that's almost hidden in the film. If you watch on vimeo and pause on the Leadership Guide, you'll find all sorts of realistic insanity, from guidelines like, 'Don't dwell on murdered team members: 'WE survived, so we're the BEST!'' to acronyms like BOSS (Building Our Synergistic Strength) and CEO (Cameraderie through Extreme Ordeal). This is admirable, as the film was shot for the Almost Famous 48 hour film challenge, at which it won for best comedy. 48 hours isn't a long time to make a film, let alone one with such detail, but it did benefit from use of a single location, an office building that was scheduled to be renovated, thus allowing the cast and crew to whale the crap out of it. Such film challenges focus on detail but only in a list of requirements: this one had to be based around a white lie, use of a mirror as a prop and include 'What just happened?' as a line of dialogue. All three are superbly integrated into the script.

There was a fourth requirement, that the film be under five minutes in length, but while director Nathan Blackwell met that requirement for the challenge, he also shot with the aim of creating a ten minute version for future use and that's the version that was shown at IHSFF and elsewhere. Perhaps his confidence came from the fact that much of his cast and crew had already met this sort of challenge a year earlier with another short called Masters of Daring, but he feels the story is strong enough to expand to feature length, beginning on day three with a larger cast and with more 'ridiculous teamwork exercises'. If he can maintain comedy as joyous as this over a feature length, he'll be right. Actors like Hoenscheidt, Craig Curtis and Gabrielle Van Buren are easily up to the task, just so long as they don't make value prohibitive choices which counter the group dynamic and prompt them to go stand in the shame corner. I so need one of those at work.

The Furred Man (2010)

Director: Paul Williams
Star: Daniel Carter-Hope
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

The Furred Man won out over a stellar set of horror shorts at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe, which surprised me somewhat. It's a good film, make no mistake, but I don't think there's any doubt that the astounding Alice Jacobs is Dead was the cream of the crop this year. Like that film, this one doesn't restrict itself to one genre, setting itself up as a mystery and proceeding through horror, comedy and suspense, with capable bookends and good acting. What may be its greatest success comes through the realisation that it does a huge amount with what is really not much at all. I'm not talking about the script, I'm talking about sets and props. There's a room, a tent and a sign, but that's about it until you add the actors, the story and some superb costumes by Rebecca Thomas. To make a good film you need to start with a good story because effects can only divert us for so long. This one plays out like a classic short story.

The setup is enticing. We see a man in a werewolf costume, a good one that's covered in blood. His gloves are still on, but his mask is off. He's Max Naughton and he's being interviewed by the cops because he woke up with a couple of corpses and a black eye, uttering the words, 'Oh my God! It's all my fault!' What follows is his explanation, with appropriate flashbacks, and the twist that leads us to a magnificent ending. Daniel Carter-Hope's joyous sense of bewilderment as Max underpins the entire film. 'I can explain!' he suggests, because he's stuck in that classic trap of irony where the only way out is to tell the truth but where telling the truth is the surest way to be disbelieved. Writer/director Paul Williams has described the film as 'an Ealing comedy at its darkest mixed with Hammer Horror at its most horrific' and it's the dark comedy that sticks, that and the costumes. The effects work is accomplished but restricted to a few scenes.
It's all accomplished stuff, from a team who have worked together over a decade on short films that haven't yet made it to IMDb for the wonderfully named Evil Hypnotist Productions. Working strictly from credits there, nobody involved seems to have much experience, except effects tech Jon Moore, who has a string of high profile projects to his name, from Doctor Who to the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Williams and Carter-Hope only have one other credit at IMDb, for a 2006 feature called The Wake, but even the slightest glimpse at the Evil Hypnotist website suggests that these folks have done a heck of a lot more and I should explore. I can only see two downsides to this movie. One is that while the story unfolds well, once it gets moving it's not too difficult to figure out where it will end. The other is that the clever title isn't backed up by a clever reference. Either that or I just missed it. It's hard to get a zither into a UK horror short.

The Zombie Monologues (2010)

Director: Andrew Lane
Stars: Nadia Townsend and Simon Maiden
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

Channel 8 News is reporting on the zombie apocalypse from a position of safety behind some wheelie bins, but one 'freshly turned member of the undead horde' notices them and wanders over. She doesn't want to eat their brains because she's a liberated zombie, a vegetarian no less; she's Annie and she just wants a cigarette. This Australian short film is all about her, so we only get glimpses of the vast mass of shuffling zombies, none of whom seem quite as at home with the possibilities inherent in their new status in life (or should that be undeath?). Annie sees herself as a good zombie, a template for what the rest could be, if they only decided to be honest with themselves and reject the stereotypes. Cheating death gives her a responsibility to stretch the boundaries, she thinks, so she's very dismissive of everything, as if zombies are a political movement or at least a rebel ethos.

The title's take on The Vagina Monologues is appropriate, as that play treated the vagina as a 'tool of female empowerment and the ultimate embodiment of individuality' and this short aims to do no less for zombies, though the seriousness is all about making this a very dry spoof. As Annie asks rhetorical questions like, 'Did we lose our integrity with our skin tone?', half the joy is in the dryness of her delivery and half in translating such rhetoric into the mouths of activists for more traditional minorities. This could easily play as the first half of a double bill with Rising Up: The Story of the Zombie Rights Movement and probably a bunch of other shorts too. The more zombie shorts I see, the more I realise it isn't just about the ease of acquiring an undead horde, it's also about the ease of drawing parallels with almost anything in modern society. Films like Gay Zombie and Cupcake: A Zombie Lesbian Musical were perhaps inevitable.
On screen, Nadia Townsend is about 90% of the film, so almost everything beyond director Andy Lane's initial script and dialogue falls onto her shoulders, which fortunately prove to be capable. A second generation actor, she's been busy for a decade with long running regular slots on TV shows (City Homicide is ongoing) and even a prominent role in the Nicolas Cage film, Knowing. It's good to see someone of that stature appearing in obscure weirdness like this as well and she seems to have relished the experience. The flaws in the film aren't hers, but stem mostly from the fact that The Zombie Monologues outstays its welcome a little. Something that aims only to be a spoof can only run so long without needing to start answering the questions it throws out there and this film doesn't want to do that. If a little trimming is all that's needed, this is another worthy zombie short, even though gorehounds will be disappointed at the lack of action.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Abra Cadaver (2010)

Director: Jay McBeth
Stars: Tommy King and Kelly Ames
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

Into a old time bar/brothel comes a large man with a wicked eye. He's like a cross between Steve Buscemi and Clark Gable, not just in facial appearance but in sheer size, as if they had melted together in some strange Japanese movie. He has bad teeth and the mildly repulsive aura of a toad but he's very well spoken, with precise intonation somewhat like Tim Curry's. He picks a girl who tells him how very careful she is, given that her friend Alice disappeared a few days earlier, but she tells him this back at his place. It's here that he explains that he's a magician, which fits the style and the theatrics, actor Tommy King happy to chew up every bit of scenery he can find. His idol is Marvello the Great and he has a cool poster to prove it. He talks about the cannibal witches of Pago Pago who made the shrunken head he gleefully exhibits. He talks the talk but he can't walk the walk. As a magician he sucks. I'm better. And I suck.
He explains what he wants and it isn't sexual. To successfully emulate the magical feats of his esteemed idol, he's come to the conclusion that all he needs is a sweet and innocent assistant. Yep, he's so deluded that he thinks that a lovely assistant will make up for all the wicked skills he's failed to acquire, but then to find a sweet and innocent candidate he visits the ranks of the town's skanky prostitutes. Judgement is certainly not one of his stronger attributes, however enthusiastic he comes across. Anything more would spoil the surprises to come but I can say that Kelly Ames chews up a fair bit of scenery herself as the hooker, albeit not as much as King who revels in it. Such overacting does fit the story, to be fair, so it's very deliberate, but while it all plays out enjoyably, I couldn't help but feel that the biggest success of the film was its look, the sets and the clothes from the wonderfully named Malabar Thunder Thighs Costumes.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

MutantLand (2010)

Director: Phil Tippett
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

MutantLand is a short four minute 3D animation that begins with a praying mantis taking down a rabbit with a boomerang. If that isn't the greatest way to start a horror/sci-fi short, I don't know what is. It should start porn movies too, but only in Japan. We're either in a post apocalyptic scenario or on a bizarre alien planet, but it really doesn't matter because this is about theme not plot. 'Welcome to dinner,' says some monstrous butcher, 'and you are it.' The monsters are a diverse and wildly imaginative bunch and they quickly find themselves in something of a feeding frenzy. Everyone's a predator and everyone is prey, even the steampunk ninja dude. Who cares about a storyline when we can revel in dark imagination like this for a few short minutes? It's a gem that knows precisely what it needs to do and how long it can get away with it. Then again, while I didn't realise it at the time, it was written and directed by one of the masters.

Phil Tippett has been there and done that, with emphasis. Sure, he started out on something as eminently forgettable as The Crater Lake Monster but he followed it up with a little picture called Star Wars and hasn't looked back since. George Lucas hired him when he shifted Industrial Light and Magic to San Francisco and he created the chess scene in Star Wars, animated the AT-ATs and Tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back and won his first Oscar for Return of the Jedi. He even got to play one of the band members in the Star Wars Cantina, which may be the most amazing thing anyone can put on their resume. After Lucas's last good film, he left ILM to found Tippett Studio, which went digital in 1991 when Steven Spielberg hired him to do the dinosaur animation in Jurassic Park. He was an obvious choice, an old school stop motion animator inspired by Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, but he quickly realised that old school wasn't enough.

This short film may owe its roots to that moment. 'I think I'm extinct,' he said, in a line that was promptly spoofed in the Jurassic Park script and he immediately began the switch to CGI. Given that his digital work runs the gamut from the enemy bugs in Starship Troopers through the crazy critters of Evolution to the wolves in the last two Twilight movies, he and his studio have been pretty successful. Yet there's a place called Phil's Attic, where he plays around with all the little ideas he has that aren't likely to be seen in a big budget blockbuster. It looks to me like the films he really cares about are things like Prehistoric Beast, Mad God and MutantLand that thrive on a very dark imagination. Maybe one day he'll retire and spend a few decades concentrating on this sort of material in Phil's Attic and we'll be treated to more short films like this, that aren't going to make any money but will make festival viewers like me very happy indeed.

Life Returns (1935)

Director: Eugen Frenke
Star: Dr Robert E Cornish
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Horror in the early thirties belonged to Universal. Already established in the silent era with Lon Chaney vehicles The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, amongst others, they hit the sound age running. In 1931 they released both Dracula and Frankenstein, making icons out of Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the process, then followed up with The Mummy, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and more. By 1935, they were the undisputed genre kings and to celebrate they released what may be the best and the worst pictures in their entire horror run, films that shared a theme and an actress but otherwise couldn't be more different. The best was James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, the worst Eugen Frenke's Life Returns, a partnership with the newly formed independent Scienart Pictures to spin a hokey yarn around the true story of a real Dr Frankenstein, Dr Robert E Cornish, who killed dogs and brought them back to life.

Cornish didn't live in a remote European castle with a hunchback servant named Igor, he was an American child prodigy who earned a degree from the University of California at eighteen and a doctorate at 22. In 1932 he became fascinated by the idea of restoring life to the recent dead, though I don't know if the previous year's Frankenstein had anything to do with his interest. If so, he ignored the possibility of villagers with torches and found acclaim for a series of experiments with terriers called Lazarus. He would kill the animals by asphyxiating them, leave them dead for short periods of time and then attempt to resuscitate them using a combination of intravenous stimulation, the kiss of life and a seesaw like device called a teeterboard to circulate the blood. Time magazine reported on him often in 1934 as he found success, but unfortunately survivors were brain dead and university officials dismissed him, displeased with the attention.

If they didn't like the attention attracted by his experiments, I'm sure they wouldn't have been appreciative of the attention this film received! While Cornish only briefly appears as himself, it's his name alone above the title and the film ends with footage from one of his experiments, albeit spun to fit the melodrama. Reaction was not good. It became one of only five classic horror films banned outright by the British censor, alongside the inevitable Freaks, Val Lewton's Bedlam, the 1932 version of The Island of Dr Moreau and a truly obscure French silent comedy, Dr Zanikoff's Experiences in Grafting. Denis Gifford, in his excellent 1973 book, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, called it the most 'lost' horror film of them all: 'Never seen in England, even in today's relaxed climate; never reprinted for television; unpreserved by archives, unmentioned by historians, unregistered even for copyright; yet it was the only 'documentary' horror film.'

Nowadays, because Universal apparently deliberately let it vanish into the public domain like an unwanted child, it's easily available for viewing. Unwary travellers in Cinematic Hell aren't likely to find what they expect though, because it isn't really a horror film at all. If anything it's an Our Gang short, with every melodramatic heartstring plucked to the max, trussed up as an ego trip and stretched to B movie length. The documentary portion is surely transplanted from footage 'originally taken to retain a permanent scientific record of our experiment' but it's poorly transplanted and it only serves as a dubious finalé to an unsavoury children's story. Anybody expecting a horror movie is going to be sadly disappointed with the entire thing, including the work of a number of Universal contract players who mostly seem to be confused as to why anyone would deliberately make this film and why they have to be in it.

We begin with lunch, where three scientists talk about life being an endless playground. They're John Kendrick, Louise Stone and Robert Cornish, and they're certainly set for success: they put their studies ahead of big games and big dances, but given that they graduate alongside what looks like the entire state of California, they're surely up for some tough competition. Fortunately Kendrick sent out feelers a month before graduation and he surprises them with an invitation for the trio to work at Arnold Research Laboratories, who are, according to their motto, 'dedicated to the service of mankind.' Unfortunately his colleagues aren't interested, so their goal of working together after graduation is ended. 'Arnold Research is a commercial organisation,' says Cornish. 'They would never be in sympathy with what we want to accomplish.' They'd take all the credit as well. So Kendrick goes to Arnold, while Stone and Cornish disappear from the film for a while.

That's about it for science too, partly because reality raises its ugly head and wants Kendrick to make money and partly because somehow he found time to marry a socialite and father a son. Reality kicks in when A K Arnold, the 'philanthropist' who finances the labs, decides that he can't capitalise on Kendrick's research and wants him to start working on hair restoring brushes made from pig bristles. Resurrecting the dead is the realm of graverobbers from outer space, after all, and Ed Wood was only nine years old at the time. Kendrick is a pure scientist who simply doesn't understand what commercial gain has to do with science, so he quits and promptly goes insane, staying there for the majority of the film. His lovely wife Mary reinforces Arnold from a different angle: raising the dead may be Kendrick's great experiment but their son Danny is hers and she needs the money he makes from his two hour a day practice to keep that viable.

Onslow Stevens was riding high in 1935. He was tall and handsome and had a resonant, slightly clipped, speaking voice. After an uncredited screen debut in 1931 he quickly found regular work as a versatile leading man and this was the year that he would play Aramis alongside Paul Lukas and Moroni Olsen in RKO's big budget version of The Three Musketeers. Here, however, he only has a single scene of passion after leaving Arnold, a futile effort to impress a medical board with incomplete research by comparing himself to Galileo and Madame Curie. That's it for Kendrick and Stevens couldn't find a thing to do with the part after that. He stumbles around for the rest of the film as if in a daze, somewhat like Frankenstein's Monster on sedatives. While it might be appropriate for the part, the style he adopts of effectively ignoring everyone who talks to him as if he's watching television through an invisible portal to another dimension is hardly engaging.

Next thing we know, everything of potential interest evaporates. Kendrick hurtles down the spiral to the gutter, a long way down indeed during the Great Depression, though somehow he keeps his house even though he can't brush his hair or pull his tie together, he gives up his practice and even Dr Louise Stone calls him 'a walking dream'. When Louise offers him the way out he needs, he lets his wounded pride hammer the final nail into his own coffin and refuses to take it. To underline how far he falls, we immediately skip forward a decade so he can hand over the lead role in the film to his son Danny, played by fifteen year old George Breakston, who was the young Pip a year earlier in Great Expectations and would soon become Beezy in a string of Andy Hardy films, before becoming a producer/director in the late forties. At this point we're a third of the way into the story and that story gives up the ghost.

With Stevens now an emphatic nonentity, Breakston is tasked with carrying the picture. While he was a capable actor, he's given the unenviable challenge of playing the the most stereotypical hard luck kid in history. No cliché is too far for this story to grab hold of, no depth too low to sink to, no horse too dead to flog. In quick succession, Danny has to work the streets selling papers, while mentoring a younger boy with an even more broken voice than his, return home to find his mother dead on her birthday (and no, we don't even attempt to bring her back to life), be hauled off to court to be taken away from his lunatic father and finally sent to juvenile hall. Fortunately he has enough wits to just sneak out of the courtroom and hit the high road, with Scooter right behind him, hooked up to a little trailer. Unfortunately this just means we get another forty minutes to put up with him and trust me, it's a painfully long forty minutes.
Anyone who's ever seen an Our Gang short knows where this is going. Danny takes up with a gang of rough and tumble kids who are doing better in their clubhouse than most of the public were doing at the time, pinching groceries and getting by. Led by Mickey, in the form of Richard Quine, another child actor who graduated to be a director, going on to shoot Hotel, Bell Book and Candle and How to Murder Your Wife, they're the usual bunch of kids, defined as tough on the outside but soft on the inside. Unlike Our Gang though, they're all white boys, no black kids or girls apparently allowed. Naturally they set right to getting Danny's dad a job but that's a non-starter, just serving to give us another scene where Breakston can look put upon. 'Aww gee, dad, you ain't gonna turn me down, are you?' he emotes. 'I want a father. Why, everybody's got a father. Every kid I know has got one.' He ends with, 'Wouldn't you sorta like to have me around?'

It's painful to watch Danny in despair, not because he's a cleverly written parallel to his dad, but because they're both tiring to watch. Every shot is an attempt to rend our heartstrings and make us tear up for the poor little blighter with the weight of the world pressing down on his shoulders. His eyes plead in every shot. Yet it's so overdone that it's simply embarrassing to watch and we cringe at each inept attempt at our sympathy. Even Scooter is hauled into a cliché when Danny accidentally pushes him down the road towards the dogcatcher, thus prompting the gang to raid the pound and let all the prisoners loose. Scooter is the first dog released, but when the alarm is raised, Danny just runs back into the cage with him. Everything in this film is a disappointment. It's like the six writers watched Oliver! over and over again for a year until they understood how sympathy worked, then carefully ensured that none of it got into this movie.

Just in case you thought there were no more violins to play, the littlest kid in the gang breaks his leg clambering over the fence and the evil dogcatcher decides to gas Scooter to death, just to make a point. While you may not believe it, this is all cunning plot development to get Kendrick back into the film so he can let Danny down one more time before we can weave our weary way to the finalé. He can't help with something as complex as Petey's broken leg, because that sort of thing is beyond him, but he can help bring Scooter back from the grave, at least once he gets treated to another big speech from Danny and finally rejoins the land of the living himself. 'Isn't Scooter as good as a guinea pig or a rabbit?' his son pleads. 'I ran away from the cops so I could be with you. Well now I don't want to be with you and I'm going to the home and I'm going there for good and for keeps!' Give me a break! This is the best six writers could come up with?

It's difficult to imagine precisely what audience they thought this movie would have. For much of the film, the only moviegoers who might have bought into the story would have been eight year olds, but it would have scared the crap out of them. Just imagine being eight and watching a film where the fifteen year old hero, to you a grown up, is hammered incessantly with every trial and tribulation in the book, only for the happy ending to be Scooter being experimented on by men in white coats and resurrected from the dead. What sort of message does this impart? If you're Job long enough, you'll be visited by Jesus? It surely can't help that, even if you could buy into the inane set of plot conveniences that gets us thus far, the rest of the story is, by defintion, entirely detached. Just in case you've forgotten the point of the film, it's to show us real footage of one of Dr Cornish's resurrection experiments with terriers, not Scooter's breed, by the way.

What's most amazing about this finalé is that obsessed Dr Kendrick, now the story has finally allowed him to overcome his pride and fulfil his great experiment, is of course utterly unable to do anything of the sort. This is real footage of Cornish's work the year before, after all, and actor Onslow Stevens wasn't there, but you'd think a writing team of six could at least have conjured up another plot convenience to explain this, like having Kendrick trip over his feet on the way into the operating room and break his nose or something equally stupid. No, we're left with what to us is a truly bizarre alternation of footage. On one side there's Dr Cornish, who only showed up for one brief scene since he graduated at the outset of the picture, and his team of assistants who neither we or Kendrick have seen before, rescuscitating one of his Lazarus subjects. On the other, Kendrick and the now apparently useless Louise Stone provide a running commentary.

In real life Cornish left his various terriers dead for six minutes and when that didn't work well, he lowered his expectations to two. This sort of rapid rescuscitation is routine nowadays, albeit through CPR and defibrillation rather than some magic formula, because it takes advantage of circumstances where the heart has stopped but the brain hasn't died. Neither Cornish, in real life, or Kendrick, in his futile pitch to the medical board in this story, claimed Frankenstein level achievements like being able to resurrect corpses dead long enough to be buried. Yet that's what we see. Scooter is gassed to death, his corpse retrieved by Kendrick and transported to Cornish's hospital, where a team is assembled with the equipment needed (including Kendrick's mysterious formula) to confirm death and get to work on the experiment. Even ignoring the time needed to persuade the hospital management it must be nearer to six hours than six minutes.

And yet we have to have a happy ending. Scooter is brought back to life in a miracle of science to gibber like a monkey for a few moments before Danny can wander up and cuddle his living, breathing pooch. This is beyond a copout. This entire picture seems to have been made to point out how great Cornish was and how vitally important his work must be, yet even while showing real footage of his real experiments, Frenke and his writers couldn't resist the urge to leap into fantasyland to pretend that he achieved what he never claimed was remotely possible. How was this supposed to help his case? Nobody seems to either know or care. The only impression of Dr Cornish that I left the film with is that he was at least bright enough to realise he wasn't an actor, but he didn't leave the world of cinema entirely behind. Apparently Karloff's lab in The Walking Dead was based on Cornish's and he served as a consultant on The Man They Could Not Hang.

Most of those involved with Life Returns could happily watch it fade into quick obscurity, in part because the studio refused to release it. Carl Laemmle Jr, in charge of production, described it as 'not suitable for the regular Universal program'. Frenke threatened legal action and got a release in 1938 only through the studio apparently selling the film to Grand National Pictures. The actors could pretend it never happened and move onto better work, most notably Valerie Hobson, who was the mad scientist's wife in Universal's best and worst films of the year: Mrs Frankenstein in Bride of Frankenstein and Mrs Kendrick here. Cornish couldn't ignore it, given that he was the point, and so it serves as nothing more than a strange recognition of a brief cause célèbre. When the University of California discontinued his work, he petitioned state governors in vain to let him experiment on death row convicts. At least that would have made for a much better movie.

Nice Guys Finish Dead (2010)

Director: Peter Binswanger
Stars: Rob Rusli and Alexandra San Román
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

While most horror shorts nowadays seem to be mostly about zombies, there's usually at least one per festival that has its roots in the slasher genre. Usually they're outright spoofs, like Friday the 13th: Jason Goes Shopping, because the ones that take themself seriously tend to suck and fail to make the cut. The slashers get slashed. Nice Guys Finish Dead made it so it's a spoof, but it's one that was made by someone who knows the genre well. Every cliché in the book (and its inevitable sequel) is here and some are milked incessantly in the way that Family Guy milks its jokes, beating them to death until they're funny again. There's the tripping cliché, the stumbling into the scene at the wrong moment cliché, the summer camp spooky story cliché. Everything happens next to a corpse, or a stack of them, and nobody notices. The title appears twice, as the logical moment for it is interrupted by a necking couple walking into frame, so we do it all again.

As a spoof it's capable and funny but nothing special. Sometimes poking fun at the slasher flicks of the eighties seems like poking fun at a cripple or, at best, redundant because the best spoofs are the originals. As an actual slasher film it's capable, with no shortage of slaughter and decent effects to back it up. For the gorehounds out there who care about the details, the mask is a welder's shield with the eyes covered (my favourite deliberate bit of dumbness) and the weapon of choice is a customised shovel. For those who can see past the gore, it's the romance that holds this one together, an unlikely one that makes it to a beautifully insane romantic ending, one that would also naturally work well as the setup for a sequel. Philadelphia filmmaker Peter Binswanger is experienced, with both film and summer camp, given that he made an animated film in summer camp, while still in elementary school, that made it to a Japanese film festival.

The acting from inexperienced leads Rob Rusli and Alexandra San Román is, well, inexperienced, but then nobody watches a slasher movie for its acting talent, so perhaps that's merely another detail of authenticity. The cigarette use and faded Eastmancolor tone help make it authentic too. Rusli is Reynold, the villain of the piece, and San Román is Kelli, one of the camp counselors, the one he has the hots for. In another neat movie reference, she gets a clichéd strum and hum at the campfire but she hums Singin' in the Rain. I'm not sure about anyone else but I was thinking about Malcolm McDowell not Gene Kelly. Kelli's story to scare the kids is all about Reynold, who comes back on the last day of camp to wreak havoc. And hey, it's the last day of camp, so no prizes for guessing what comes next. But hey, you out there reading this, tonight's the last day of camp too and Reynold likes to kill people who stop reading at the end of this review...