Sunday, 4 July 2021

Uncle Sam (1996)

Director: William Lustig
Writer: Larry Cohen
Stars: William Smith, David Shark Fralick, Leslie Neale, Matthew Flint, Anne Tremko, Tim Grimm, P. J. Soles, Thom McFadden, Zachary McLemore, Morgan Paull, Richard Cummings, Jr., Robert Forster, Christopher Ogden, Bo Hopkins, Timothy Bottoms and Isaac Hayes

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Some people apparently have an affinity for horror movies set on holidays. This one, which features an American soldier, killed in action in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, rising from his grave on Independence Day to murder his way through his living townsfolk who aren’t showing much patriotism, features a couple of names we’ve met already. The director is William Lustig, who brought so much fun to St. Patrick’s Day with Maniac Cop, and the first face we see is that of William Smith, who was blown up in his RV on Memorial Day in Memorial Valley Massacre. He’s here to be driven to a downed helicopter in Kuwait. Apparently it was shot down by friendly fire, leaving those on board burned up in the wreckage. “These things happen in war,” Smith tells his men in that patented half-growl that has served him so well in roles like these over decades, albeit not quite as far back as his child acting days in early forties films like The Ghost of Frankenstein or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s what happens next that doesn’t usually.

Smith, whose major has no name, orders a soldier into the helicopter to try to identify any of the bodies from dogtags. He does, but the charred corpse of Master Sergeant Sam Harper promptly comes to life, snaps the man’s neck, steals his handgun and empties it into him and through him into the major too. “Don’t be afraid,” he snarls, “It’s only friendly fire.” Then he relaxes back into death. Yeah, that’s unusual, but it only gets more unusual. Back home in the town of Twin Rivers, there’s a signed photo of Sam Harper on Jody Baker’s bedside table. It falls, apparently on its own, waking Jody, who promptly steps on the broken glass and cuts his foot, at least a couple of drops of his blood ending up on this picture of his literal Uncle Sam. It’s been three years, apparently, but Sam’s still in that helicopter, where his corpse may have just felt that connection. It’s surely no coincidence that he’s found immediately and Sgt. Twining shows up to give the news to Sam’s widow in person.

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Solstice (2008)

Director: Daniel Myrick
Writers: Daniel Myrick, Martin Musatov and Ethan Erwin, based on the 2003 film Midsommer, by Carsten Myllerup and Rasmus Heisterberg
Stars: Elisabeth Harnois, Shawn Ashmore, Hilarie Burton, Amanda Seyfreid, Tyler Hoechlin, Matt O’Leary and R. Lee Ermey

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

I tend to avoid the inevitable American remakes of foreign horror films that succeed enough to be noticed by the mainstream, but I saw Solstice before I realised that it was based on a Danish film called Midsommer, and enjoyed its translation to the Louisiana bayou enough that I’m tentative about seeking out the original in case it spoils this one. In other major instances, such as The Vanishing or Let the Right One In, I saw the original first and don’t have that problem. Another reason why I’m not the logical audience for Solstice is that it’s a Daniel Myrick film, he who started out so successfully with The Blair Witch Project, surely the most popular horror movie I’ve never seen, on account of my having serious problems with shakycam. He hasn’t had the most prolific career, with few credits in between that debut in 1999 and a burst of activity around 2007 and 2008, but this should have brought him opportunity, as it’s a solid psychological drama that’s wildly different from what he was known for. Then again, maybe that was the problem.

The majority of the psychological weight stems from the inherent connection between twins, one of whom we meet immediately. She’s Megan Thomas and we meet her at the grave of her sister Sophie, who died in 2005 at the age of only eighteen. We know that we’re in New Orleans because the graves are all above ground vaults, on account of the water table being so high that burying them the usual six feet under would just mean floating coffins. How horror movie is that? Anyway, Sophie died on Christmas Eve and we join Megan the following June as she prepares to head out with friends to her family’s plantation house at Nowell Lake to both help get her mind off things and allow her the opportunity to pack up Sophie’s belongings. As you might imagine, doing both of those at the same time is going to be quite the accomplishment, because everything sparks a memory. And that’s before she decides to hook up with Christian, who used to be Sophie’s boyfriend. Sure, they’d split up before her suicide but how awkward can you get?

Father’s Day (2011)

Directors: Astron-6
Writers: Astron-6
Stars: Adam Brooks, Matt Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Amy Groening, Mackenzie Murdock, Meredith Sweeney. Brent Neale. Garrett Hnatiuk, Kevin Anderson, Billy Sadoo, Alcon van der Baek and Zsuzsi

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

If Mother’s Day, the 1980 Troma movie, may not have actually been set on Mother’s Day, at least we’re in no doubt that Father’s Day, the unrelated 2011 Troma movie, is indeed tied to Father’s Day. In fact, it makes the point so crystal clear in the opening scene that it’s almost deliberately trying to make up for that odd omission over thirty years earlier. It’s an icky start. The bed is bouncing, but not for the reasons you think. Someone’s carving someone else into little pieces. Oh, and having sex with his bloody skull, so maybe it is what you think. This is a Troma movie, after all, even if it was made by the Canadian filmmaking collective known as Astron-6, and it’s more outrageous than Mother’s Day in almost every regard. Our gay necrophile doesn’t have long, as someone struts down his corridor with gun drawn. The pervert killer does escape out of the window but he’s promptly shot, run over and shot again just to be sure. “Happy Father’s Day,” our new killer tells the old one, looking down from a rakish angle with his one good eye.

This is Ahab and he’s our lead, even if he doesn’t show back up again for a while. I should clarify that it’s really only fifteen minutes but it feels like a lot longer because the script doesn’t seem to know what it wants to tell us and it throws everything but the kitchen sink into these opening scenes. It’s also very gay and I do mean that literally, not as some stupid politically incorrect insult. Within the first ten minutes, we’ve witnessed a cannibalistic gay necrophile indulging his vices; been introduced to a young gay man called Twink, who doesn’t really work at a pizza joint, as he tells the cops, but robs men he’s sucking off in the street for his pimp, Walnut; and watched Twink’s tormented father raped and set on fire by a fat man. That’s pretty gay stuff. Even the cop who wonders about Twink, because the last time he saw his dad was when he picked him up from the police station a day earlier after being questioned about being found in a room with a buggered dead man, slaps him on the tush and tells him that he’s watching his ass.

Monday, 31 May 2021

Memorial Valley Massacre (1989)

Director: Robert C. Hughes
Writers: Robert C. Hughes and George Frances Skrow
Stars: John Kerry, Mark Mears, Lesa Lee, John Caso, William Smith and Cameron Mitchell

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Given that you’re reading about Memorial Valley Massacre in a project about horror movies set on holidays, you might wonder why it isn’t called Memorial Day Massacre and I have exactly the same question. It is absolutely set on Memorial Day, but also in Memorial Valley, because the Memorial Day weekend is when the Memorial Valley Campground opens for the summer and it isn’t ready this year, for reasons that have nothing to do with COVID-19. We have no idea why Memorial Valley is called Memorial Valley but we do know that the movie was originally called Memorial Day because it still is in the end credits. There’s a poster online that still has that title too and the artwork on it is much better than for the film’s reissue titles like Valley of Death or Son of Sleepaway Camp. No, it has nothing to do with the Sleepaway Camp films, but little details like that don’t stop the unscrupulous. There are many other films called Memorial Day, of course, but none that seem to be close enough to this one, in subject or release date, to warrant a change.

My guess is that it changed when the filmmakers noticed that there was an actual Memorial Day Massacre and wanted to distance themselves from it. Reading up on it feels eerily like a contemporary news report but it actually happened in Chicago in 1937, when striking steel workers set off on a march to the Republic Steel Mill, only to be blocked by the Chicago police department. While the strikers were unarmed men and women, the police, “feeling threatened”, promptly opened fire, leaving ten dead. Forty others had bullet wounds and a hundred were beaten with clubs. Nine were permanently disabled and many had serious head injuries. No cop was ever prosecuted, of course, and the coroner’s jury called a verdict of “justifiable homicide”. News footage was suppressed. And, while I fully expect to see horror movies soon that are set during peaceful protests, that’s not what this is. This is clearly an eighties slasher movie as it follows many of the standard conventions, but it also sports an unusual killer and an even more unusual ending.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Mother’s Day (1980)

Director: Charles Kaufman
Writers: Charles Kaufman and Warren Leight
Stars: Holden McGuire, Billy Ray McQuade, Rose Ross, Nancy Henderickson, Deborah Luce and Tiana Pierce

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

At no moment in this film does anyone actually confirm that its events are taking place on Mother’s Day, making it something of a cheat for this project, but I have my reasons. For one, at no moment in this film does anyone say that its events aren’t taking place on Mother’s Day. For two, the subtext of the movie, which digs deep into consumerism and blindly rewarding mothers, regardless of whether they’re worthy or not, is perfect for a modern consumerist holiday like Mother’s Day. And, for three, while that bastion of low budget independent filmmaking, Troma Studios, produced this picture themselves, they also distributed a later homage in Father’s Day, which absolutely has ties to its titular holiday. In other words, if this film isn’t set on Mother’s Day, it ought to be, and, quite frankly, every consumerist holiday on the calendar should be commemorated in a film made by Troma. I’ll start a petition to have them tackle Valentine’s Day and Grandparents’ Day, Black Friday and Prime Day, and especially Singles Day.

If you don’t know Troma, I should introduce you. Troma Entertainment was founded in 1974 by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz and they specialise in making and distributing low budget movies. No, that’s not enough, because lots of companies do that; Troma do it in a very particular way. By low budget, I mean really low budget, to the degree that sometimes there’s no budget. Traditional attributes like the ability of actors to act or scripts to make sense are far from priorities, but the abilities to shock, scare and ick out are. Many of the most disgusting, most outrageous and most offensive movies ever shot were either made or distributed by Troma and the company would take those descriptions as compliments; they might even throw them onto their DVD covers as quotes, in luminous lime green over a splatter of diarrhoea. And, with that unwelcome image stuck in your brain, I’ll point out that this film, as disgusting, outrageous and offensive as it is, is surprisingly well made and worthy of much critical comment.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

The Wicker Man (1973)

Director: Robin Hardy
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, loosely adapted from the novel Ritual by David Pinner
Stars: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

It’s a testament to the power of The Wicker Man that, however many horror movies you watch, it consistently stands alone. Frankly, that holds true even if you start dabbling in the vein that’s become known as British folk horror, epitomised by Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and this picture, because the other two films there are period pieces, while this was contemporary to 1973. It’s remembered very well, with its two primary stars praising it highly. Christopher Lee, whose long and distinguished career was a busy one for almost seventy years, remembered it as his very best picture, above anything he did in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or James Bond. Edward Woodward, best known as TV’s Equalizer, described his lead role here as the best he ever played and called out the film’s ending as the best in film history. While received well at the time, it didn’t succeed wildly at the box office and had fallen into obscurity by the time Cinefantastique devoted an entire issue to the film in 1977, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies”.

I had to choose it for this project because it’s inextricably entangled in pagan folklore and it ends on May Day, which long before its adoption in 1889 as International Workers’ Day, which would eventually lead to the iconic demonstrations of Soviet military might we saw during the Cold War, was a traditional spring holiday across most of Europe, dating back to Roman times and the festival of Flora. There are rituals in this picture that evoke Gaelic celebrations of Beltane, such as naked young women jumping over a sacred flame as part of their “divinity lessons”; they’re trying to get pregnant through parthenogenesis rather than sexual relations. Also here is a scene focused around a maypole but, unlike the family friendly version still celebrated in towns across England, this one is a phallic symbol, which Miss Rose teaches the girls of Summerisle is “venerated in religions such as ours.” In fact, there’s so much here that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s written a book about folklore to explain everything going on in The Wicker Man.

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Father Brown (1954)

Director: Robert Hamer
Writers: Thelma Schnee and Robert Hamer, from the Father Brown stories by G. K. Chesterton
Stars: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Peter Finch and Cecil Parker

Index: 2021 Centennials.

It’s been Joan Greenwood week here at Apocalypse Later headquarters, because, hey, why not? Sure, I was trying to find an obscure but interesting picture from her career that I hadn’t seen but which would serve well as review material. I’d have watched the 1947 indie film called The White Unicorn, aka Bad Sister, given that it placed one of the most elegant British actresses ever to grace the screen in a home for delinquent girls, but I can’t find a copy anywhere. So I watched a bunch of others. After all, I’ve never heard a voice that does what her voice does to me. I could watch Joan Greenwood movies until the sun sets and until it rises again. Unfortunately, the excellent films I ran through didn’t feature her in a large enough role to warrant me covering them for her centennial. At least, I’m telling myself that and not that I merely don’t want to stop listening to that voice. It had a Scottish lilt in Whisky Galore! but was held back a little in The October Man. It’s just right, I feel, in Father Brown, a 1954 picture released in the U.S. as The Detective.

It reunited her with two major names: Robert Hamer, who had directed her in one of the blackest, sharpest features ever made, an Ealing comedy called Kind Hearts and Coronets; and its star, Alec Guinness, who played eight characters that time out but only one in this film, the titular priest, G. K. Chesterton’s timeless detective, Father Ignatius Brown. In between that picture in 1949 and this in 1954, she also played opposite Guinness in The Man in the White Suit, yet another classic Ealing comedy in a long line of them at that point, all of them absolute gems. She clearly got on well with Guinness and, while she’s not in Father Brown anywhere near as much as he is, their scenes together work very nicely indeed and her Lady Warren is the epitome of the elegant and unflappable but open and pixielike British lady that she played so often. It’s hardly surprising that she was able to hold her own in the 1952 adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, even with Edith Evans and Margaret Rutherford to contend with.

Friday, 26 February 2021

Incendiary Blonde (1945)

Director: George Marshall
Writers: Claude Binyon and Frank Butler
Stars: Betty Hutton and Arturo de Cordova

Index: 2021 Centennials.

After Klondike Kate turned out to be such a wildly inaccurate biopic that it was a precious detail indeed that came close to the truth, I probably ought to have sworn off Hollywood biopics for quite a while. But here I am with another one, after only a week, because 26th February would have been the one hundredth birthday of Betty Hutton and I couldn’t track down the film I wanted to explore anywhere. That was Cross My Heart, a comedy musical remake of the Carole Lombard movie, True Confession, in which she confesses to a murder that she didn’t commit so that her lawyer husband can secure her acquittal in court and so build a stellar reputation. It kinda sorta worked with Lombard because I could believe her as a sympathetic pathological liar, but Hutton? I was eager to find out if she would be able to carry it, but it’s a Paramount film from 1946 that was sold to Universal in a job lot of 700 for TV distribution and legal issues prevented it from being shown with the others. It seems like those issues may finally be solved, so fingers crossed.

But it’s Betty Hutton’s centennial today and so I plumped for Incendiary Blonde, as it’s another musical comedy in which she has the lead, playing a fictionalised version of Texas Guinan, a fascinating character from the early decades of the previous century. What’s important to note here is that we’re often not entirely sure what’s true and what isn’t from her life, because she made so much of it up out of thin air, so this Hollywood biopic could do the same and we might not be able to tell the difference. Yes, a lot of things got changed, but it’s not particularly important in the grand scheme of things and much of the sweep of the story resembles the truth. At least they got her name right! She really was known as Texas Guinan, for much of her time in the spotlight, and she did claim for years that it was her real name, though she was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan instead, in 1884 in Waco, Texas. When she died in 1933, she was known as “the queen of the nightclubs”. There were 7,500 people at her funeral and a biopic was inevitable.

Monday, 22 February 2021

The Feather Fairy (1985)

Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Writers: Ľubímor Feldek and Juraj Jakubisko
Stars: Giulietta Masina, Petra Vancíková, Tobias Hoesl, Sona Valentová, Pavol Mikulik, Milada Ondrasíková, Valérie Kaplanová and Eva Horká

Index: 2021 Centennials.

One of the unwritten rules of cinema is that, if you want to see a fairy tale on film done properly, you go to Europe, travel east and keep on going. There are many good countries where you could stop to see good fairy tales, but most of them are on the other side of where the Iron Curtain used to be. This one is a multinational production that’s nominally Czechoslovakian and primarily in the Slovak language. I’m guessing that my grey market copy was taped from an Italian TV channel, because the few sections in Italiano are not subtitled but all the Slovak is. It doesn’t matter that much, because it’s clear what’s going on, except that I find myself a bit in the dark about the circus troupe that’s our focus as the film begins and which returns to the story later. It’s easy to see why they would be watching it in Italy, though, because the one cast member I recognise is the one I’m watching for. That’s Giulietta Masina, the magical clown of European cinema, who would have been a hundred years old today.

This is a late film for her, but she’s just as much fun to watch here in 1985 as she was in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria in the fifties or Juliet of the Spirits in the sixties. Apparently she was talked into doing this by her husband, the director Federico Fellini, who was a friend of this film’s director, Juraj Jakubisko. I’m very happy that she agreed to do it, because she remains a bundle of energy at 64 years young and her quirky charm is utterly perfect for a fairy tale. However, I also enjoyed the eastern actors, none of whom I had seen before. Most of them are women, because that’s just how this story rolls, with only one male character of real substance. That is another worthy aspect of eastern fairy tales, where female characters can be anything, rather than merely the two opposites the Disney adaptations polarise: the beautiful young peasant girl or princess and the ugly and evil stepmother or crone. Those clichés are here too, though with some serious caveats, and they’re not all there are to be found either because there’s also Perinbaba.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Klondike Kate (1943)

Director: William Castle
Writers: M. Coates Webster, based on a story by Houston Branch and M. Coates Webster, suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson, the original “Klondike Kate”
Stars: Ann Savage, Tom Neal, Glenda Farrell, Constance Worth, Sheldon Leonard, Lester Allen and George Cleveland

Index: 2021 Centennials.

The obvious film to review to celebrate what would have been Ann Savage’s one hundredth birthday is Detour, the highly regarded low budget film noir from Edgar G. Ulmer and PRC, released in 1945, in which she blackmails Tom Neal. However, as that’s the film that everyone else will be mentioning, I’m going to go back two further years to take a look at Savage’s first leading role, which also tasks her with acting opposite Tom Neal, under the direction of the great William Castle. It’s a biopic, of sorts, merely “suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson”, the real lady behind the titular nickname, which means that it’s about as historically accurate as Klondyke Kate, the song by Suzi Quatro. What’s odd is that, unlike most heavily fictionalised Hollywood biopics, this one was written during the life of its subject, who lived until 1957, and it was apparently Kate herself who personally chose Ann Savage, then an up and coming actor at Columbia, to portray her in this picture.

We can tell how accurate it’s going to be as a biopic from the fact that they correctly name its subject in the opening credits but not in the film itself. The lady who would become known as Klondike Kate was born Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, later adding a succession of surnames from three marriages. She was born in Junction City, Kansas in 1876, to parents who divorced when she was five, and she spent much of her youth travelling with her mother to places as farflung as Valparaiso, Chile. She became a chorus girl in New York City but soon followed a theatre troupe to Spokane, Washington, in which she’d previously lived, and it was while there that she heard rumours about the Gold Rush in the Klondike. She may or may not have got past the Mounties disguised as a boy, but she arrived in Alaska in 1899 and proved a big success in Dawson City, dancing her Flame Dance at the Palace Grande Theatre. This saw her trail two hundred feet of chiffon that she twisted into the illusion of fire. She made a fortune, sometimes over $750 per night.