Tuesday 31 January 2012

Hidden Fears (1993)

Director: Jean Bodon
Stars: Meg Foster, Frederick Forrest, Bever-Leigh Banfield, Wally Taylor, Marc Macaulay and Patrick Cherry

For 1993, this film begins with a pretty depressing set of opening credits. It's just plain text and no visuals while we listen to a family talking about eating at Bittie's Place. Even the hardcoded Greek subtitles on the VHS rip I have of this film, which has never been released on DVD, aren't enough to make life interesting. When we get visuals, we just watch a couple of racist rednecks, one of whom is apparently a cripple, act like idiots and fail utterly to instil us with any terror. The screenplay is by Stuart Kaminsky, who wrote the source novel, Exercise in Terror, so there's no excuse for it to lose its substance in translation, but we don't even get much terror when these rednecks return and kill David Dietz in cold blood in the Bittie's Place car park. One tries for his wife Maureen too, inside the car, but she bites a decent chunk out of his arm and they run. Meg Foster may not weigh a heck of a lot but she certainly has inner strength and we see that here.

In the hospital, while she's obviously still in serious shock, Sgt Barelli tells her that 'they won't be coming back' and of course we can be sure that he's wrong, but it doesn't happen how we might expect. In fact nothing at all happens for a while as we fast forward to find Maureen at dinner with her new boyfriend and her son, now all grown up. Eight years have passed, enough for Sgt Barelli to have died, but he apparently cared about this case and did what he could to keep on it, even on his time off. He identified the murderers and his former partner delivers his casefile to Maureen after his death. It's a strange way to build a thriller, to have not a heck of a lot happen for years and then to have the victim trigger the story by facing her fears and seeking closure by catching the men who killed her husband. 'I've been scared for a long time,' she says. 'Now's the time.' Yet that's still not quite what this is all about.

By half an hour in, we don't just know what happened but whodunit too. What's more, the bad guys, Marty and Cal Vanbeeber, see Maureen on TV and promptly ring her up to tell her they're on their way. Nothing if not confident, these rednecks. At least Maureen has Mike and the kids to be around her, as well as Barelli's old partner, Helen, to watch over her, but still, this is hardly run of the mill. It's a slow paced, talky affair, driven by dialogue and full of character depth that not all the actors are able to flesh out. Meg Foster has an understated acting style in most of the films I've seen her in, which made the free spirits she played in Thumb Tripping and Welcome to Arrow Beach all the more surprising, but others here like Bever-Leigh Banfield and Dana Nickola try to emulate her but don't have the skill needed. It's the story that keeps us totally on the hop though, because it keeps growing until we finally figure out what it's trying to do.

I was all set for this to be a routine suspense story with the leading lady the usual victim trapped quivering in her house as the bad guys rage outside and gradually claw their way in. 'A widowed woman is being stalked by her husband's murderers,' says the plot description at IMDb and the tagline reads simply, 'What she saw... could kill her.' That isn't what this film is. I started out with the wrong expectations and felt suitably chastised when I realised how far off I was. At heart, this is a character study of a random event, the killing of David Dietz, which is never really explained or rationalised. We're given no perspective and we aren't even sure he was murdered. Yes, the killers are utterly responsible but maybe they just wanted his wife and he was merely in the way. Who knows? Stuart Kaminsky does but he doesn't want to tell us. All he wants us to know is that two men killed a third and that the action has serious ramifications.

Beyond David, who is dead, we end up meeting a lot of people who were affected by the killing. Most obviously there's Maureen Dietz, the victim's wife, who is a strong woman but still allowing the event to shape her eight years on. There's Barry, their son, who was a child at the time but who hasn't had counselling and obviously needs it. There's the cop given the case who couldn't let it be. There's the former partner of the cop, who ends up involved throughout. There's Bittie, who owned the restaurant where it happened, and the staff and customers who were there at the time and saw it go down. There are the killers themselves, who live with their actions, even when they think they've been forgotten. In one of the best scenes, there's even the cousin of the killers, who feels ashamed to be related to them but can't find a way out of blood. The script leisurely works its way around to all of them and gets tighter and tighter as it does so.

When I watched Meg Foster in Welcome to Arrow Beach, I was struck by how the film started so promisingly but fell apart horribly halfway through. Here I found almost the opposite: a slow and simple story that seemed like nothing special gradually building into a real treat. By the time it got to the end, I found myself turning some of what had initially felt like weak moments into the strongest parts of the film. I'd noted the clumsy choreography of a couple of key scenes but later realised how the clumsiness highlighted how believably real they were. These characters aren't slick Hollywood stereotypes, they're fleshed out, flawed characters that do dumb things, and for a change I found that refreshing to consider while the credits rolled. I don't know how much of that really warrants praise to the cast and crew and how much is a mere reflection of the budget, which was not high, but it built into a notable success far more than I ever expected.

The greatest praise surely has to go to Stuart Kaminsky, who is both a bestselling novelist and a noted film fan, so much so that he set his Toby Peters mystery series in the Hollywood of the noir era and featured real actors like Cary Grant and Joan Crawford. He wrote over sixty novels but a mere pair of them fell outside his regular series. This is the second of that pair, so presumably a concept that he held close to his heart. It's not surprising, because it focuses on character, which a writer thrives on. The film feels like a novel too, which isn't a bad thing. The substance is there to draw us in as we realise that every character we meet has a story of their own and nobody is without a reason to be there. One realisation that especially surprised me is that, wherever the story takes us, the authorities are notably absent. After the hospital scene, it's all about civilians. Even Helen may not even be a cop any more. If she is, she's on vacation out of her jurisdiction.

While I felt dismissive for a while, this grew on me and it feels very much like a film to return to again and again to ponder. I'm really interested in how it would play on a second run through, as the gimmickry isn't important. Yes, there's a twist, though nothing much relies on it. It's all about those character studies, each and every one of them, and the mildly obscure cast do well, their mild obscurity helping a little. Frederic Forrest from The Rose, Apocalypse Now and Falling Down is the only other name I knew beyond Foster, but I've seen others without realising who they are. I liked Wally Taylor a lot as the restaurant owner and Dan Fitzgerald gives an excellent showing as the killers' cousin. Patrick Cherry is most obvious of all as Cal, the crippled killer. Frenchman Jean Bodon hadn't directed a feature before but made a subtle winner here. How much so, I'll tell you in a year or two when I watch it again. Maybe by then it'll be available on DVD. It should be.

Monday 30 January 2012

Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974)

Director: Laurence Harvey
Stars: Laurence Harvey, Joanna Pettet, Stuart Whitman, John Ireland and Meg Foster

Laurence Harvey is an important name in British film, even though he was born in Lithuania and made his way to the UK via South Africa. With 1959's Room at the Top, he helped introduce the kitchen sink drama era of British social cinema and while he headed off to Hollywood rather than help consolidate that, he made a variety of pictures there that kept his name on people's lips. In the films I've seen him in he was never the sole focus, either playing the second fiddle or sharing the spotlight, but the films were important ones, from BUtterfield 8 to The Manchurian Candidate via The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. This was his last film, both as an actor and as a budding director, as he died in 1973 of stomach cancer, having just turned 45. The suggestion is that, having directed The Ceremony in 1963 and finished off Anthony Mann's A Dandy in Aspic in 1968 after Mann's death, Harvey was looking to direct more, but this is as far as he got.

It opens with hippie chick Meg Foster hitching a ride with the wrong guy, albeit in a very cool car. Given that she'd hitched a ride with Bruce Dern two years earlier in Thumb Tripping, you'd think she'd have learned her lesson, but apparently not. She has no destination in mind. 'I'm just sort of going,' she tells the young idiot who picks her up. She ends up in Arrow Beach though, as you might expect from the title, after he speeds away from the cops and ends up upside down ready for a ride of his own to the hospital. She's Robbin Stanley, a wild free spirit with a vitality to her that's pleasant to see. She gets a special credit after the rest of the cast, presumably not just to reflect the importance of her role but that she was a rising star at the time. We also get to see more of her than I've certainly seen before, given that she strips off to go skinny dipping in the sea as soon as Lou Rawls finishes singing the truly cheesy theme song.

It's after she crashes out on the beach that Harvey arrives to begin the story proper. He's Jason Henry and he lives in the house above her with his sister Grace, who is very nervous indeed to see Robbin invited in for dinner. In fact both Jason and Grace are notably tense, so much so that this hippie chick must be really far out there, man, to not notice the nervous energy that so pervades their house. I realise that this is a horror movie, as made abundantly obvious by the quote about cannibalism that opens the picture and the imagery that follows, so it's subject to horror movie logic, but I'm amazed that Robbin Stanley doesn't realise it too. Both Harvey and Joanna Pettet, who plays Grace, veer wildly between calmly welcoming and freakishly panicky. It wouldn't take a psychologist to notice. I'll grant that the freakiness doesn't unfold in the usual way but it's still obviously freakishness. Any hitchhiker worth their salt would have left.
But of course, this is a horror movie, so Robbin Stanley doesn't leave. Instead she wanders down to the basement on her first night there to investigate the weird noises that resonate through the house. That's where she finds that Jason Henry isn't just freaky, he's completely batshit insane. We're just over halfway through the picture and it explodes into possibility. Unfortunately it also painfully fails to follow up on that possibility. At least thus far it's been focused, but now we have a host of new characters to deal with, with very little to set them up or follow through with. Now there are dynamics all over the place with no way for the film to devote appropriate time to any of them. Are we supposed to watch Sheriff Bingham's battle for reelection, Deputy Lippencourt's problems with women, Jason and Grace's strange relationship, Robbin on her way out of town or Alex Heath, the lazy nursing assistant who has the hots for her? Suddenly we have no idea.

We do know that we're not going to be spending too much time with Ginger, even though she turns out to be perhaps the most interesting character in the story. She's a model turned aging hooker played by Gloria LeRoy who gets raped and robbed on the beach only to then become a substitute for Robbin under Henry's hatchet. She gets a memorable and very bloody death scene but in the end that's all she's there for and that's a real shame. She was certainly my discovery here, regardless of the size or importance of her part. In fact the women dominate here, as Meg Foster and Joanna Pettet are the other standouts. With the story never quite figuring out what it wants to focus on, Foster slips in as the main character with most depth and never really lets go of our attention even when her part loses momentum. Pettet, who had risen quickly in films like Casino Royale, dominates her screen brother not just as a character but as a performance.

And yet Laurence Harvey was the lead actor, producer and director. I wonder why he felt drawn to this picture and to star in it, knowing what his part would be. Other than that one scene with Ginger, it's a wasted performance. He builds the character well, with his freaky sunglasses and his Vincent Price voice, but as soon as he gets his first real shock moment it's all over and we really don't care any more. The film simply doesn't know what it wants to be. It's a horror movie that forgets it's a horror movie. I haven't seen a picture change its way as much as this without Ray Dennis Steckler's name on the credits. The cannibal angle is ignored. The psychology sitting behind it is ignored. The cops are ignored. Everything is ignored until the finale which is a futile attempt to bring all those admirable plot strands back together. It fails dismally and massively. The first half had possibility, but the second half wastes everything that it could have been.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Blind Fury (1989)

Director: Phillip Noyce
Star: Rutger Hauer

'I can't see anything,' whispers Rutger Hauer at the beginning of this film. Well, that's not too surprising, given that this is a loose American remake of Zatoichi Challenged, the seventeenth film in the long running Zatoichi film series, and Hauer is taking Shintaro Katsu's role as Ichi, the blind swordsman. In this version he's called Nick Parker, a Vietnam vet blinded during wartime but befriended by the locals and taught how to deal with his blindness to the degree of being able to slice a watermelon into quarters as it's being thrown at him. Now, Zatoichi Challenged was released in 1967 and was a period piece to boot. This version is firmly brought into our time, emphasised by Parker's red baseball cap and yellow walkman. He's a colourful character for a blind man, but then he's somehow found his way from the jungles of Vietnam to Miami during the twenty year jump that comes after the opening credits.

He's here to find an old war buddy, Frank Devereaux, but he only finds Frank's ex-wife and son. Frank is being held upside down off a tall building in Reno by the henchmen of a crook called MacCready, who has garnered leverage over him so as to make use of his talents. Fortunately Parker is with Lynn and Billy Devereaux when MacCready's thugs arrive to boost that leverage. Unfortunately Lynn is killed in the battle that follows. That explains why I didn't remember that Meg Foster was in this movie: she gets a very small part indeed, though she does make the most of her death scene. She's a lot better than the corrupt cops that die in the same battle, but she's still gone from the picture. Her last wish is for Nick to take Billy to his father, which of course is enough to set up the rest of the story: part road movie, part thriller, part martial arts flick as Nick bonds with Billy while taking him to his dad and fending off kidnap attempts right and left.

Beyond Parker's subtle sword cane, which is reminiscent of Ichi's in the original films, there's much of what you might expect from a Zatoichi movie. Parker has a dry, unassuming sense of humour, though Hauer's character is a little more overt than Shintaro Katsu's. People make fun of him and he plays along. When they get serious, so does he but in a deceptively simple way, playing up his moves as accidents. Most of the time he looks inwards, as if as an alternative to being able to look anywhere else, but we see a lot more of Nick's eyeballs than we ever did of Ichi's. Hauer focuses while Katsu squints, though to be fair he did have 26 movies and 100 TV episodes to build up the nuances of his character. With that much screen time to work with, he must have found it difficult to find himself, but he was somewhat different in other films, like the bizarre Hanzo the Razor movies.
It's obvious that actor Tim Matheson, here producing his first and last feature film, had to be a fan of the Zatoichi films. It isn't that he chose such an obscure story, at least to western eyes, to adapt, but that he obviously understood how they worked. For instance, there's a gambling scene in Reno which is a quintessential Zatoichi scene, expertly adapted to the contemporary setting. Yet while this is present in many of the Zatoichi films, surprisingly it isn't in the one that was directly adapted here. It's taken from the source world rather than the source script. There's also another obvious inspiration here, at least to my eyes, namely Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. This is most obvious in the use of setpiece locations, not least the cornfield halfway and the ski lodge at the end. Everything at these points seems constructed from a completely western mindset, a traditional western suspense model, rather than anything eastern merely translated.

I enjoyed Blind Fury years ago and I enjoyed it again with fresh, more experienced eyes, but it did feel very much like a lesser version of the original, with most of the fun but not too much of the substance. I'd suggest that it's simply a much more Hollywood version, but I don't mean it to quite be the insult that that sounds. Attention is given to the story, not just the regular flow but the background to Parker's blindness and the connection between him and Devereaux, which is the underpinning of the story as well as an introduction to a character that could easily have run on into further scripts. In Japan, everyone knew who Ichi the blind swordsman was by the time the 17th film came around. In America, nobody had that luxury because this was the first movie. I'm a big Rutger Hauer fan of long standing and firmly believe that his acting talents are severely underrated because of his frequent choice of genres. He could have grown this into a series.

The characters are fun, if cut from relatively broad cloth. Noble Willingham is a solid villain who gets suitably upset about everyone talking about the blind man. 'Get me Bruce Lee,' he orders his minion. 'Bruce Lee is dead,' comes the quiet reply. 'Then get his brother!' Terry O'Quinn is a decent enough Frank Devereaux, though he's deliberately average and so doesn't stand out in a crowd of overplayed thugs and henchmen. Tex Cobb was born to play Slag and he does a fine job but it doesn't help that he's played this character a lot, even when it was called other names in other movies. Nick Cassavetes and Rick Overton are a goofy pair of dumb hillbilly sidekicks and you can take that as a recommendation or a warning, depending on your preference. Sho Kosugi has a fine time as a ninja assassin but really doesn't get a heck of a lot to do. On the side of the good guys, Lisa Blount is nerdily sexy as Annie but her part fades away into nothing.
That just leaves the central unlikely pair of buddies Nick Parker and young Billy Devereaux, and the core story relies on the chemistry between these two. It does grow substantially as the movie runs on, but Brandon Call plays Billy as a bit too annoying for my tastes and that never seems to entirely vanish, even as he grows and develops along his journey. I cared about the hero but not particularly about little Billy, which didn't help my attachment to the picture. The frequent veers into complete lunacy didn't help either, such as the bizarre car chase with the blind man behind the wheel. It's frankly stupid and unnecessary, though the stunts are agreeably well done. There is a lot of stupid here: plot conveniences, obvious jokes and Hollywood logic. At least it's fun, so I can somewhat forgive how many huge bodyguards get knocked senseless with a single tap from Nick's sword cane, which is incredibly sharp except when it's as blunt as its handle.

With such wild inconsistencies firmly in tow, the plot progresses precisely as you'd expect. Nick gets Frank but MacCready gets Billy and Annie and we're set for a showdown. Surprise, surprise. It's the finalé that probably disappointed me most. The film hints at an intriguing attempt to play with senses, but doesn't quite deliver. There's a solid explanation but it's let go too quickly. The fight choreography is capable but hardly inspired. And there's surprisingly little blood, especially given that this was 1989. The Japanese had switched to freely spouting gore in the early '70s but here we don't get spurting even when one character is cut entirely in half. Perhaps it's deliberate tribute to the tone of the originals but it still feels cheap. So Blind Fury is a fun film with obvious flaws, but still capable enough to have become a series with high and low points to come. It was certainly planned and I'd love to have seen Hauer reach those high points in better sequels.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Future Kick (1991)

Director: Clay Robeson
Stars: Don 'The Dragon' Wilson, Meg Foster, Christopher Penn, Eb Lottimer and Al Ruscio

I love scifi movies from the eighties and nineties that attempt to depict awesomely advanced technology without either a budget or a clue. Somehow they don't annoy me the way the fake tech in shows like CSI: Miami does. Maybe it's the difference in setting between the future and the present. When Horatio Caine's team enhance a dot into the front page of the New York Times so he can flip it over and read the sports scores on the back, it's deliberate misrepresentation. When Don 'The Dragon' Wilson plays a cyborg kickfighting machine in a future where the rich live on the moon and hold down conversations with AIs, I find it cute that the filmmakers forget to or couldn't afford to do anything about the size of the computer monitors or the crappy user interfaces on them. The futurism here is wildly inconsistent. New Los Angeles has no water but they still have newspapers. Local phone calls are expensive but organ replacement isn't.

Most importantly, virtual reality is apparently the new thing in this unidentified future year (it just says the good days on Earth were 'a long time ago'), just as it was in 1991 when Future Kick was made. Howard Morgan, rich computer programmer, is the sole designer of UltraDream, such a promising product that his company thinks they can sell 50,000 copies of it, even though it's still a buggy prototype. Maybe it'll be a toy for the rich and cost a fortune, I don't know. Anyway, he lives in opulence on the moon with a wife played by Meg Foster and all the rest of the 1%, so he doesn't generally have to deal with non-virtual reality. Unfortunately his senior publisher has him go to Earth, so that's it for him. New Los Angeles is a dark, rainy slum full of criminals, terrorists and clubs playing really unsophisticated electronic music. The cops are so busy they don't have much of a chance to do anything for anyone and are so corrupt they don't care.

There is one hope for the people. The corporations running the world did create 'biomechanical men' called Cyberons to fight the criminal element of society. That turned out to be a really bad idea for them because it didn't take too long for the Cyberons to realise that their corporate creators were the real criminals and so turned on them. In retaliation, they set the Corporate Police loose to kill all ten of them and now there's only one left: Walker, played by world kickboxing champion Don 'The Dragon' Wilson. This is a Roger Corman picture, made through his New Concorde company, and as much as I love Corman pictures generally, the presence of Don 'The Dragon' tends to indicate that it's going to be a stinker. It isn't really Wilson himself, though his acting only serves to show how good a kickboxer he is. I think it's just that he has the same problem John Travolta has: the inability to tell a good script from a bad one.

To be brutally honest, he isn't even the lead in this one, as much as his name is most prominent and the title refers specifically to him. He gets surprisingly few fight scenes, which mostly take place in the dark. They might even be the worst thing about the film, as the fight choreography is unsatisfyingly wooden with every move slow and telegraphed. There are cool and surprising death scenes, but they're mostly separate and when you realise that the best fight is against Chris Penn, you know you're in trouble. Really Wilson is only there to kick people and flesh out the futuristic background, while Jeff Pomerantz, who plays Howard Morgan, is there to set up the story by getting murdered. The lead is Meg Foster, Morgan's wife, who takes the shuttle down to Earth to investigate. To say that Nancy is out of her element in New Los Angeles is a powerful understatement, but Foster is the only member of the cast who even attempts to act.

She does a pretty good job too, especially when you know the twist that will be revealed at the end of the movie and which I won't spoil here. It's a cheap and unsatisfying gimmick but it's the key to everything that goes before. It's also adds a good deal of depth to Foster's performance, which makes it even more unfortunate that we don't get to know about it until it's over. What I can say is that she varies her acting considerably throughout. On the moon she's comfortable and alive but on Earth she's a fish out of water. Obviously traumatised by her husband's murder, in meaningless conversation she's utterly devoid of emotion, less a character and more a prop that floats through the film, but when emotions are called for, she comes alive. Her progression from professional victim to capable sidekick is not particularly credible but Foster does give it a fair attempt and that's more than anyone else in this film does. She also provides the narration.

Beyond Foster, the only reason to watch is for the pseudo-futuristic exploitation: not just fights but death scenes and pole dancing and odd little touches here and there. There's a competitive video game called LaserBlade that brings a whole new meaning to the term 'deathmatch'. There are clubs like the Trocadero 2000 House of Pleasure, which is presumably a really stupid name for a club in the future, but it does employ a lot of very limber half naked pole dancers. There's an assassin called Hynes, played by Eb Lottimer, who doesn't pass up any opportunity to go over the top, whether he's ripping people's hearts out of their chests or not. If you have a background in Corman movies, you won't be too surprised that a decent amount of these moments weren't even shot for this film: the dancers are all from Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls and the shuttle shots and other space footage are taken from Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World.

Anything to save a buck, huh? That's hardly new for Corman but it's more obvious than usual here. Behind Hynes, who's the psycho of the story, the real villain of the piece is the NewBody Corporation which doesn't get much of a chance to get established. Mostly we see one office, which is dimly lit and almost unfurnished, just a piece of space to house Dr Sado, who doesn't get to live up to his name. It's as obvious a cheap set as I think I've seen outside of microbudget cinema and it doesn't help the film. The bizarre thing is that nothing much does except reaching the end and discovering the final twist, which calls for a reevaluation of the whole picture. On a first viewing, it's a complex but unsatisfying film with little more than Foster to recommend it. It stands up better on a second run with foreknowledge of the twist at the heart of everything, but unfortunately it just isn't the sort of movie you're likely to watch twice.

Thursday 19 January 2012

3 Days Later: Jesus Christ, Zombie Lord (2008)

Director: Clay Robeson
Stars: Dave Dyson, Marcus Sams and Amber Price
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
Another film that really puts its essence into its title, 3 Days Later is a surprisingly spot on spoof of Jesus Christ Superstar, done with people who can really sing and mostly know how to keep a straight face when departing from the classic story of our Lord and Saviour by suggesting that after his three days in the tomb he rose as a zombie. The only surprise I felt was in realising that, in our modern zombie-soaked culture, nobody had done this before! It opens with the suggestion that it's a proof-of-concept for a feature length zombie rock opera, but if that's not a gimmick it seems to have got stuck there because its web site forwards to a YouTube channel which hasn't seen an update in almost three years. Whether they really ever wanted to expand it or not, they shouldn't. At seven minutes, it's a funny musical short that would serve as a welcome humour break to any festival set. At ninety, it would drag painfully. Even twenty would be a stretch.

Of course there's very little acting and next to no sets. It's made to appear that this preview is taken from a minimalist stage musical production with attention given to costumes and facial hair and a little choreography but not much more. Everything revolves around the songs and fortunately those are solid, especially in the brief snippets we're treated to. 'What's that smell? Tell me what's happening?' the chorus chants as they dance around the newly risen Lord of the Undead. 'I don't know how to kill him,' sings Mary Magdalene as Jesus munches on an leg. 'If you eat these folks I'll know you're no hoax,' suggests the gay 70s disco dancer. You get the picture. If you're thinking that it sounds really stupid then you shouldn't bother seeking it out at all, but if you're smiling at the idea of this, you're going to love it. The voices are capable and the musical direction is solid. It does what it aims to do with aplomb.

Bloodstained Terror (2007)

Directors: Cody Cather and Doug Gehl
Stars: Dudley Bowlin, Jane Wines, Daren Palacio, Lianna Hubbard, Jake Cather, Brandon Bond, Ryan Mahoney, Austin Logue, Matt Anderson and Doug Gehl
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
Unashamedly loud and cheap from moment one, Bloodstained Terror obviously knows exactly what its limitations are but it really doesn't care. It's nothing but a bunch of amateur gorehounds emulating the double bill with trailers concept done by Grindhouse, but condensed to a running time of under six and a half minutes, credits not included, and apparently without even a hint of a budget. I have to admire the sheer balls it takes to attempt something like this and submit to a film festival, but realistically they ended up with roughly what you might expect they ended up with: a fun little home video with terrible acting, bad aging effects and next to no plot, but also copious amounts of gore, backyard wrestling and offensive fun. These are probably exactly the sort of guys you want to hang out with at weekends but, to be brutally honest, if I made a film at the weekend I doubt I'd want to watch it at a film festival either.

The 'double feature' is Blood Wine and Reelestate Terror or, to be more accurate, Cody Cather's Blood Wine and Brandon Bond in Reelestate Terror, as there's more humour here than you might initially expect and these complete unknowns play up the cheesy antics of the stars pretty well. Blink and you'll miss a character named Bigot Tree. Blood Wine has an arguing couple walk in on a pair of cannibals mid-munch who promptly eat them too. Reelestate Terror has an agent show a house full of serial killers with inevitable effect, but he saves the day with his wrestling moves. In between the two is a trailer for a picture apparently called Jesus Christ Presents: You Suck at Life. Yeah, I said there's a lot of humour here. I didn't say that it's particularly deep. What would you expect from a picture with a credit thanking Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Lucio Fulci? Well that's exactly what you get here. You can't diss these guys for false advertising.

To be brutally honest, it's not a bad way to spend seven minutes if you're into this sort of thing. The wrestling is surprisingly capable and the gore is agreeably plentiful. I can't believe anyone could be bored when that seven minutes includes two separate stories and a trailer, jam packed full of grindhouse blatancy. It's not unfair to point out that there are ninety minute features out there with plots just as flimsy as these. On the other hand it can't be ignored that the production quality is so low that it approaches non-existent. It's obvious that the realtor's costume is a suit jacket on top of whatever metal shirt Brandon Bond showed up in. The lighting and sound are abysmal and I'd suggest the money all went on gore effects if I didn't believe that Cody Cather, Doug Gehl and their colleagues at The Terror Studios just pooled whatever cool props they had sitting in their closets already. As deep underground as it gets, on its own terms it's genius.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Shrunken Heads (1994)

Director: Richard Elfman
Stars: Aeryk Egan, Becky Herbst, A J Damato, Bo Sharon, Darris Love, Meg Foster and Julius Harris

For Full Moon Entertainment's first theatrical release, Charles Band pulled out all the stops and went totally weird, helped to no small degree by bringing in Richard Elfman to direct. No, it isn't as far out there as Forbidden Zone, but it really thinks about trying it. After all, the hero of the film, for all intents and purposes, used to be a colonel in the Tonton Macoutes, the brutal secret police in Haiti under Papa Doc Duvalier. Now Mr Sumatra is in New York, running a newspaper and comic book stand, practicing voodoo on the side. No wonder the local kids think he's scary. Blaxploitation legend Julius Harris has fun in his last film, goggling his eyes at every opportunity. If that isn't strange enough for you, Meg Foster is the butch lesbian head honcho of the criminal underworld, Big Moe. Oh, and the main characters are the reanimated shrunken heads of three children, which fly through the streets seeking revenge on the gang that killed them.

Initially it isn't this wacky. It begins like a fifties family movie, with the bad kids bullying the good kids and a love triangle linking the two sides. The good kids are Tommy Larsen, Bill Turner and Freddie Thompson and, inspired by superheroes like Superman and the Green Lantern, take an ill advised stand for the powers of truth, justice and the American way. First, they take down the bad kids, the Vipers, by filming them stripping a car bare and handing the footage to the police. Then, after Big Moe bails out her boys and has the good kids brought to her, they escape with all her number running slips. That leads to the inevitable conclusion: she has Vinny and his Vipers shoot them dead. We're under half an hour in and the heroes are no more. What's going to happen now? Well, Mr Sumatra happens. He bubbles up his big cauldron and cooks up his Haitian black magic and Tommy and his friends are back as vengeance crazed shrunken heads.

With all these elements, this story could get particularly dark and twisted, but the music refuses to let that happen. Richard Band's score has a notably light hearted edge to it, more so than his usual scores for his brother's films. Director Richard Elfman brought in his brother Danny too, to compose the film's theme. Every time the film gets gruesomely dark, such as when the shrunken heads murder a pair of bad guys trying to rape a woman in a dark alley, it's followed up with the joyous discovery that these malefactors are turned into neighbourhood conscious zombies who weed gardens and pick up trash. If we need the point hammered home that that this is far more of a fantasy than a horror movie, we never lose sight of the romance angle, between Tommy and Sally Conway, who wasn't even fifteen when he was murdered. Hey, if the tween girls can go for sparkling vampires, why can't the teen girls go for shrunken heads? It works for me.
The dialogue is also notably over the top, meaning that there's no possible way we can take any part of it the remotest bit seriously. That doesn't work too well for the kids, because it obviously isn't really them talking but what they've become, mere tools of vengeance. On the other hand, it works wonderfully for the adult leads, because they revel in the roles. Meg Foster is a bizarre but inspired casting choice for Big Moe because it's the sort of role you'd expect to see someone like Al Pacino play. She plays it surprisingly quietly, spending more attention on chomping cigars or placating Mitzi, her dizzy blonde plaything, than running her empire. That seems to be taken utterly for granted. It's easy to see just how much fun Foster was having as her eyes sparkle with every tough as nails line that she delivers, but I wish she'd had more to do. Especially given how completely unlikely her character is, she deserved more of an opportunity to build it.

Julius Harris got the screen time he needed and he dominates here. I've always felt that with his darker skin, creased face and cold dead stare, Harris looked tougher than most of his colleagues in the blaxploitation era, even when playing alongside far better known names like Ron O'Neal or Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson. He's perfect for the part of Mr Sumatra, however often writer Matthew Bright changed the tone of the picture. I've never been able to buy into him as a good guy on screen, but Mr Sumatra is so far from the regular sort of hero that he doesn't have that trouble here. Freaky, scary and magnetic all at once, he'd have been even better if this story had been played out as a serious horror film rather than a quirky romantic comedy fantasy. He's gifted with a few memorable moments. 'You can run but you can't hide,' is close to the most clichéd line in the book but he makes it his own, even more than Vernon Wells in Mad Max 2.

As a picture, this has to be a love it or hate it movie. I can imagine a lot of people not making it to the end, purely because of how wild it becomes, but I'm pretty sure that anyone who does will love it. It's almost the definition of an underground cult film. Bright grew up with the Elfmans and it shows in their films that they make a good team, but this isn't just theirs. It's obvious that they tried to make a Charles Band movie here, albeit with a good deal of their own quirkiness brought to the table, but it doesn't quite make it. There are Elfman elements and Full Moon elements but it ends up being neither, more of a bastard hybrid that stands unashamedly alone, in equal parts a fifties Disney movie, a cheesy horror flick, a mind trip comedy and a foul mouthed JD picture. Enjoy it, or Mr Sumatra will pluck out your tongues with bull cutters and roast them, and take your brains and chill them for the purposes of garnishment. You don't want that, do you?

Saturday 14 January 2012

Leviathan (1989)

Director: George P Cosmatos
Stars: Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson, Michael Carmine, Meg Foster, Lisa Eilbacher and Hector Elizondo

Given that tomorrow I'll be at DarkCon where I'll get the opportunity to meet Ernie Hudson and Meg Foster, it seemed appropriate tonight to watch the only picture they made together, a 1989 horror thriller set 16,000 feet underneath the Atlantic Ocean. It's not a great movie, hardly the peak of the few films George P Cosmatos directed. This came in between Rambo (the first one), Cobra and Tombstone and it really doesn't sit well in that company. Its good side is that a great cast mostly tries to elevate the material but the bad is that it only gets more and more derivative with each minute that passes, starting with an ill advised scene of suspense. For some reason we're supposed to thrill as a character two miles below the surface almost runs out of oxygen on his way back to base. It sounds good on paper but we have no idea who he or anyone else is at this point and so have zero emotional investment. We simply don't know enough to care.

Instead we quickly realise where the chief influences for the picture came from. The bottom of the sea in this film looks uncannily like the set of Aliens, especially with its shades of blue. The parallels with outer space continue, perhaps fairly given that it only takes a simple hurricane to apparently strand these people as far away from civilisation as if they were in space, but they're not taken in any new direction. With the crew's return to the habitat area of Mining Shack #7, we realise that we're watching Alien not Aliens and start wondering how the roles match up. Given the diverse make up of the crew, some are obvious. Ernie Hudson is Yaphet Kotto and Hector Elizondo is Harry Dean Stanton. Amanda Pays takes Veronica Cartwright's part and a relentlessly monotone Peter Weller is the geologist in charge, thus Tom Skerritt. Richard Crenna is the film's big unknown, so perhaps he'll turn out to be Sigourney Weaver. That's the real question, right?
As the story progresses, the similarities only proliferate. This is a mining expedition, just like the Nostromo. The crew locate a scuttled Russian ship called the Leviathan down at the ocean floor, rather than a derelict alien spaceship on a planetoid. It's certainly not on active duty in the Baltic where it's supposed to be. Of course they raid its safe for cool stuff, discovering that the crew's files are all marked deceased, and unwittingly bring back a monster that will grow and develop along with the running time and hunt down the crew members one by one. What would become the Weyland-Yutani company in the Alien franchise is the Tri Oceanic Mining Corporation here. The large comic relief crab looks uncannily like a facehugger and the underwater explosion plays out just like the alien egg puffball effect. The display screens are primitive, though the computer AI is sophisticated. There's even similar drool. I just wondered where Jones the cat was.

There are some minor differences, not that they add up to a heck of a lot in the grand scheme of things. My favourite is that at one point the monster bursts into a crew member's chest rather than out but the most interesting is the way it develops. In some ways it's a direct take on the creature in Alien, as expected, in others reminding more of The Thing, but there's a good deal of originality in the creature design, as much the concept behind it as the way it's constructed. That said, the creative vision of someone like H R Giger is notable only for its absence. The characters don't die in the order we expect, but that merely highlights how much more effective Dan O'Bannon's decisions were than those of scriptwriter David Webb Peoples here. This is far more conventional and predictable, the only surprise being that we don't get the strong female lead we expect. Again, that's a disappointment. The last few minutes are almost an Arnie flick.
The only real reason to watch the film is for the acting, but even there you're more likely to be disappointed than entertained. Weller is the most disappointing, but I wonder how fair that is. It's two years after RoboCop and he certainly seems to have forgotten that he was playing a human being again, but it's possible that he was deliberately evoking the deep ennui his character must have felt. The problem is that it's very hard to play bored and still keep the audience's attention. Here we wonder whether Peter Weller or his character, Steven Beck, is the most bored with the proceedings. Crenna plays Dr Glen Thompson like William Holden would, their physical similarity never seeming quite so strong as here, though facially he's more like an old Steve McQueen. The most prominent female member of the cast, Amanda Pays, is unfortunately given little to do and so she fails to achieve much more than demonstrate similar underwear to Sigourney Weaver.

Lower down the cast list, the acting is more solid because the characters are deliberately set up as character parts. Daniel Stern is suitably juvenile, Hector Elizondo suitably sharp, Ernie Hudson suitably heroic, Lisa Eilbacher suitably colourful and Michael Carmine somehow bizarrely both suitably calm and suitably hysterical, depending on the scene. That leaves Meg Foster to play up the villainy as the crew's corporate liaison on the surface. She's first shown at the other end of a videolink, so we hear her husky voice long before we see those famous blue eyes. She's smooth and bureaucratic and serves as the face to the faceless corporation, remaining infuriatingly calm as the story gets progressively frantic. In the end she starts to fit the Ian Holm role from Alien, so we wonder if she's going to turn out to be an android. The picture would have been much more entertaining if it decided to get that off the wall. Unfortunately it doesn't.

Friday 13 January 2012

Tinted Windows (2009)

Directors: Adam DeKraker
Stars: Toby Levin and Adam Halpin
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
Charlie apparently didn't have a great time at the party tonight. He's tired, his friends are jerks and he's going home. When he gets to his car though he finds someone outside it, someone who desperately wants a lift. He'll even pay a thousand bucks for a ride, apparently because he likes Charlie's tinted windows. Given that I saw Tinted Windows at a horror festival, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what the gimmick to this short is but it's a capable concept that's explained well by writer/director Adam DeKraker. Initially it felt stupid and overly simple, but every time I came up with a reason why it was dumb the characters promptly explained why it wasn't. By the time the credits rolled after eleven minutes of cat and mouse, I found myself admiring how ambiguous the stranger's character was. Is he really good at what he does or really bad at what he does? I could provide a decent case for either side and I like that.

There are only two actors in the film, played by Toby Levin and Adam Halpin, and while they aren't going to win Oscars any time soon they're natural actors who do credit to the material. In the same way that the story won me over against initial complaints, so did the actors. Charlie isn't particularly bright and his dialogue and demeanour reflect that, but Levin's acting helps to hammer that home: delivering occasionally repetitive lines without stage school aplomb makes him seem very real. Similarly Halpin plays the stranger well, his occasional imperfections initially noticed but then rationalised as just an imperfect role the character is playing. Again, is he really good or really bad? In fact the whole film is deceptively simple but could be read in many ways. The script may well be intended as a metaphor for unprotected gay sex, but it doesn't matter. Anyone whose interest is piqued will be able to find their own meaning in it.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Bloody Daisies (2009)

Directors: Cameron Kerr and David E White
Stars: David E White, Catarina de Castro and Cameron Kerr
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
Two men wait with daisies at the same fork in the road in the middle of nowhere. The thinner of the pair is the delightfully named Mitchell Lovenest, neatly but casually dressed and with an old school poet look and long hair. The larger one is Frank Winthrop, who made far less effort to look good with his Kojak T-shirt and shorts. He's early though and it's half an hour before he decides to talk to Mitchell and find out that they're waiting for the same girl, Daisy Tinkelbaum, who then appears out of nowhere and disappears back into nowhere, all without warning. She wants them to do something, but they don't know what. All they know is that there's a spade stuck into the ground in a clearing that wobbles with incentive and they have to figure out what it's for. Of course it becomes clear in the end, with a neat if not entirely unexpected twist to cap it off, but the journey becomes more interesting than the destination.

It's a patently low budget affair (the Dogme concept is cited) with occasionally dubious sound so dialogue can be hard to catch, especially from Catarina de Castro as Daisy, because when she talks she's deliberately obscured, visually and audibly, and it's often a little overdone. She's mostly a prop for the two men to banter against, and they do elevate the story with a notably playful sense of humour that keeps proceedings interesting with flashforwards, flashbacks and imaginary possibilities. The flashbacks are very reminiscent of early Guy Ritchie and the use of sound effects to highlight mood is more like a cartoon. What I found most intriguing is that apart from being thrust into the same situation, the two characters are utterly different, yet they're not just the co-stars of the film, they're the co-writers and co-directors too. What they conjure up runs too long at fourteen minutes, but otherwise is enjoyably quirky.

Shrove Tuesday (2009)

Director: Lee Andrew Matthews
Stars: Jayde Newman, Mark Newman, Gina Newman, Jeffrey Prewer, Alison Cochran, Poppy Matthews and Peter Dean
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
A long short film, Shrove Tuesday is fascinating viewing but it's also wildly inconsistent. Less a horror movie and more a fairy tale in the vein of the Brothers Grimm, it opens like a Punch and Judy show in rhyme. Its plot is as simple as a colourful warning for children to be careful when walking through the woods. There isn't much more than that as far as the story goes: Pancake Marion is a mythical boogeyman with a brief moment of sympathy that's promptly ignored: a child burned alive by villagers for being evil. She emerged to bite off their heads and become a myth, kept away only by an enchanted flower. If you pick that flower in Marionwood, you'll be promptly killed, like the drunken yokel who opens up the live action part of the film. To avoid horrible death, simply don't pick flowers. Naturally that's what people do in this film, but that's about it. We don't need to know anything more. Cue the fire and blood and gore and mayhem.

So the story is cute but hardly essential. What makes the film interesting is the visual style that it employs, which is highly unusual. A good part of it is rapid fire editing, common enough today as distraction, but there's a huge amount of effects too, as a real mixed media thing. A lot of CGI sits alongside modelwork and traditional animation. Much of it is live action, but with surprisingly few lines for anyone and even there it's often played out like a comic book, with a succession of freeze frames frozen in turn, often at stark anglesm and then zoomed into. This is only the most obvious, but the angles and effects are all reminiscent of print based design too. Much of the point seems to be to aim for mood rather than story and it succeeds best in some neatly framed cinematic images with great lighting, poetically shot in the Jean Rollin style. So there's much to watch and enjoy, with the mindset and feel of a Tiger Lillies song.

Unfortunately it's not consistent. Some of it is gorgeous, moody and effective, but some of it is also obviously and painfully cheap. I'm still not sure whether that's deliberate or not but it does cause us to wonder. Even the few characters are inconsistent. The one we see most of is a young girl obviously set up to be Little Purple Riding Hood, literally skipping through the forest to take something to her grandmother, setting us up for an admittedly gruesome fairy tale for kids. Yet before this we've got past the yokel at the beginning, who is rude and crude, even when talking drunkenly to Mr Worm and Mistress Bunny Rabbit. It's hard to picture the intended audience. Even the mayhem varies between highly stylised violence that wouldn't be out of place in that Punch and Judy style opening and outrageous gore that totally wouldn't. For a film that seems to revel in being everything at once, it's something to enjoy a few times but still be confused by.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Devil Dynamite (1987)

Director: Godfrey Ho
Stars: Mack Stuart, Walter Bond, Richard Phillips, Ted Wald, Eddie Leo and Mark Coston

A year before Robo Vampire, one of the most awesomely bad movies ever filmed, Hong Kong mashup maestro Godfrey Ho was at it again with Devil Dynamite. It has everything you could possibly want from a Godfrey Ho movie and more, if you're into that sort of thing. Most people aren't but Ho has become a surprising cult figure in film, perhaps because of the sheer blatancy he exhibited in patching his pictures together. He made over a hundred movies, but a pretty large percentage of the footage came from other Asian movies that he'd possibly bought the rights to, many of which hadn't been finished or released. Into this footage he'd splice newly shot scenes that only rarely pretended to have anything to do with the story at hand. In many ways they're just videos for ninja fetishists, people who believe that anything would be better if only it had a couple of colour coded ninjas. I'm not one of them but I'm building similar fetishes.

Needless to say, it's completely awful, but if you've seen Godfrey Ho movies before and you're stlil reading this then you're not going to care. This one is also courteous enough to get down to awesomeness even while the opening credits roll. A Taoist priest shows how awesome he is by juggling fire and leaping through a kata, but the token westerner with a beard, Ronald by name, renders him ineffective with a mere voodoo doll. The priest can't complain because Ronald is his boss for whom he's managing four hopping vampires or jiangshi. He's a particularly cut rate sort of boss for this sort of scenario but we should never forget that this is a Godfrey Ho movie. He's white and he has a beard, which is more than enough to make him a villain. I could have had a great career as a villain in Godfrey Ho movies. My beard is bigger, for a start, and I could easily manage scenes as complex as chuckling and asking henchmen to bring in new victims.

Meanwhile, outside are ninjas, leaping around in the dark. What sort of Godfrey Ho movie could it be without ninjas? Their job is to eliminate Steven Cox who, inconveniently for them, has just been released after ten years in prison, so they don't find him there. They slice up some of his fellow prisoners just because, but get promptly wiped out by the hopping vampires. It's all a test, you see. 'Vampires are undoubtedly the ultimate in efficient fighting killers,' explains the Taoist priest. 'No-one's able to stop them,' he adds, as he stops them with the traditional talisman to the forehead. Jiangshi fans can't complain about a lack of action here, and it continues with an attack on a restaurant, apparently to interrupt a couple of diners who want to explain to us who Steven Cox is. Unfortunately for the hopping vampires, one is a kung fu master called Tony and the other is Alex, who can instantly turn into a spaceman in a silver suit. I didn't see that coming.

I'd wondered about the Chinese RoboCop in Robo Vampire and I wondered here how a Chinese guy with an English accent can suddenly transform into a refugee from an Intel clean room. No explanation is offered and nobody seems to find it remotely unusual. Why would anyone ask? Well, as I discovered last night as Oriental Cinema's Damon Foster celebrated 30 years of metal heroes with a few key episodes of Space Sheriff Gavan, that this was an entire genre. This was a Japanese TV show that featured a lead character who could don a battle suit in a thousandth of a second through the aid of bizarrely explained technology and fight evil, and it inspired countless followers. RoboCop had a western storyline but was obviously inspired by the metal heroes from Japan and Godfrey Ho simply ripped off the ripoff. Asian audiences in 1987 couldn't avoid metal heroes so needed no explanation for why Alex can transform at will into Shadow Warrior.
Eventually we find out what the point of all this is. Steven Cox is a solid hero, a gambling king with a hidden treasure who knows kung fu and can dodge daggers thrown in the dark. However a decade ago he was betrayed by his lover, Madame Mary, the local queen of the underworld, who runs all the gambling in town and surely can't have been legal ten years earlier. Now she's trying to marry a cop called Louis who doesn't ever seem to work. Somewhere within this story is the gold, but I still haven't figured out how even after two viewings. Madame Mary knows where it is but doesn't go to get it, even though she put Cox away for a decade. What's more, he seems somehow surprised when she decides to do something about it. It almost seems that putting him in prison and sending hopping vampires to kill him is OK, but going after his gold after ten years of ignoring it is beyond the pale. Maybe it's just the inscrutable oriental mind at work.

More likely, it's just Godfrey Ho not paying too much attention to what he patched together. Like that's a surprise. Certainly this feels like it's all from two completely different movies, which of course it was. Brian Thomas, author of VideoHound's Dragon: Asian Action & Cult Flicks suggests that the half with Madame Mary, Louis and Steven Cox may be taken from Stunning Gambling, a 1982 Taiwanese picture. If it is, then it may even be the second time Godfrey Ho reused footage from that film, as in the year it came out he apparently edited it into Ninja, the Violent Sorceror as well. The other half of the picture, featuring all the other characters and all the supernatural elements, may or may not be entirely new but it's hard to tell. It makes so little sense that there may be multiple sources here too. Only Steven Cox makes it to both sides, but rarely and in dark scenes where I can't be convinced he's even played by the same actor.

Needless to say, logic takes a back seat so far in the back that it's out of sight. Of course I'm not going to expect logic in a Godfrey Ho picture, but some scenes come completely out of nowhere. About half an hour in there's a truly bizarre scene where zombie ninjas attack a children's party with a ghost girl and a fake hopping vampire kid. Enter Shadow Warrior from the ether, exit any semblance of sanity. In its place is the sort of disconcerting 'What did I just see?' moment where we wonder if someone changed the laws of physics and didn't feel it was worthy of mention. It's not often I have to rewind a movie to watch a scene again to confirm to my brain that I saw what I thought I saw, but this was definitely one of those. I couldn't even figure out exactly why some of what happens happens. Sure, I now understand the metal hero thing, but there seems to be a conspicuous Michael Jackson influence too. This metal hero moonwalks. Was I dreaming?

Of course, this is what draws a certain type of audience to Godfrey Ho movies to begin with, so we'd be disappointed if he didn't deliver. Devil Dynamite is short on sense but long on awesome. It's mostly free from the fatal flaw of many of his films, namely talky scenes inducing boredom. Instead it keeps up a steady supply of hopping vampires, ninjas, kung fu and blissfully surreal Taoist sorcery. I've long been a sucker for jiangshi, but the sparkling acupuncture conjurations the priest performs here to aid their recovery from battle led me to believe that every movie should contain a scene of Taoist sorcery. I guess it took me this long to realise that it's what Gone with the Wind was really lacking! I think I could watch a Nicolas Cage movie without crying if only there was Taoist sorcery to distract me! If only Michael Bay could learn from Godfrey Ho! The Ed Wood of Asia was never coherent but he instrinsically understood insane awesomeness.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

Director: Eli Craig
Stars: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden and Jesse Moss

For about five minutes, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is the clichéd and stereotyped nonsense I had a sneaking feeling it was going to be, from the little I knew about it beforehand. Tucker and Dale are creepy rednecks passed on an Appalachian country road by a bunch of college kids. You won't be surprised to find that the girls are gorgeous, the guys are assholes and they're all about beer, sex, dope and bad fireside ghost stories. Ally is the lead hot blonde chick. Chad is the lead asshole. You've seen this a hundred times before, down to every little detail. It's only the names that ever change, right? Well, what changes here is that the rednecks are the heroes. It's outside Last Chance Gas that Dale is shown to be a sympathetic lead. It's when he builds his confidence up to approach the girls and smile and laugh with a scythe in his hand that it gets funny. By the time they're pulled over by a deputy with Dale's head in Tucker's lap, it becomes priceless.

And it stays that way for most of the picture. I laughed my way through this on the big screen and I enjoyed it just as much at home second time around. Partly it's because it's your standard slasher movie turned entirely on its head. Partly it's the way proceedings, including all the gory death scenes you expect, are set up through an inventive set of misunderstandings. Partly it's just because the roles are refreshingly reversed. The rednecks, usually the characters to fear or fight in pictures like this, are the sympathetic heroes. The college kids, far from being either the sympathetic victims or the focus of the story, are mere idiots who deserve everything they get, especially when they pay attention to Chad, the ostensible leader of the pack whose dream must be to get voted onto the island in Lord of the Flies. Those of us who realise that the real serial killers are forgettable normal people see how utterly everyday he is, right down to his inhaler.
This whole concept works wonderfully, brought gloriously to life by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, who are magnetic and engaging in the title roles. I've been a fan of Tudyk for a while now, most obviously from Whedonverse shows like Firefly and Dollhouse but also as far back as A Knight's Tale. I only know Labine from the TV show Reaper, which I gave up on quickly even though he and Ray Wise were superb in that show. Had the humour in it been more like the humour here, I'd probably have loved it. I'm somehow surprised to find that that was far from the first thing Labine has done but he'd apparently been acting on screen for sixteen years before that. He's much older than he looks. He certainly shows his experience here, making a great double act with Tudyk. Their timing is impeccable, whether they're merely lying in the dirt or running with chainsaws, and especially in the tender moments when they're even more hilarious than ever.

They dominate proceedings here, to the degree that almost everyone else in the picture fades into the background as much as the trees. Only Allison is truly noticeable, in the stylish form of Katrina Bowden, currently going strong on TV's 30 Rock. You could call her the love interest, but only if you read the film as the routine slasher it isn't. She manages to endow her role with much more than just her looks, which are certainly pleasing to the eye. She's also the film's MacGuffin, as her apparent kidnap by Tucker and Dale, who merely saved her from drowning, is what drives the story forward for all the other characters. She could have done exactly the same thing with a fraction of the screen time and as much as I enjoyed looking at her every time she appeared on screen, I wonder if the film might have gained an edgier tone if she didn't do it as often, even as far as only appearing at the beginning and the end.
That leaves Jesse Moss, another surprisingly experienced young actor, to guide us into the more traditional side of the story as Chad, the psycho college kid. Maybe three quarters of the way in, we find that a few hints dropped early on aren't merely flavour because they coalesce into a plot that's recognisable as a traditional slasher story. Unfortunately this just isn't as much fun as the main approach the film takes. Thus far we've loved the twisted logic of the story, the slasher flick turned on its head. We realise that it makes just as much sense, if not more sense, than most of the cheesy slasher movies we've seen and it pushes us into wondering if we should view them in the future with the different perspective of this film in mind. What if what we see isn't reality but really perceived reality, seen through the eyes of supposed victims? Jason Voorhees was always a little sympathetic. How much perspective shift would we need for Freddy Krueger to join him?

So after changing our perspectives so agreeably, it feels disappointing when the writers, Morgan Jurgenson and Eli Craig, seem to back it up a little and try to change them back again, at least somewhat. It does give them the opportunity to wrap up the story but it felt to me like the easy way out and everything achieved up until that point deserved a better finalé. The large stack of conveniences needed to set up and finish off this side of the story comes far too quickly, mostly in a single overblown scene that's reminiscent of a Scooby Doo ending and it feels unworthy. I'm not sure what a good finalé would have been, given that the necessary build up to a deeper, more crafted finish would surely eat into the character and humour of the main thrust of the film, which is its greatest success, but I can't help but feel that it isn't what we're given. Fortunately it isn't difficult to shrug off after perhaps 80 minutes of the funniest gore movie since Brain Dead.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Shaolin vs Frankenstein (2012)

Director: Nam Ki-nam
Star: Shim Hyung-rae

Here's a first for Apocalypse Later. This isn't just an obscure movie, it's an obscure movie that I'm in. So is my wife. And my stepson. Even his ginger teddy bear of a BFF. Well, we're sort of in this film. You could hardly call us actors. Damon Foster, editor of the glorious and long running Oriental Cinema magazine, took three forgotten Korean comedy features starring Shim Hyung-rae as an apparently retarded hero called Young Gu, recut them into a single ninety minute film with a new story that pokes fun at the originals while staying surprisingly close to the spirit of them, stripped the original language soundtrack and brought in a varied set of voice actors to record new dialogue in English. As I found out here, as I debuted as a voice actor, it isn't as easy as it looks. Some of my lines came out OK and I did get a delightfully inappropriate nuance into one dubious scene, but I learned enough to know I'd do most of it a little differently next time.
There are two things to know about Shaolin vs Frankenstein. One is that it's not a good movie but it hardly pretends to be. The second is that it's full to the brim with pure and unadulterated awesomeness. I couldn't help but imagine a trailer for it done in true fifties drive-in style with a host of text banners hurled up onto the screen. 'Vampires! Werewolves! Dinosaurs! Zombies! Aliens! It's the whole Universal Union of Monsters in a Kung Fu Bonanza! Thrill as a Shaolin monk takes on Frankenstein's monster! Recoil in terror as the mighty Yongary stomps buildings, downs planes and destroys helicopters! Sigh at Count Dracula, Vampira and their hopping vampire son! Be amazed by the Flying Japanese Superhero, the Golden Bat! Lust after those Beautiful Girls, the Eurasian Granddaughters of Van Helsing!' You know that few movies ever lived up to such huckster advertising but this comes close, as long as the awesomeness is all you're looking for.

As a story, this is an inventive melding of three Young Gu movies from the early nineties which faded quickly away into obscurity because, as Foster points out on the extra 'Behind the Scenes' featurette on the DVD, even Koreans didn't find them funny. As he tells it, two thirds of them are nothing but really juvenile toilet humour that even he, a dedicated Asian movie buff, found nigh on impossible to get through. He left in a few fart and pee jokes and started everything out with outrageously inappropriate gay humour but for the most part, all that filler is thankfully history. What he kept are the awesome bits, namely the monsters, the kung fu and the action. He then found a way to merge the similar but generally unrelated storylines together to draft out a new story that makes something close to coherent sense, at least in the world of awesome movies. I don't think there's a single realistic frame in the whole thing, but it still makes insane sense.

How's this for an awesome concept? An alien monster called Andromeda King and his new wave coiffured sidekick are creating the Universal Union of Monsters. They revive Chiun Dracula, the Eurasian grandson of Count Dracula, and his family, a flying vampire bride and their delightfully cute guansi son. They arrive at a creepy house on Jackie Chan Mountain with a werewolf butler to resurrect Frankenstein's monster, but instead they spend their time kidnapping the Eurasian granddaughters of their hereditary enemy Van Helsing. Meanwhile the giant monster Yongary and his kawaii baby dinosaur son have been raised by a zombie boss to wreak terror and stomp stuff. Pledged to stop them is the Golden Bat, a skull faced flying mummy from Atlantis who can fight like the best of them but who relies instead on the good heart of bumbling retard Young Gu and his brother, a Shaolin monk with every speech impediment in the book.
I'd love to see the original Young Gu movies to find out just how much of this glorious insanity is really there. After all, every bit of footage we see is entirely untouched, only the soundtrack and order of scenes being altered. More accurately, I really want to see the first of the three, 1989's Young Gu and Deng Chili, also known as Young Gu vs Count Dracula, because that's where all the monsters come from, along with the Shaolin monk. I'm even more intrigued because Deng Chili is apparently a dog, the Korean version of Lassie, whose footage was cut completely out of this reworking. The second source picture is Young Gu and the Golden Bat from 1992, which also looks interesting, because of the flying superhero, the swordfighting and and its intriguing pair of villains. However 1993's Young Gu and the Dinosaur Juju looks extremely painful because the good bits aren't even good and they're totally repetitive.

To be fair to the original filmmakers, there are some great shots in those first two movies. Some of the movements of the vampire bride and the werewolf are superbly shot and even their poses are often great fun. The baby guangsi is a delight, but then I'm a sucker for hopping vampires. Many of the fight scenes are well staged, albeit in a pulp manner. Yet I'm hard pressed to find a single shot of the dinosaurs that isn't embarrassing. An actor in a rubber suit stomping on a city is always fun for a while but this is neither a good suit nor a good city and even cut down to the good bits, these scenes just run on and on. I can't imagine how tiring they must feel with all the bad bits put back in. They're the biggest problem to Foster's merging of three stories into one as they slow down the pace considerably. I don't care about cardboard sets, plot conveniences and Scooby Doo logic in a film like this, but boring bits are unforgiveable.

Fortunately Foster keeps them to a minimum and, like all the various movies he's resurrected in this sort of fashion, he deserves the majority of credit. He found the source material, edited it all together and wrote the new script, including all the jokes. He even provided what must be half the voices, including the main ones. That's a lot of work and it took him a couple of years to get it to the point of release. We voice actors just showed up and added some dialogue for him to edit in. I played a couple of smaller parts, including the white hatted henchmen of the zombie boss, and I did OK, I guess, for a first attempt. My wife is Dracula's bride. My stepson nailed a few of his roles, including a helicopter pilot and a newsreader, and stretched his vocal talents as a cool character called Unleashed Wickedness. Some voice actors had a little more experience to bring to bear and Paul Hemmes and Kim Wagner in particular did great jobs.
I loved the whole experience of being part of this project and thank Damon for inviting me and my family to join in. Hopefully I'll get to do something similar again on a future picture where I can continue to improve and build some character into my parts the way some of my more experienced colleagues succeeded in doing here. If only Damon could clone himself a hundred times, I could do this sort of thing every weekend. It sure beats overtime at work and I'm sure there are plenty of other obscure movies sitting on Damon's shelves that are worthy of bringing back to some sort of prominence. I certainly need to watch some of the other pictures that he's already done, including Monkey War and Shaolin vs Terminator. I've seen Young Flying Hero, aka Return of the Magic Serpent, which was often fun but much slower and less full of awesomeness than this one. Naturally I'll post reviews here when I catch up with them. Thanks again, Damon!

Shaolin vs Frankenstein will be available for purchase at Damon Foster's World later this year. Already there are highly recommended back issues of Oriental Cinema magazine and many previous Damon Foster films.

Snakes in a Boardroom (2007)

Director: Paul DeNigris
Stars: Lindsey Marlin, Brian Ronalds, Steve Briscoe and Bruce Nelson

The most obvious downside to Snakes in a Boardroom is that you can write it yourself just from the title. Yes, it's exactly what you expect: Steve Briscoe is back as a clueless exec at Pairemup Studios who wants his less clueless assistants, played by Lindsey Marlin and Brian Ronalds, to conjure up something to cash in on the success of Snakes on a Plane. It gets silly, very silly, not that you expect anything different. The most obvious upside to Snakes in a Boardroom is that it somehow succeeds in being funny nonetheless. It's funnier than Saturday Night Live nowadays, but then again I'm not sure if that has any meaning any more. Briscoe co-wrote the script with Mitch Abbott and director Paul DeNigris and what I wonder most is how drunk they all were at the time. This could be an example of a picture that doesn't have a 'making of' documentary to go with it as the two films would be exactly the same except for the presence of beer in the latter.

The fourth face in Snakes in a Boardroom is Bruce Nelson, who has a blast acting out brief snippets from each theorised cash-in that the Pairemup trio come up with. No, he doesn't do anything remotely surprising, but yes, he's funny as all get out and I'd happily pay to see him in Beavers on a Bullet Train, if only we weren't five years too late for it to be remotely topical. Given that this short was made in 2007, it was already running a little late, which has to be the reason why it didn't go viral on YouTube. I checked. I was only the 21,176th viewer, which is nowhere near enough and kids wouldn't understand it today. After all, Snakes on a Plane would probably seem like the height of imagination in a world where Hollywood is adapting Battleships for the big screen, remaking The Rocky Horror Picture Show and indulging in a bidding war for the rights to Asteroids. Too much material, too little time...

Envy (2007)

Director: Paul DeNigris
Stars: Vince Reign, Lindsey Marlin and Steve Briscoe

I think the biggest problem with Envy is that it doesn't try to do much. It's a professional little short and it's hard to fault in any way, but there's so little to work with that it doesn't matter. After the ambitious energy of The Long Shot and the deliciously dry wit of Stabbing Stupidity, it feels disappointing, even though I now recognise everyone involved. In fact all three actors were in Stabbing Stupidity, though Vince Reign only had a single line in that film. He's half of a young couple here with Lindsey Marlin, who move into his parents' house now that they're gone, under surprising circumstances. The omnipresent Steve Briscoe is the homicide detective who explains just how surprising, but we quickly find out the details for ourselves. Given that Envy only has three minutes to set up, explain and finish off the entire piece, you can imagine how quickly but it still isn't rushed. Marlin delivers a great last pair of lines, but it isn't enough to save this one.

Stabbing Stupidity (2006)

Director: Paul DeNigris
Stars: Lindsay Marlin, Steve Briscoe, Louie Palmieri, Vince Reign and Laura Durant

Stabbing Stupidity is a lot shorter than The Long Shot, running about four minutes plus credits, but it's the peach of the shorts on the Cowboy Dreams DVD. In fact it's one of the best short films I've seen in a long time and I've screened a hundred of them in the last month. The concept is simple, centred on a young lady called Janet who has been conned into dinner with her highly inappropriate boss but finds an escape in her imagination. Writer Steve Briscoe and director Paul DeNigris riff on it superbly in a variety of ways and I still had a grin on my face on my fourth time through. Briscoe dominates here, not just because he wrote the script and its delightfully playful dialogue, but because he plays the boorish boss too with his Playboy cufflinks and even gets to sing over the end credits. DeNigris plays with technique from behind the camera, almost as an unseen dance partner with the leading lady, Lindsey Marlin, who shines through the fourth wall.

There's much worthy of praise here, but what I found most impressive was the fact that Stabbing Stupidity could so easily have spun way out of control, just because of how fun it was. This could have been a four minute film stuck in a twenty minute running time, but it isn't. It's lean and not a second longer than it should be. One of the biggest indicators for out of control filmmaking is when the director gets to edit his own picture, as DeNigris does here, because it gives them free rein to shoot as much as they like and leave in as much as they like. Usually that's a bad idea, but here DeNigris proves the exception to the rule. It plays out like clockwork. Almost every line does something, whether it be to build character, hit a punchline or set up a gimmick. Marlin and Briscoe hit every mark like professional comedians and DeNigris is right there to underline them. It's an exercise in technique, simultaneously violent and hilarious, and women will love it.

The Long Shot (2006)

Director: Paul DeNigris
Stars: Christopher Loftus, Christine Bierman and Michael DeNigris

After The Hard Way, which almost felt like a two minute clip from a longer movie, The Long Shot felt more like an entire feature crunched professionally down into nineteen minutes. It's a really ambitious picture however you look at it, not least that it's a long short. It has a large cast, which includes quite a few faces I recognise from the local film scene. While few of them get much time to develop characters, the script helps a surprisingly large amount of them do that. The story is a strong one with a clear progression, story arcs for more than one character and even room for a silent segment in which words aren't needed to explain what's going on. The camera moves well and there was obviously a lot of time spent in the editing room to segue the many cuts together. It's notable that the camera speed changes with the story: initially it's slow and smooth as things start to come together, but gets frantic when they go south again. It feels like it could be studied.

We follow Matt, a college football star fallen on hard times because of gambling. He owes two hundred large and he has no way out of the mess he's in. That's until Jim gives him a tip that he shouldn't ignore: just one more bet and he'll be free and clear. Of course, if it was that simple, this wouldn't run nineteen minutes and Matt gets to work his way through more ups and downs than you might expect in a feature length movie. I really liked this one. The dialogue is clever: often humorous, often serious and often switching from one to the other in a flash. The story is careful to set up certain expectations, some of which lead us in certain directions, others away from them, but all cleverly enough to ensure that the ending is both expected and surprising. The script was obviously crafted. A second viewing highlights many lines that make sense first time through but have double meanings revealed only with hindsight.

In fact, it's so consistently good that it's hard to find fault. Sure, a few performances may have benefitted from another take here and there, but it's obvious that everyone's having fun and that's contagious. Christopher Loftus is a capable lead, earning his only credit at IMDb, but he's outshone by the story he's careened through. Christine Bierman is good as his girlfriend but she isn't the focus of the picture. Michael DeNigris is a little tongue tied on occasion playing a gem of a character called Salvatore 'The Razor' Giletti, whose name alone tells you everything you want to know about him. He has perhaps more fun than anyone in the cast though, with a few asides that show great timing. In a much smaller role, Bivas Biswas shines as a bookie playing chess in the Arizona heat. The scale of the production means that they're all really part of an ensemble cast adding different textures to a solid story, which is the big winner here.