Monday, June 24, 2019

Mars Needs Moms (& Dads)

When I hear “Invaders From Mars,” the first things that come to my mind are raw hamburger meat and Grandmother Foxworth bellowing out vowels. Released in 1986, Tobe Hooper’s remake of William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 sci-fi film is just weird enough to have cast a very deep impression on young me. It’s a mixed bag of a film, filled with some dark concepts and style that never quite fit with its youth-targeted market.

I’ve always been curious about the hard-to-find original, which is finally easily available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Quick Plot: Young David MacLean has his head in the stars. This happens when your dad is a scientist and you keep a long-range telescope in your bedroom. One stormy night, David sees what can only be a UFO landing in the field just behind his house. His parents are dubious, but Dad heads outside to take a look, returning the next morning in a stone-faced manner unfitting his previously gentle disposition. 

David is suspicious, and with good reason. From his window, he witnesses his younger neighbor Kathy disappear in the same place his dad headed, seemingly sucked into the ground before returning to burn down her own home and dying of an aneurysm. Clearly, something from another world (in the pronunciation of 1953, “mew-tahnt”) has come to do some damage, but the warnings of a 10-year-old are hardly believable…especially as more and more authority figures fall victim to the same cursed sand pit.

Thankfully, David finds a few allies in the sympathetic Dr. Blake and scientist Dr. Kelston, who are able to convince the Scorsese-browed colonel and mount an attack. The race is on to free those already infected by Martian probes (including both of David’s parents and a few key members of military personnel) and send the leader (depicted here as a silent by big-eyed gold-painted head with tentacles encased in a glass fishbowl) back to the stars.

Made in 1953, Invaders From Mars lacks the deeper intensity and societal smarts as something like Them! or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s not quite the type of throwaway lightweight space thriller better served by Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes, Richard Blake’s screenplay essentially opens and closes with a kid saying “gee whiz”, but the film taps into something dark when David’s parents, introduced so lovingly, morph as they do. Director William Cameron Menzies finds some truly impressive ways to shoot, creating a sort of expressionist art deco style that makes the action memorable. Sure, the alien slaves are silly-looking doughy extras in green bodysuits, but there are some clear visual choices that elevate Invaders From Mars amid its timely limitations.

High Points
Authority figures not believing kids is an age-old trope for good reason, and Invaders From Mars manages to make it a deeply effective tool. We’re fully with David as he plays Chicken Little, making the introduction of Dr. Blake and Kelston such a comfort at exactly the right time.

Low Points
I love a montage as much as the next simple-minded movie fan, but when you get to the third “U.S. military assembling to patriotic music” segment in a 75 minute long film, it’s a tad exhausting

Lessons Learned
1950s suburban moms slept in heavier makeup than 2019 Hallmark Christmas movie leads

If there’s one thing the fire department can’t do, it’s put out a fire

When trying to avoid saying “dead” to kids, substitute my new favorite expression: “like Kathy”

There are certainly more powerful sci-fi flicks from this era, but Invaders From Mars is indeed worth a watch in 2019. The visuals are special, and there’s an ageless charm to the utter 1950s-ness of it all. Where else can you get a squid head Martian god in under 80 minutes?

Monday, June 17, 2019

When Death Race Meets Bartertown

So there's the Roger Corman-produced Death Race, which somehow took 33 years to be remade into a bland Paul W.S. Anderson/Jason Statham muted action vehicle, which then got a sequel/prequel that nobody saw, followed by another sequel/prequel that I didn't know happened, then a more direct sequel/reboot of the original film made with full zany Trumpian overtones in 2017, and then, because life is sometimes very confusing, a direct (maybe?) sequel to the 2008 movie.

I know I complain an awful lot about the confusingly sequenced Fast & the Furious franchise, but the Death Race series makes those look perfectly linear.

Quick Plot: In the near future sometime after Death Race 2008 but before Death Race 2050, unemployment and crime rates are at an all-time high. America meets the call by privatizing prisons to the extreme. The largest maximum security facility has been dubbed "The Sprawl" and is set up more Escape From New York than No Escape. New prisoners, both male and female, are dropped into the hot zone to serve out the rest of their lives in a Mad Max-ish hellscape ruled by the masked Death Race champion, Frankenstein.

Having missed the middle two installments of Anderson's series, I have no idea if this Frankenstein is a holdover from the rest of the series, or exactly what Danny Trejo's casino captain has to do with any of it. What I do know is that Frankenstein is voiced by the actor who plays Spencer Hastings' dad on Pretty Little Liars, and that's important.

Frankenstein, however, is not the hero (and honestly, might not actually be the villain, though I'm still unsure) of Death Race: Beyond Anarchy. That title falls to Connor Gibson (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Zach McGowan), a mysterious convict who glistens without a shirt and asserts his position in the next round of Death Race by plowing through a gaggle of other eager contestants. 

With the help of Danny Glover (yes, seriously) and a fun but completely undeveloped female navigator named Brexie, Connor takes on Frankenstein for control of The Sprawl. Meanwhile, in the free world, Danny Trejo organizes some gambling brackets while a senator and warden hedge their own bets on Connor while watching a Death Race stream via the Dark Web.

There's a fair amount going on in Death Race: Beyond Anarchy, which is perhaps why this Death Race movie runs nearly two hours. Directed by Don Michael Paul (he of such notable genre sequels as Lake Placid: The Final Chapter and Tremors 5: Bloodlines), it's far more fun than the 2008 version, but comes nowhere near the insane satirical pleasures of the Malcolm McDowell camping it up for the cheap seats. 

Points for Paul’s ambition, which spans a batch of creative action sequences well before we even get to the slightly anticlimactic titular vehicular obstacle course. If anything, the breadth of wacky characters feels like a lost opportunity. From Cassie Clare’s Aunty Entity-is Brexie to the badass bus driver Matilda the Hun, Death Race: Beyond Anarchy is populated with some disappointingly untapped potential. 

That being said, I’d be welcoming of another entry, more so if it found more time for its quirkier sensibilities. 

High Points
For a movie about a coed prison filled with the worst of the worst, I suppose I should be thankful that Death Race: Beyond Anarchy avoids any real dalliance with sexual assault

Low Points
And yet, for a movie about a coed prison filled with the worst of both sexes, it's pretty unfair that every frame is from the heterosexual male gaze

Lessons Learned
In the future, global warming will make weather so confusing that you'll need a winter hat and an open chest hoodie

Dystopian prisons lack many amenities, but heavy black eye makeup is not one of them

You can never really know which skills will keep you alive in future prison, but if Death Race is telling the truth, the following will prove valuable: music, fire throwing, bartending, unicycling, and decapitating

For an extremely violent future-set action flick, Death Race: Beyond Anarchy has enough decapitated heads-as-props to keep you entertained, though the 110+ minute running time could have been easily shaved for better pacing. I'd still go with the original, or G.J. Echternkamp’s 2017 version to scratch that campier fun itch, but this is at least more enjoyable than the 2008 film. 

Monday, June 10, 2019


As Netflix overproduces its own content to push out the old and Amazon opens a bigger well for cheap modern films, we as fans have to work a little harder to locate genre films made last millennium. If you want to go back even further, TCM Underground becomes a fertile source every now and then. 

Quick Plot: In 1890, a mad (and particularly snooty) doctor treats his pregnant wife's supposed mental illness with a unique blend of science and snake venom. She dies just after giving birth to a dead daughter, who then comes back to life unprompted by her father or the local midwife witch.

Upon hearing the news, the townspeople riot, quickly assembling their torches to destroy the doctor and his demon spawn. The daughter is saved just in time and put in the care of a steely shepherd, who is happy for her to disappear into the woods once she begins creeping out his dog. 

Some twenty years or so later, a young detective is sent to investigate the village, as several corpses have turned up filled with king cobra venom. Could the young woman be haunting the town that spurned her? There's only one way and a whole lot of angry mobs to find out!

Released in 1961, The Snake Woman feels a tad too early for its own good. Had it been a few years later, you get the sense that it would be sexier and more dangerous than its simple ghost story by way of herpetology suggests. Had the story fallen into the hands of Hammer or Amicus, we'd feel the haunting sexuality that a serpent woman screams for. Heck, had it come out ten years earlier, perhaps there would be a stronger, more haunting Val Lewton-esque quality. 

The early '60s British horror game just doesn't really accommodate a concept like The Snake Woman to its fullest potential. The film is perfectly watchable and thankfully quickly paced, but it just doesn't scratch that itch that you want addressed when dealing with sexy cobra ghost girls. 

High Points
In its 80 minute run time, the village of Bellingham assembles its torch-wielding local mob more times than 29 years of Simpsons episodes, and that's impressive

Low Points
Perhaps part of my apathy for The Snake Woman stems from the fact that the movie never really settles on whose story it's telling. The titular female doesn't get much screen time, while the leading man is dropped into the story a good third of the way through. Perhaps centering the tale on one dynamic character might have added some much needed pop

Lessons Learned
To save on production cost, consider casting your shepherd with a musician who can do double duty by playing the wood flute

Being the living proof of a scientist's theories is far more important than being a simple child

Supernatural snake women shed their skin in one clean body suit

I recorded The Snake Woman off of TCM, and it worked perfectly fine as a watch for my mood for something a little different than what you find streaming in the horror section of most services these days. That being said, the film just doesn't pack any real punches. Human suit and angry mobs aside, I double I'll remember much of this movie down the line.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Not a Visual Medium

To understand my feelings on Hell House LLC, you could take a quick trip down recent memory lane and read my review of The Houses October Built. Though the newer film focuses on the people that make haunts and THOB follows its fans, they both kind of hate their audience, or just feel as if we're unworthy of actually seeing anything.

Shaky cam is entirely understandable in found footage as a storytelling device, but when you have actual human beings who are going to WATCH (or try to) your movie, maybe find another way to express chaos and fear. Likewise, while it's entirely believable that a group of twentysomething friends might all be white, it's also entirely uninteresting when every single member of the cast--and this includes supporting characters and extras--is white, don't you, as a filmmaker, at SOME point look back and notice that?

Also, like 90% of found footage or slashers focusing on young-ish characters, everyone is awful and the world is no worse for their deaths.

Guys, I might be a little grumpy.

Quick Plot: One year ago, a mysterious massacre occurred at an upstate New York Halloween haunt. Some leaked youtube videos and camera footage have left clues as to what went down, but it remains a closed case until a documentary film crew decides to investigate.

Heading to the site of the slaughter, the crew interviews local historians to piece together the events leading up to the tragedy. It seems the hotel was showing signs of being haunted all through the setup, but the team's leader was too brazen to quit. The sole survivor of the original haunt's staff drops off one last round of footage, but naturally, by the time the filmmakers get through it, it's once again too late.

Written and directed by Stephen Cognetti, Hell House LLC sits right in the middle of the found footage pile of recent horror films. It has a decent setup and smartly leans into the simple truth that clown mannequins are creepy to lend some atmosphere, but its insistence on being, I guess, truthful to the experience of a scared victim wielding a camera in times of trouble is simply annoying. I'm not one to experience motion sickness while watching a movie, but I found myself deliberately looking away from the screen on more than one occasion because the shakiness was genuinely unpleasant to watch.

Worse, Hell House LLC doesn't redeem itself with anyone worth rooting for. Like virtually every other found footage horror movie made in the last ten years, all of our leads are bland white twentysomethings (I'm fairly certain the only people of color in the whole film are clowns) who behave like an unholy combination of frat boys and hipsters. I couldn't tell anyone apart, and hence felt absolutely nothing when anyone went missing. How could I even know who was who? 

I'd heard good things about Hell House LLC, and I suppose found footage diehards will find what they're looking for. If, of course, they can actually see anything...

High Points
While it would have been nicer to actually SEE them, I will say that Cognetti has some good instincts when it comes to staging scares...

Low Points
You know, if only we could SEE them

Lessons Learned
Never remain friends with a group of young white people who decide to film themselves, not because you'll almost inevitably die in a blur, your last words being, "What the f*ck," but more because if two decades of found footage horror has taught me anything, it's that young white people who enjoy filming themselves are almost certainly an awful combination of bland and rude

I pretty much hated the experience of watching Hell House LLC, but I recognize that it's a decent entry into the low standards set by found footage. It has some good setup and a few nice jump scares, and it seems as though many in the horror community have embraced it. Both this film and its sequel are streaming on Shudder.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Wet Hot Soviet Summer

Horror movies set at summer camp aren't usually known for their plot complexity, making today's feature a pleasant enough surprise. 

Quick Plot: Teenager Adam awakens covered in black slime and mysterious scars inside a boarded up summer camp infirmary with a couple of corpses keeping him company. While his memory seems to be wiped, a driver's license and some of his own hand-written notes help him piece together the events that led him to this point.

Here's a somewhat linear account of Adam's findings: in the 1980s, Soviet scientists conducted experiments in the aim of harnessing the "hive mind" possibilities inherent in humanity. Bad things happened, and the findings were sealed until some thirty years later when a neurosurgeon (Sean Gunn!) decided to explore the same phenomenon, reopening the files which were then hijacked by the original scientist.

As for Adam, life is less interesting: he's a horny camp counselor decent at seducing his coworkers (including best bud Chad's girlfriend Jess). He tries to tame his ways once he (literally) bumps into sweet anti-cursing Katie, but his romance agenda gets interrupted when a plane crashes nearby. The quartet ride out to investigate, only to encounter a mysteriously zombie-like passenger who pukes some infectious goo on the ill-fated Jess.

With the power down and seemingly no other adults employed at the camp, the group attempts to stay calm amid the chaos, eventually remembering that they're in charge of some 150 children. Possessed Jess stirs the pot, throwing everyone into some dark spaces as the Russian theory of interconnectivity proves dangerously real.

That's a lot of plot for a 90 minute horror movie streaming on Amazon Prime, which is both The Hive's central strength and weakness. When I see a synopsis of such a film that mentions camp counselors, I'm not expecting Inception-levels of complexity. The Hive plays a lot with its timeline, keeping us on the same playing field as Adam as he tries to put things together. It's done quite well, and helps to make what would otherwise be a fairly bland, unlikable character into someone worth following.

At the same time, the constant time jumping and hints of a worldwide infection can't fully compensate for the fact that Adam and Chad are awful people who should in no way be put in charge of kids. 

Directed by James Gunn pal David Yarovesky (he of the newly released Brightburn), The Hive is of far higher quality than its lack of a reputation might suggest. Its cover, synopsis, and placement on Amazon Prime do not suggest any real standards, but it's a surprisingly creative story with decent execution. Had its central characters been a hint more interesting, this movie could have been something genuinely special.

High Points
As much as I would have rather this movie not be about a douchey teenage dude, actor Gabriel Basso does a darn good job, especially considering the challenges when half of your dialogue is your character talking to himself

Low Points
There are certainly highs to find in an ending (mild spoiler) that gives an a rather out-of-nowhere apocalypse, but it's hard to feel anything from it when the movie hasn't really earned that level of grandeur

Lessons Learned
Never enroll your child in summer camp without thoroughly researching the teenage sadists who will be in control

Swearing too much makes you sound stupid

Brooms and baseball bats are decent weapons for self-defense, but when you really get down to it, nothing beats a full a roll of Saran Wrap

The Hive is an impressive feat for such an under the radar horror movie. It never fully grabbed me (probably due to focusing on some pretty bland and awful teenagers) but it's smartly written, well-acted, and genuinely unique in the story it tells. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Snake Eyes

We don’t think of the early 2000s as being any major movement in the horror genre. Following the glossy late ‘90s trend of attractive WB Network stars posed in V-shapes, segueing into the post-millennium boom of J-horror’s American takeover, it was only a matter of time before horror tapped into a meaner, grislier bone (or used a rusty saw blade to grind it off). Torture porn moved mainstream horror cinema into a different direction, which helped to shape the straight-to-video fare like today’s Open Graves.

Filmed in 2006, dropped on the SyFy channel in 2009, and pooped out on DVD by Lionsgate another year later, Open Graves is one of those perfectly ridiculous movies that combines wonky CGI with hot young people in a gloriously terrible way.

Also, it’s basically Jumanji with an occasional boob.

Quick Plot: A pre-credits sequence piles on a messy montage of random torture during the Spanish Inquisition, where Mamba the witch is put to death with her body being turned into a board game (we could only wish to be so lucky). Note that the level of quick-cut violence and nudity collaged together is never really seen again the rest of the film’s running time, leading overthinking horror fans like me to wonder if this sequence was added in post to better fit the style of its time.

A couple of centuries later, a group of hot young twentysomethings are wandering the streets of Spain when Jason (Grind’s Mike Vogel, and sure, he’s done other movies that aren’t Grind, but more importantly, he did Grind) ends up in a mysterious antiques shop. The legless proprietor gives him a familiar looking board game free of charge, which is exactly how you want to spend your drunken nights on the Spanish coast.

Jason, hot and smart surfer Erica (Eliza Dushku, aka Faith the Vampire Slayer), ladies’ man Tomas, and Tomas’s hot girl calendar crew begin the game, which basically just involves rolling dice and reading sepia colored playing cards. The cards either let you roll again or knock you out of the game via ominous poetry. Naturally, said poems prove to be prophetic in early 21st century CGI-filled gore.

Eventually, Jason, Erica, and Tomas figure out that the game itself is haunted. Whoever makes it to the end may have the chance to undo the damage with a winning wish, but there are a lot of venomous snakes, advance age-stinging bees, man-eating crabs, and crazy obsessive Spanish detectives to deal with first. 

Directed by Alvaro de Arminan from a script by Roderick Taylor and Bruce Taylor, Open Graves is a goofy tale that takes itself extremely seriously, which is exactly what you want from a movie like this. Character development stops at “surfer,” “love triangle,” and “lives in a cool lighthouse.” The Spanish coast is a living postcard and everyone is attractive, at least until some outdated computer animation tears their body apart. This movie is no The Sand, but it scratches a similar itch.

High Points
Who can argue with the creativity of deaths on display? Crabbings, snakings, flayings, and intense advanced aging? I’ll take it

Low Points
I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s incredibly unsatisfying for everyone, including the evil deep demon voiced angel/demon apparition of Eliza Dushku who, I guess, has to go through this rather ridiculous process time and time again 

Lessons Learned
Crabs are honest creatures, which I guess makes CGI crabs some kind of hole in the universe?

Unlike their American male counterparts, female Spanish morticians trade sandwiches for shameless flirting

The English translation of “vae victis” is “losers weepers”

16th century Spanish priests had incredible foresight into the 20th century board game market, anticipating its American popularity and wisely printing its instructions and playing cards in English

Riddle Me This
I’ve seen Labyrinth enough times over the course of 30+ years that I can quote the entire screenplay backwards and forwards (it’s a great coping trick for surviving root canals) and yet I STILL do not understand the riddle of the two doors. Well, Open Graves, which focuses on some very dumb characters who prove to make constant dumb decisions throughout these 87 minutes, uses the SAME riddle and somehow, these pretty idiots nail it. Humbled, I am.

If you love a good dumb straight-to-DVD-when-that’s’-how-we-watched-dumb-horror-movies, you will indeed have a fun time with Open Graves. Not surprisingly, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Sometimes, this world is a balanced place after all.