Thursday, July 30, 2009

Someone Famous Presents Something Less Famous

“From the special effects masters behind Hellraiser and Hellbound” reads the tagline for the strategically titled 1989 horror film Hellgate. Aside from the titular first four letters, Hellgate would never, under any circumstances in this or any other dimension, be confused with Clive Barker’s visionary nightmare soon to not be remade by Pascal Laugier. Hellraiser and its first and best sequel Hellbound utilize innovative costume design, gooey yet restrained makeup, and grandly horrific sets that put the cheap puppetry and Disneyesque ghost town of Hellgate to shame. 

I didn’t rent Hellgate for its pedigree (my real motive was the fact that it was on a double DVD with The Pit, a surprisingly lesser film that featured an evil teddy bear and forest trolls) but I did end up quite happy with the Scooby Doo feel and spontaneously combusting sea creatures it featured. That being said, the desperate ad line for Hellgate got me thinking of how some films--particularly horror--are buttered up for prospective audiences using a randomly hot industry name that may have stopped by the set one day to snag a Kraft Service donut. The most recent examples to my knowledge:

Craven Something Better

Wes Craven is something of the Krusty the Klown of the horror industry: a fine entertainer in his own right, but a little loose when it comes to lending out his name. For these reasons, the man owes me $11.50. Yes, I was one of those six people that attended the opening of Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000, a limping update of Bram Stoker’s classic starring a pre-300, pre-personality Gerard Butler. This is only slightly less offensive than the $4 I lost renting They. Don’t bother looking for it and getting confused by its similar title to the classic giant ant movie and recent terrifying French thriller. This bland little film came and went in 2002 with less impression than leading man Marc Blucas ever made as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s most despised love interest Riley. Yes, Wes Craven presented another opportunity for Marc Blucas to dig deep into his soul for some serious lip biting emoting. The horror is there, just not the way you expect it.

It’s Good to Be King

Stephen King has been associated with quite a large pile of...less than stellar film reels, but even he has his limits when it comes to using putting his name on unsanctioned adaptations. While he takes full credit for gleefully bad missteps like (he even cameo’d in Thinner, King tightened down on quality control in the early 90s. Thus poor Jeff Fahey’s starring role as a landscaping savant in 1992’s The Lawnmower Man may have lost a bit of its prospective audience when Maine’s most prominent author sued the producers for associating the film with his original short story. One year later, the country’s most ubiquitous horror writer’s name was nowhere to be found on Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, the not that terrible sequel to one of his most popular pieces-turned-feature. A good deal of the King film canon may not be good, but at least we generally know it came with his lawyer stamped approval.

The Unborn of Whom?

The trailer for this early 2009 release (the third Un -titled film of the month) was fairly promising until Michael Bay’s name made its bow. I suppose there were a few hungry Transformers fans lured to theaters by the Pavlovian connection, but did The Most Hated Man By Critics In America really have that much say in the making of this film? At least “The writer of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight” directed (although David Goyer does get a mere story credit for the more popular sequel). Having not yet seen The Unborn, I’m not qualified to say whether either marketing ploy is accurate. It was, however, extremely timely and convenient. 

Trust In the Toro

Guillermo Del Toro is a man whose name most genre fans trust, and thankfully, he wields his power well. A few years back, you may have found yourself explaining to a less cinematic friend that the new creepy looking Spanish film about kids in sack masks was not actually directed by that cuddly hobbit-to-be who made such an impression with Pan’s Labyrinth. The Orphanage is one of the better--almost best--horror films of the last ten years and shares a lot of the spirit found Del Toro’s masterful The Devil’s Backbone. It is, however, directed by a lesser known, but very talented Juan Antonio Bayona...whose name generally appears nowhere on the cover art. Still, Del Toro’s producing credit--milked for all its gooey attraction--is at least fitting and probably helped to make this little import a box office success. 

These are just a few forced to natural marketing connections of recent years. I imagine the list is unending, so please share you own discoveries and disappointments in the misadvertising of genre film. And by the way: unless my skimming and scanning skills are failing me, I can't seem to find a single connection on IMDB between Hellgate and its much more prominent near namesake. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Drag Me to Hellgate

Hellgate is a gift to every adult who ever found him or herself wondering why the makers of Scooby Doo never grew up.

That’s right. In this film you will find:
-a spooky amusement park
-reanimated animal puppets
-an orangy blond male and dark-haired tomboy
-a fully choreographed dance number of the Can-Can

It's as silly as it sounds, and then a little more so. You take the goofy charms of a cartoon world and add some nudity and spontaneously combustible undead animals. In the end, you don't get a classic but you sure do have a guiltily good time.

Quick Plot:
An incredibly unaffectionate couple and their poor man’s Molly Ringwald friend await the arrival of Ron Palilo (yes, the former Horshak) in an unexciting country house. To pass the time, the trio tells a few charmingly nostalgic ghost stories set in the nearby town of Hellgate, a sort of permanent carnival eternally garbed in Christmas lights. According to local lore, tragedy struck in the 1950s, an otherwise gleeful era filled with neon-lit diners and gum-snapping waitresses.

The flashback/story intermixes itself through the opening credits and early scenes as we are introduced to a viciously denim-clad biker gang big on making homoerotic glances in each others' direction and sexually harassing restaurant employees. All would be fine and 50s had these overly aggressive gentlemen not kidnapped Josie, the pretty young daughter of a surprisingly talented pickax hurler. A laughably tragic accident turns the bland bombshell into something of a ghost (although she’s also referred to as a zombie, so who really knows) and creates a toxic fortress of solitude filled with laser shooting crystals. I think.

Yeah, it doesn’t make much more sense onscreen either, but that’s a good thing. An old-school prospector stumble upon the glistening cave and brings a piece to a man (who may also be the grieving father; it's unclear) who beholds one of the greatest mustaches in film history (Super Mario would be seething with envy). Turns out, the crystals can revive the dead by transforming it into puffy puppets that will, in ten seconds, spontaneously combust. And then we move on.

What else...I think we jump back to the present/real time, where Palilo picks up the healthily reanimated (and horny) Josie for...directions. There's no perverted chuckle behind that statement: he turns down the supermodelish apparition to get back to his beloved girlfriend and wow the lass with enough bedroom talent to make her eyes cross. Thankfully, we're spared the details.

It's hard to actually synopsize Hellgate when the plot has such a bumpy flow. Eventually, our heroes find themselves in the titular town where beheadings occur, seductions are foiled, and disembodied refrigerated heads call out for their lower halves. In other words, wacky hijinks ensue. Nothing's particularly scary, but almost all of it is rather fun in a not-very-good way. And hey, did I mention the spontaneously combusting sea creatures?

High Points
The intermixing of the kids' narrated ghost stories with the present day action isn't exactly clear, but it does make the opening a little intriguing

This movie contains a spontaneously combustible zombie turtle. The very presence of such a creature makes everything associated with Hellgate rather awesome.

The core characters are more intelligent than your typical young-people-in-peril

Low Points
...but none are particularly likeable

How much public doman music can one film dare to squeeze into its score? Hellgate is the one that dares to find out

Lessons Learned
When recently revived from the dead, one's sense of what is sexually attractive may be questionable

John Travolta was not the only sex symbol produced by Welcome Back Kotter...or so the producers of Hellgate would realllllly like us to believe

In the battle of axe vs. chain, axe wins

When in need of a quick ghost effect and cursed with a low budget, lease a player piano

There’s something truly joyful about Hellgate that is certainly worth a watch if 80s cheese is your cup of...well, liquid Cheez Whiz. Like The Pit (the flipside of this double DVD), Hellgate knows not to take itself remotely seriously. I guess you shouldn’t expect anything more from the director of Blackenstein & Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman (aka Erotic Encounters of the 4th Kind), so enjoy the tamed mullets, gratuitous nudity, kickline performance, and everything else Velma and Daphne were too shy to try.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Trollog La La Laaa

The Pit is the kind of movie creative preteens write on their first brainstorming session slumber party. It’s bad, but in a somewhat heartfelt, let’s-make-a-horror-and-use-our-toys-and-friends kind of way. Which would be great if indeed it was a film made by eleven year olds.

Prime example: the film opens on Halloween with our soon-to-be anti-hero dressed like a ghost. Naturally, such a costume involves the draping of a sheet with eye holes cut out. Please, real cyberspace people, tell me this: have you ever seen a child wear a sheet and call himself a ghost on Halloween? And no, Charlie Brown and Willow Rosenberg do not count. Maybe I haven't been trick-or-treating on the right blocks, but I truly do believe such a costume choice is reserved exclusively for the fictional media world.

The world of The Pit, however, is not quite the cliche it could be. Sure, there are snotty red-headed girls and gobbling wood creatures to be found, but it would be unfair to call this odd little 1981 non-classic trite. It's terrible in many ways, but with exception, I can't deny the sheer weirdness that went into every frame.

Quick Plot: Sixth grader Jamie (Sammy Snyders) is a bit of a troublemaker, but not quite in an innocent Bart Simpson way (although his school punishments do indeed include writing his wrongs on the chalkboard after class). Peeping on neighbors, cutting out naughty pictures from library artbooks, and sexually harassing every female over the age of eighteen are just a few of his boyish quirks, so naturally his parents decide to take an extended vacation and leave him in the care of a well-permed college student. All would be fine (well, maybe just slightly awkward, as we do have to sit through an inappropriate bath scene that predates even the birth of the young actor in Nicole Kidman’s Birth by twelve years), were it not for...The Pit!

Deep in the woods, a very precariously placed hole has captured Jamie’s attention. Inside live the trogs or trollogs or very cheaply made molish monsters with glowing eyes and num-num voices. With the help of his sinister teddy bear, Jamie realizes that in order to keep his only friends happy, he’ll need to deliver some fresh and live meat.

You’d be amazed how easy it is to trick a few locals into certain death. Once the thrill of crank calling kidnapping threats and luring librarians into stripping wears off, Jamie moves onto nastier pranks, like tipping wheelchair-bound old biddies, football captains, and mean-spirited bullies into the mouths of his carnivorous prehistoric pals. Yes, this plot point produces the best ten minutes of screentime (certainly of the movie; possibly of 1981) and no, the budget was not big enough to actually show us any of the munching.

I imagine The Pit began as an earnest horror film before its filmmakers realized their artistic and monetary limitations. Instead, the film wiggles into black comedy, although the humor is never sharp enough to get earned laughs. Still, it does involve an evil kid, ominous teddy bear, and trollogs. Were you expecting Casablanca?

High Points
The death of a seemingly protected heroic character is a pleasant surprise

A wicked little ending almost makes it worth holding out for the last scene

Low Points
The trollogs are, not surprisingly, MST3K-ready. Remember those popular Halloween costumes from the late 80s, which were basically cheap jumpsuits paired with what were most likely toxic plastic masks? If this weren’t 1981 and five years before its premiere, I would swear that the trollog design was just a dressed up version of a Kmart quality Critters outfit

An evil teddy bear? Why else would I rent this movie? Hence, I was more than a tad disappointed that Teddy (because what other name could he have?) didn’t do much more than speak in Jamie’s narrated voice

Lessons Learned
Abergail may sound like an interesting name to bestow upon your child, but before you sign that birth certificate, try to hear it said in a whiny prepubescent voice and consider just how annoying it is

Three children can disappear in a small town, but the authorities only step in when a cute babysitter is involved

Trollogs see in sepia

For a local sheriff, nothing is more embarrassing than calling the feds in to investigate missing persons; asking the local townspeople for some vigilante backup is far more reasonable

Not smart enough to be disturbing and not quite dumb enough for so-good-it’s-bad nostalgia, The Pit is reserved for an audience that prefers a grungy Cathy’s Curse to a slick Dolly Dearest . It’s a dreadful film, but its pure bizarreness and shy sleaze makes it somewhat interesting. Best of all, The Pit is on a double DVD with another goofily subpar (and somewhat more watchable; review forthcoming) 80s horror film, Hellgate. As cheap cheerful crap goes, you could certainly do worse.

Friday, July 24, 2009

D'oh! So That's Why I'm Dead

Devoted horror fans put up with a lot. Bad acting and clunky dialogue are often standard, while roving misogyny and special effects made during arts ‘n’ crafts class are not uncommon. Worse of all, we find ourselves constantly defending a genre littered with characters that make Jessica Simpson look like a Rhodes Scholar.

Sadly even good horror films are not immune. Let’s look at a few examples where seemingly smart characters doom themselves with stupid decisions. 

Mapping The Blair Witch Project

From the plain-faced actors to the music-less sounds of autumn, The Blair Witch Project achieved a sense of realism so true, gullible fans formed vigilant search missions to save the ill-fated (and fictional) filmmaker trio. For all its clever plotting and subtle scenes, however, there is one glaring plot flaw that could make even the most loyal fan say, “At least Book of Shadows didn’t do that.

"I kicked the map into the river!"proclaims the giggling, near hysteric Mike. It’s certainly understandable that being lost in the woods and low on food would play with our characters’ heads here and there, but could it also transform a once smart man into a total idiot? Granted, the map would probably have served no other purpose than becoming a sharp paper airplane to jab into Heather’s eye, but still: making a character that careless cuts our sympathies by a granola bar portion.

The Beyond Stupidity

It’s easy to watch a zombie film these days with a sense of superiority. After experiencing hundreds encounters with shamblers, sprinters, talkers, and every other varietal, most discerning fans know the only way to survive a meeting with an undead warrior is to shoot him or her in the head. Of course, in 1981, this wasn’t quite universal knowledge and thus, David Warbek’s heroic doctor in Lucio Fulci’s surreal classic is somewhat excused for firing a few stray rounds. For an untrained marksman, the head is not always the most obvious target.

Of course, all that should change when, after shooting a bunch of rotting corpses to no effect in the stomach, a head shot finally takes one down. Most people--especially those with enough intelligence to pass medical school--would probably reason that repeating said shot could defeat the approaching monsters. This guy? Not so much. Then again, he does load his rifle by dropping bullets down the barrel, so maybe he just knows something we don’t.

Taking Advantage of The Ruins

Stranded on an abandoned temple, surrounded by gun-wielding natives, and running out of food and water, the five pretty young people of 2008’s surprisingly good little horror film have little hope for survival. Well, they do have one weapon but despite the fair amount of intelligence present in these young college educated characters, no one thinks to take advantage of the one piece of leverage they have against their human antagonists: the villainous plants. 

When Jenna Malone breaks down, she hurls a loose piece of greenery straight at her captors. It brushes a young boy and before you can say poison ivy, another local soldier instantly shoots the unlucky fellow. Logic would follow that tossing a few more flowers in their direction could buy a little time by inciting a shootout, perhaps providing enough chaos for a frantic escape. I guess our party girls and boys slept through Logic and Survival Skills 101 freshman year.

That Darned Pet Sematary

Mary Lamber’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel has produced its share of nightmares (in mine, Gage and Chucky would teamed up against me as the world’s scariest duo with a combined height under four feet) but in order to truly  be frightened, the audience is forced to endure not one but three character decisions that defy basic logic.

The kindly retired Hermann Munster/author of wonderful children’s books Fred Gwynne plays a weathered old man who knows his home town well. Upon the death of the new neighbors’ beloved kitty, Gwynne’s Jud encourages Mr. Creed to bury it in the local pet graveyard, knowing full well that what goes into the ground will come up...different. And never good.

Not surprisingly, the feline Church returns with an extremely unreasonable dose of cattitude. You’d think the young father had learned his lesson, but then true tragedy strikes, killing his young son. Naturally, the best idea seems to be a post-mortem move back into the old neighborhood. This not-so-bright decision can certainly be excused when taking into account the grief of losing a child, so I’ll cut the grieving father some slack. However, upon being widowed (whaddya know, by the very monster he helped to create), Mr. Creed returns again to the clearly cursed pet cemetery to bury his late wife. Because surely three times is the charm.

Really? Sure, your daughter is conveniently stashed away at Grandma’s, but if you think this move is going to inspire a second honeymoon, prepare for some serious disappointment.

Dumbness in Dawn of the Dead ’04

I spent several years working in the pet care industry and have owned dogs and cats my whole life. I know how deeply love can run with the canine species. 

I’m also not an idiot.

According to Zack Snyder and James Gunn’s revision of the zombie rules, freshly spry corpses run faster than Ricky Henderson in his prime. They’re also pickier eaters than the average supermodel, preferring an Atkins friendly menu of human meat with no cheats allowed on puppy ribs. Hence, when border collie Chips is dispatched to bring a few sandwiches to the sharpshooting Andy, he doesn’t need protection. 

Tell that to the whiny redhead who puts several lives in danger attempting to rescue the completely safe dog.

So am I being too hard on these intellectually inferior (and massively unlucky) characters, or should they all invest in a few good books? And which other casts would you nominate for Darwin Awards and certain death?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Help Me Shop

As I struggle to find that free 90-120 minutes to watch what hopefully will yield deep writable impressions on my twisted little mind, I didn't want to go too long a stretch with no content. Hence, today's most selfish post where I solicit free advice regarding which poster for The Wicker Man I should throw my bid into ebay for. If it helps, the current decorating scheme of my very adult and mature apartment includes artwork for Night of the Living Dead, The Ewoks 2: Battle For Endor, Battle Royale, and a three-in-one of Carrie, Burnt Offerings, and Aubrey Rose.


Your choice and explanation are highly valued and will be rewarded with happy thoughts from my cats.

Meanwhile, I've succumbed to the evil addictive force that is Flickchart. Total Recall vs. Rushmore? Halloween vs. Ed Wood? It's like masochist porn for film lovers, only neverending and free. You can friend me over there where I'm listed as deadlydolls.

And don't judge me on those rankings just yet. Million Dollar Baby at no. 3? Only when it continuously has to battle weaklings like My Best Friend's Wedding and the headache-inducing Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

I'm hoping to get back to some good old fashioned reviewing in another few days, so until then, return your Netflix DVDs in a reasonable time period, don't litter, and visit your local library.

Consider my community service done.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

As If the Subway System Wasn't Horrible Enough, Now There's ...

If you’ve followed news in the horror world last summer, you may recall the release drama of The Midnight Meat Train. Produced by Lions Gate and based on a Clive Barker short story, this film was intended for a full theatrical release before being yanked for less-than-desired showings in a handful of dollar theaters across the States. Barker barked and horror devotees complained. Saw V and The Strangers took the blame. Was this another case of shafting original horror to showcase easy money sequels and remakes?

It pains me to say this, but The Midnight Meat Train is not the long lost gem we hoped for. It’s skillfully made by director Ryuhei Kitamura, with clean visuals and more than adequate performances. The basic plot and setting offer oodles of potential. And yet, for the entire running time, I found myself becoming more and more frustrated with everything that was and wasn’t onscreen.

Quick Plot: In an unnamed city, struggling vegetarian photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper) learns from the wisdom of famed art dealer Brooke Shields that in order to break out, he needs to take pictures of truly disturbing content without turning away. She knows this, of course, because of her early experiences with the famed Basquiat (we knew Shields was a child star and went to Princeton, but did you also know she also discovered one of NY’s greatest street artists when she was an adventurous 14 year old?).

Leon takes her advice and hits the streets, focusing mainly on the immaculately clean subway. As luck would have it, a few thugs are attempting to rape a pretty young woman right in perfect view of Leon’s non digital camera (and the very conveniently placed security CCTV). Leon has his shot and the woman is on her way to a conveniently patient late night train. The next day, Leon discovers a newspaper story chronicling her disappearance. A visit to the cops involves weird double speak and somehow inspires Leon on a vigilante mission to uncover this mystery, much to the chagrin of his far too understanding girlfriend.

Enter the Forrest Gumpish Vinnie Jones as the best dressed serial killer in mass transit. Sadly, he’s also the blandest, wearing a dull scowl that couldn’t be farther from the charismatic psychopath of The Condemned or even his supporting work in X-Men 3.

Deep sigh.

The Midnight Meat Train is not the worst film you’ll see, but I found it to be an incredibly disheartening film experience. 103 minutes isn’t long, but when extended stretches are devoted to empty montages, it feels like eternity (sort of the difference between an express and local train). The title calls back to something gritty and mean, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the film’s primary problem is just how clean it is. I’ve never seen a subway that shines with such regularly applied stainless steel cleaner and the digitalized gore is so noticeably unreal, none of the violence lands until the very last scene. By then, it’s a little too late to reinvest.

High Points
Surprisingly enough, the romance between Cooper and Leslie Bibb is quite believable and affectionate, providing a solid emotional base for the finale to land

Low Points
...but the fully clothed sex scene is supposed to do what exactly?

Cooper is fine enough as Leon, but his insanely fast slide into insanity? obsession? paranoia? is so messily done that it’s hard to really want to follow him on his increasingly dumb endeavors underground

Early in the film, Leon talks about how he pulls so much inspiration from the big bad city. That’s fine and mood-setting, but it would certainly help if the city WE see wasn’t drenched in shiny blue coloring. Of course, we could also SEE the city rather than the ridiculously clean metro and one friendly steakhouse

Until the last act, there is nothing actually frightening happening. We don’t know any of the victims, so seeing an extra or two sitting on a train and then get chopped up by a computer effect simply has no emotional impact

Lessons Learned
The only way to survive an encounter with Vinnie Jones is to first sell him candy

Searching for keywords on microfiche is much easier and faster than using Google

Never assist your friends in breaking into a rundown motel where a homicidal butcher allegedly lives; the consequences are just not fun

Bloody floors are incredibly slippery

I really wanted to like this movie but as seen in my extensive low points, that’s far too difficult to do. The performances are better than average and the final scene does start to get interesting, but the coldly empty blood and story inanity is just not enjoyable. How, for example, would any city’s subway system still be functioning if multiple straphangers disappear EVERY SINGLE NIGHT? I’m not one to nitpick plot details, but when the core concept seems so unruly, it just makes everything else that much more glaringly careless. That being said, those of you with a genuine interest in visual design of modern horror may find this particular approach interesting. It’s different and definitely made by someone with artistic vision; I just don’t think that style fits the nature of this film in the least.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Truest Test of Endurance

.Last week, I considered the lack of obesity in horror films. Despite their tendencies to consume heavy amounts of calorie laden beer and hungry inspiring drugs, most victims in standard releases still maintain a striking physical resemblance to catalog models. At the same time--and much more realistically--most lack the endurance to last long against giant madmen, black magic enhanced hunters, or highly infectious carnivores. 

Hence, this week I look at a few films that cleverly cast characters with the physical aptitude to fight off your typical horror villains. Not all survive and not all the films are any good, but each deserves a little credit for amassing some worthy warriors. 

Mulberry Street

This surprisingly good After Dark series entry brings the fast vampiric zombie sub-genre into the streets of Manhattan. Not the most revolutionary premise, but Mulberry Street does earn some innovative points for the diversity--both in age and ethnicity--of its featured cast. Middle aged immigrants, elderly hermits, and a few believable teens make a refreshingly real cast, but it’s the skillful integration of physical fitness into everyday New Yorkers that gives some impressive action. Credit goes to writers Nick Damici and Jim Mickle for finding creative ways to smoothly squeeze athletic characters into the story. A retired boxer, recent Iraq war veteran, and beefy bouncer can hold their own against rat-bitten barflies. And while it’s always fun to watch regular folks torn apart by infected cannibals, seeing the victims put up a kickass fight is far more rewarding.

Jeepers Creepers 2

Dead teenager films are more common than me getting angry at Emmy snubs, but rarely do the adolescent victim bodies prove to be worth more than their Gap provided wardrobe. Victor Salva’s followup to the surprisingly spry Jeepers Creepers strands a busload of high school basketball players and the least perky cheerleading squad in cinema history on a dusty mountain road, where a very hungry monster is busy cramming in his supper before a 23 year hibernation. While the premise sets up the possibility of teamwork and game plans, the endgame is far less interesting as the kids would rather squabble with thinly veiled racism than apply court lessons to a man-eating creature. 


Don’t let the fluffy haired era of Kevin Bacon’s early career fool you. Whether it’s a strict Baptist city council or the power of Meryl Streep, America’s most ubiquitous actor is a force to be reckoned with. When backed by NRA poster couple Michael Gross and Reba MacEntire, Alcatraz ex-con Fred Ward, and surprisingly adept practical pole vaulter Finn Carter, gigantic prehistoric earthworms don’t stand a chance. 

Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday

Does Neil Marshall get partial financing from Bally’s Total Fitness or that guy outside my subway that hands out postcards every morning for a three week bootcamp? From highly trained soldiers to fully ripped spelunkers to plague surviving action heroes, each of his genre films has featured a fully fit cast ready to fight back against any threat, whether it comes in the form of werewolves, cavemen, or cannibalistic punks. Sure, the body count is high in all three films, but nobody goes down without first inflicting serious damage. 

Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4

When it comes to teenagers, Freddy Krueger has predictable tastes. He likes ‘em young, pretty, and generally ectomorphic. Occasionally, he takes a break from Seventeencover girls and slim pretty boys to hunt tougher prey, such as the dive team champ of Part 5. In Renny Harlin’s fourth installment, Freddy hits the gym and zeros in on some of the fittest adolescents ever seen in 1990s cinema. There’s the muscleman Kincaid, whose clearly been bulking up after nearly losing his life in Part 3, and a karate kid wannabe with a sadly inadequate training regime, plus a Kafka-esque kill which I regularly use to justify my aversion to toning. Sure, Freddy also cheats his diet a bit to eat some pizza and a few weaker pickings (like the asthmatic science nerd and 90 pound weakling that can’t even beat up a water bed), but all that filler ultimately leads up to a showdown with a physically/mentally/spiritually empowered wallflower who finds her inner Karate Kid Part III. Hilary Swank salutes you.

Resident Evil

Some filmgoers can only watch so many decaying corpses feed on helpless living creatures before it just gets old. In this era of Z-Day Awareness, we horror fans want our living dead to be challenged and our survivors to be smart. Thankfully, Raccoon City is fully equipped with resourceful SWAT teams able to navigate (somewhat) Cube-esque slicing traps and hordes of hungry zombies. By the sequel, heroine Alice gets enough biogenetic enhancements to conquer a newly bred man-beast with power that would make Mark Maguire strike out with envy. The third film does one better by turning Alice into such a machine that no fast running flesh eater or post-apocalyptic hillbilly stands a chance. More importantly, Alice gets her own posse in the form of a battle scarred caravan. None are particularly badass (nor is the film particularly good), but at least they fight well enough to convince us why they’ve survived a few rounds of good old fashioned noshing.

So hit the gym, drink your protein shakes, and add a few of your own well-trained horror casts that make those bad guys work for their dinner. 

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Death By Disco (& Blue Sunshine)

In twenty years, I imagine my generation will be suffering from poor ipod damaged hearing, widespread carpel tunnel syndrome, a terribly warped Michael Bayesque interpretation of physics, and a grab bag of other physical impediments brought about by the current daily doings of the 21st century.

That may be a pretty dim view of the future, but at least we won’t have to deal with the after effects of Blue Sunshine.

Made in 1976 by Squirm director Jeff Lieberman, Blue Sunshine is a product of its time and for once, that’s a good thing. The 60s were over. Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison were dead. Love beads were crushed and made into disco balls (right?). Peace and love looked antique and drugs were now about escape rather than freedom. Since Reefer Madness proved to be more a great movie to get high to than a warning about drugs, it was time for a real horror about the consequences of doing illegal drugs.

Quick Plot: A swinging cabin party comes to a halt when Fran the Man’s hair is revealed to be...gone! The sudden baldness unleashes a fury in the smooth-voiced photographer, who promptly tosses a few wallflowers into the fireplace. Poor Jerry (Zalman King, the future maestro behind Showtime's late night The Red Shoe Diaries), an underachieving, quickly aging Cornell alumnus, is a little too slow to save the ladies and too fast to kill Fran without seeming guilty of the rest of the murders (because running away sometimes can do that). Jerry goes on the lam with a little help from his girlfriend and doctor pal. Meanwhile, a few other thirtysomethings of varying economic and professional status display signs of anger mismanagement and Rogaine prescriptions.

As Jerry attempts to find some evidence clearing his name, he slowly unearths a weird little mystery involving Stanford, LSD, politicians, baldness, and rage. This is where Blue Sunshine both shines and gets cloudy. The opening scenes are effectively staged, with the initial killing so manic, you can’t help but feel unsettled. As more characters are slowly introduced with foreshadowing symptoms--a pining castoff wife in need of Pantene, a parrot owning policeman with a tense wife and pudding stealing kdis--we get the sense that something very bad will befall this bevy. Unfortunately, the film is far more concerned with the fugitive aspect of the story, following Jerry’s mission and barely skimming the surface of what’s happening to these people as they descend into manic fits of homicidal rage.

It’s a little bit of Romero’s The Crazies, but slicker and with an added detective angle that never quite takes the film where it needs to go. The idea of these now powerful former recreational drug users becoming ticking time bombs is frightening, especially when we see just how insane they will eventually become. I enjoyed Blue Sunshine quite a bit, which is probably why it feels more of a letdown in the end. A strong opening, a great concept, and some true skill makes it worth a watch, just not the true cult classic I was hoping to find.

High Points
The instrumental score utilizes everything from bells to trombones, and all of it is incredibly effective

I’m no doctor, but I imagine surgery is something that should be carried out by well-rested professionals in a relaxed and ‘indoor voiced’ kind of mood. Hence, the tense operation scene, in which we as the audience are just waiting for another bald rampage, is truly suspenseful

The steady build of bratty babysitting charges taunting the slowly unwinding Wendy is wonderfully built up and even better delivered

Low Points
The abrupt ending followed by fake epilogue text feels rushed and stunted, especially when there are too many characters’ whose fates are left hanging

Zalman King’s performance is far too moodily odd to be the likable leading man we follow and cheer for, something Lieberman acknowledges in his critique of his own directing choices in the commentary track. It’s not that every film needs a vanilla intentioned Will Smith type, but it’s just too hard to root for a character too awkward to like (and I swear my taste has nothing to do with my aversion to men in Christmas reindeer sweaters)

Lessons Learned
When you’re feeling lonely, desperate, and bald, have some coffee

Nothing says senatorial fundraiser like a Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand marionette performance

When trying to dress incognito, avoid wearing cowgirl hats, dangly earrings, pinstriped coats, and gigantic sunglasses. Not only will you NOT blend in; you’ll also look rather stupid (except to bodyguards, who will be inexplicably turned on)

“If you jerk, it won’t work.” Sound advice for firing a gun and everything else in life

Stray Observation
If a man ever asked me out on a first date to a marionette emceed discotech called Big Daddy’s and located in a shopping mall, I would probably marry him

As I compiled my High Points, I realized what worked and what didn’t: individual scenes of transformations scored to unique sound design = great. The overall story that limps with the lead and ends without addressing the main issue? Not so much. Blue Sunshine is a fascinating film, with a great premise that should have been seized upon more in the 70s. There are some aspects, such as the score and infamous disco climax, that are truly well done and/or incredibly entertaining. At the same time, the films is certainly lacking a strong focus as it loses its footing towards the second half. Still, it’s worth a watch for its uniqueness alone. The DVD includes a very self-critical commentary track and interview with Lieberman, along with a short film I didn’t get a chance to watch. Give it a try and share your thoughts. Just don't lick the box or anything. Your hair looks great the way it is.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Unhealthy Horror

At a recent Shadow Box performance of Repo! The Genetic Opera (chalk it up to research/ my addiction to seeing Anthony Stuart Head in leather on the big screen) I noticed the general unhealth of the genre fans around me. Perhaps it’s the unflattering fit of pleather, fishnets, and pre-shrunk t-shirts, but glance at any midnight movie or convention line and it’s hard to feel confident in the event of a surprise field day (though conversely, it does give you quite the edge in a surprise Battle Royale tournament). 

For a genre whose fanbase is often less than athletic (not to make any sweeping generalizations; I’m basing this on the unexplainable fact that nachos, beer, and chocolate covered anything tastes better when watching people eat or kill each other), you’d think that a few filmmakers would have tried their hands at addressing this issue. But despite their insatiable appetites and reluctance to exercise with any enthusiasm, zombies are generally reserved to symbolize human cruelty, apathy, societal breakdown, and stupidity, while slashers focus their lessons on premarital sex participants and users of illegal substances. Onscreen, such a definition has yet to include trans fats.

In any genre, the overweight are generally cast as comfortable furniture. In horror, they can be used to showcase creative killing (like the gluttonous spaghetti massacre of Se7en), comic relief (Dawn of the Dead’s Big & Tall swim trunks model), or to emphasize the grotesque in villains (the latest round of Texas Chainsaw Massacres). Even that perennial holiday favorite, Silent Night Deadly Night features a trim psycho killer, and that’s a film about Santa Clause, a character who has himself been accused of setting a bad example when it comes to eating habits.

I accept the whole escapist fantasy of film and television and wouldn’t expect to see a Lane Bryant model playing Friday the 13th’s next final girl. What surprises me is that, to my knowledge, there are few films that delve into obesity or the culture of weight with the same intellectual and/or horrific energy as, say, Cronenberg’s studies of the sexual body or even Ginger Snaps’ lycanthropic menstrual analogy. We like our struggles with religion, suburban psychology, and alcoholism metaphors just fine, but an ubiquitous health crisis, not so much. 

Perhaps the most obvious example of “fat horror” is Stephen King’s little loved Thinner. Sure, that film gave us a donut devouring stereotype of an antihero, but for all its incredible shrinking waistline, the horror was more focused on the diabolical power of Gypsies than the potential fright of diabetes. The recent Drag Me to Hell gave heroine Allison Lohman an interesting character history as a formerly chubby farm girl (because apparently Gypsies have some sort of vendetta against the overweight). While one message board posting I read insisted the entire demonic hunt was a representation of Lohman’s discomfort with her past, you’d have to find some pretty incredible spandex to stretch that metaphor over the whole story. 

One of the best genre pictures about dieting--and America’s obsession with making it look cook, in particular--is Larry Cohen’s quirkily genius 1985 The Stuff. Pre-dating the Atkins Diet popularity explosion by a good 18 years, this satirical riot of a horror-comedy targets American consumerism with a product eerily packaged with a logo similar to Target. Once again, the real subject is corporate advertising and our inability to resist it, but it does a decent--and thoroughly entertaining--job of considering one sector of the weight issue on camera.

So does cinema need to pork up, or am I missing a few delicious treats that explore or exploit the rotundity of the modern age? 

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Potato Sack Slaughter

I’m not a spiritual person, but if there’s one thing I firmly believe, it’s that every holiday--whether it be national, religious, historical, or commercial--deserves its own horror film. Nary an Xmas has passed in my life without a hot chocolaty viewing of Jack Frost or any of the Silent Night Deadly Night films (part 2 is my favorite, since it’s really two-for-the-price-of-one in flashbacks PLUS Garbage Day, my favorite non-holiday holiday). While I’m still waiting for a Severance-like take on Secretary Appreciation Day, it does bring me patriotic pleasure to report back from the Larry Cohen penned, William Lustig directed 1997 Uncle Sam.

In case the holographic cover art didn’t give it away, this is no Saving Private Ryan. If anything, Uncle Sam is like the grouchy old guy at the family reunion who sits in the corner and complains about kids today. Then he shoves garden shears into their eye sockets.

Quick Plot: When the news of Sergeant Sam Harper’s Desert Storm death reaches his sunny hometown, most of his family and those that knew the violent soldier with a mean sadistic streak are relieved. The exception is his America, Fuck Yeah nephew Jodi, a young boy seemingly poised to follow in Sam’s army booted footprints.

Of course, Sam isn’t quite dead (although that doesn’t stop the military from leaving his coffin in the widow’s living room, blocking the television and probably making dinner parties a tad awkward). All it takes is one gang of teens and their darned flag-burning ways to raise his rotting corpse from the dead. Before you can say George Washington, our undead soldier has commandeered a red, white, and blue Sam-suit from a peeping tom to bring back patriotism and slaughter those who stand in its way.

Draft dodgers, corrupt politicians, and even recreational drug users, be warned. This is not the kindly Uncle Sam that made you feel special by pointing in your face and demanding you die for the United States. Like some sort of distant relative to Angela Baker, this Uncle Sam wants to dispose of any and every citizen unworthy of celebrating July 4th with illegal fireworks or the apparently very complicated Star Spangled Banner. What Sleepaway Camp did for summer, Uncle Sam does for Independence Day.

Which basically means makes a fairly unscary, occasionally funny 88 minute movie that’s generally forgettable save for one major conceit (SC’s shocking WTF finale and the very presence of a homicidal undead Uncle Sam).

High Points
Sure, most of the deaths are predictable, but I’m not complaining when a flagpole is utilized in not one but two fairly deserved kills

A brief conversation about the human Sam’s brutal nature hints at a darker and almost intriguing aspect to the rather one-dimensional villain

Low Points
As direct-to-DVD (or video, as this was probably one of the last VHS stalwarts) horror goes, Uncle Sam is well made enough, but that doesn’t hold up when a name like Larry Cohen is attached. While there may be some underlying themes about U.S. military violence, the deeper intelligence of films like It’s Alive and The Stuff is nowhere to be found

The supporting cast is well-stocked with names like P.J. Soles, Isaac Hayes, and Robert Forster, but no one gets much of anything to do that’s worthy of their thespian or personality skills. The exception? Timothy Bottoms, the former Bush of That’s My Bush!, with an, in hindsight, ironic role as a former hippie-turned-unpopular schoolteacher

Lessons Learned
Playing with fireworks will blind, scar, and cripple you; other side effects include inspiring your mother to dress like Miss Piggy attending a 1950s tea party

Nobody can sing the national anthem without making a mistake

When mapping out the route for a potato sack race, locating the final bend around a steep cliff is probably not the best idea

Though it features a fallen soldier, Uncle Sam ain’t Martyrs. This is a breezily goofy B-horror that flies by without offensiveness. It doesn’t have the super creative charm of, say, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, but from its behind the scenes pedigree to the finished product, it’s more watchable than other fare like Rumplestiltskin or your average backyard filmed zombie flick. The DVD includes not one but two commentaries, with discussions by Hayes, Lustig, and the always entertaining Cohen. If you enjoy cheesily slick, nowhere near scary horror, then Uncle Sam is worth a guilt-free rental but it will most likely leave a less lasting impression than a temporary tattoo forced onto you by a five-year-old at a family barbeque or the hangover you woke up with July 5th.