Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rock & Roll To Steal Your Soul

List of Things to Do Before I Die:

-Read Ulysses
-Catch a foul ball at CitiField
-Beat Zombies Ate My Neighbors on Super Nintendo

-Host a film party featuring a double showing of Hard Rock Zombies and Black Roses

Black Roses is not a good film, nor does it qualify as a so-bad-it's good stinker. In the cheerfully wide catalogue of 80s horror, Black Roses represents an average 90 minutes of decent rock, poor acting, and monsters that rotate between looking evil and resembling poor man's Muppets. Yes, it does mark the dubious film debut of Vincent Pastore, but worse crimes have been committed. If Hard Rock Zombies is a bowl of melted cheddar, Black Roses is the the liquid nacho topping that shoots out ingredients you can't pronounce onto your salty movie theater tortilla chips. It's always edible, but never quite delicious.

Quick Plot: A sleepy midwestern town is visited by the country's biggest metal band, Black Roses. The school board is mildly miffed by the offensiveness of hard rock but allow the band to play a few shows for the enjoyment of the very white teenage population. After the opening night performance, one lone high school teacher notices his students committing acts of violence and (gasp!) wearing muted colors to class. The only possible explanation would be that Black Roses are agents of Satan (or maybe Satan himself; it's unclear) set to collect the souls of America's youth, one Footloose-y town at a time.

Black Roses isn't quite as much fun as it sounds, but it has its moments. As Damien, the kooshball headed lead singer, Sal Vivianno fares somewhat better than the soft-spoken Jessie of Hard Rock Zombies, but demony puppets and killer turntables don't quite match cannibal Nazi dwarves in entertainment value. Lead actor John Martin has a decent presence, but none of the kids make strong enough impressions for us to really care about their fates. So ultimately, there's nothing mind or ear-blowing about Black Roses,'s a 1988 horror about a demonic hair metal band.

High Points
The variety of monster puppets shows some ingenuity, particularly in the opening scene music video

Props to actor John Martin, who manages to pull off the role of an overly caring high school teacher with female fans and a porno mustache without coming off as overly creepy

Low Points
Did the high school band perform the elaborate and not very appropriate score?

The final heroic pun is barely audible, which would make Buffy the Vampire Slayer shake her ponytail in shame

How does one set a climax at a rock concert and not end with a stage dive?

Lessons Learned
Underage breasts are quite versatile and inconsistently sized in small towns

In the 1980s, any girl named Tina was a slut

Tennis rackets, when used correctly, make excellent tools for demon bashing

There's something about these 80s high school horror flicks that's hard to resist, and Black Roses is certainly likable in its cheesiness. Under no definition is this a scary movie, but there's a lot of low budget heart to keep it watchable. A small selection of extras includes a compilation of Damien auditions, which surprisingly reveal that Vivianno may have been the best casting choice (at least from the drudge of a pool amassed in that collection). An affectionate audio commentary by director John Fasano, screenwriter Cindy Cirile, and their teenage children is joyfully humble and good-natured, but the overall rewatchability of Black Roses isn't quite as high as you would think. A rental should suffice.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Unfunny Games After the Apocalpyse

After watching something like the gleefully tacky and trashy Doomsday, nothing feels overly exciting, particularly a quiet, untacky, untrashy French drama set in a realistic post apocalyptic world, where nary a mohawk or gladiator ring is to be found. Instead, Europe's favorite buzzkilling auteur Michael Haneke brings us a painfully slow story (of sorts; more below) of a joyless near-future filled with the prestige of a Very Good Film and the spirit of, I don't know, arthritic bones.

Quick Plot: A young French family arrives at their country cottage to discover that another young French family has moved in with a loaded rifle and territorial desperation. A surprising pull of the trigger widows mum Isabelle Huppert, driving her and her two children into nearly deserted villages, occasionally stopping to grab some handouts from reluctant neighbors while looking blank and sad.

We're never told what event has sent France spinning into decaying chaos--a point that is both frightening and frustrating. Much like his brilliant Cache, which left the audience with unanswered yet deeply fascinating questions, Haneke's Time of the Wolf doesn't provide much in the way of resolution or clear plot. A fourth character--a feralish boy with a murky conscience--has a dramatic entrance that doesn't develop into the family relationship you'd expect. Eventually, Huppert & Co. join more survivors at an abandoned train depot to wait for a Godotish train in conditions of misery and starvation. While there are hints of villainy in the brutish leader, racist stragglers, and a pre-InsideBeatice Dahl, Haneke avoids developing the typical conflicts or actual story. There is no huge confrontation or climactic event that point us towards salvation or destruction; instead, we simply get survival.

Imagine Cormac McCarthy's The Road without characters (and with a bicycle in place of the shopping cart) and you might come close to Time of the Wolf. It's dark and rather depressing, but also poetic and eerie. Haneke can make intriguing films and his spirit in bucking the trends and cliches of common cinema is refreshing. At the same time, it's hard to accept a film that chooses to not have a central protagonist or even basic plotline to follow.

High Points
An early scene lit entirely by a dying, then raging, fire is truly tense

The absence of any score helps feels hauntingly appropriate

Small hints of what went wrong are effectively channeled through a few disturbing images, such as a herd of cows burning in the night

Low Points
As if a French film with minimum everything by Michael Haneke needed any more help, the choice to have completely silent and black background opening credits amps up the pretentiousness before the first line is spoken

With so many characters and so few names and closeups, it's just too difficult at times to decipher who's who

Lessons Learned
Birds do not make ideal pets in any situation, much less the post apocalypse

If a gigantic disaster strikes your country but you seem to be living safely, it's best to stay put

When I was watching Time of the Wolf, I was bored and more than a bit antsy for something to happen. It doesn't. It's been a few days now, and I now have to admit that Haneke's work has stayed with me. This is probably one of the most realistic depictions of a post-apocalyptic society in recent cinema, and sadly, much of what the characters undergo is not uncommon to certain reaches of the world today, adding some timely weight to a future vision.

So. Rent, bury, or buy? I haven't had this hard a time slapping a label on a film and it makes me understand Roger Ebert's annoyance with the star system rating. Genuine film fans who like a slow burning, though provoking drama might purchase (a few DVD extras seem worth a gander). Apocalyptic afficionados can rent (or do Watch Now via Netflix). Straight horror fans should skip. Personally, I fall under all three categories and am left confused as to how I ultimately felt about the movie. It's well-made and ultimately leaves a deep impression, but the lack of strong characterization or, well, Stuff That Happens makes it hard for me to honestly say I would watch it again. Even though I know I should. Because it's good. get my point.

I'll just have to wait another twelve postponed release dates for the eventual arrival of Viggo Mortenson giving what will undoubtedly be a fantastic performance in The Road. Should that movie ever actually be released in the 21st century or before the first round of actual apocalpysies.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Flower Power

As modern hippies join hands and hold organic bake sales to benefit Earth Day, we horror fans find our own ways of honoring this third planet from the sun most of us call home. Personally, I can't think of a better method than to comb through cinema history for a few films high on environmentally inspired dangers. I don't know about you, but that sounds far more fun than making a compost pile or, you know, trying to save a world that seems so hellbent on killing us.

Terrifying Trees!
While there has yet to be an official Arbor Day entry into the slasher school of holiday-themed horror, trees do get their due, and I’m not just talking about Elm Street (ba dom bump! I'll stop now). William Friedken's abysmal 1990 The Guardian bests The Hand That Rocks the Cradle for presenting the wealthy suburbs’ most viscous nanny (and adds the whole “druid cult that believes in sacrificing babies to oaks” twist that’s much worse than it sounds). Of course, The Evil Dead gives us an infamous lady-raping tree, but the film that truly alleviates my guilt over wasting paper goes back 70 years to the Yellow Brick Road. Whether Oz exists south of the Equator or somewhere deep inside Dorothy’s uppers/downers-filled head, it does boast a forest that could kick the hobbits out of Middle Earth. If my woods ever insulted me with the fervor of a bad standup comic or hurled apples my way with more speed than Johann Santana, I’d say screw double-sided copies and bring on urban sprawl.

Eat Your Vegetables (Before They Kill You)
When I was 8 years old, I started my first great unfinished screenplay titled, quite simply,  “Don’t Eat.” The poster art (done in pre-sharpener equipped Crayola) featured a giant hot dog menacingly squeezing a ketchup bottle’s contents into a dying diner’s mouth as flames spouted out his eyes. I’m still waiting for Harvey Weinstein’s call, but in the meantime, any film about killer food will keep me entertained. Because it’s ridiculous. Obviously, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is worth its infamy, but for a poetically veggie viewing, I’d hit up Children of the Corn 2: The Final (despite 5 more and counting sequels) Sacrifice. The 1992 installment tosses in an explanation of how chemically rotting corn mold was responsible for driving Isaac & Co. into Bad Seed levels of bloodthirstiness. And here I thought those cobs just had too many carbs.

Villainous Vinery
Invasion of the Body Snatchers has its spores and Creepshow has a fuzzy green Stephen King, but it seems like most ferocious fauna is a tad too alien-based for a day that celebrates this planet. Perhaps one of the most underrated horror films of recent years is The Ruins, a glossy but nasty little chiller that features frisky plant life as creatively sadistic as it is au naturale. Based on Scott B. Smith’s fantastically frightening novel of the same name, The Ruins makes a poison ivy rash look pleasant. Hell, it makes jumping naked into an overgrown garden of three-leaved bushes look more comforting than falling gently into a basket of fluffy towels regularly leapt into by Snuggles, the fabric softener bear.

Emoting in the Wind (which is totally not Happening)
If the world is indeed populated by nerdy, whiny voiced Mark Walberg’s who constantly worry about What’s Happening to The Bees!, then I’m all for deadly wind swooping in to destroy the human population in grisly and thoroughly painful ways. While I admire M. Night Shayamalan’s um, intent to highlight environmental issues, I--along, I’m sure, with most of the non-comatose public who lost 89 minutes to this bewildering bad mess--found his latest disaster to be worthy of extinction. Still, the idea of Mother Nature taking matters into her own hands ain’t bad. 

Now let’s never speak of this movie again.

Deadly Dionaea Muscipula
Let us stop to consider the irony of the venus fly trap. It’s a plant. It’s also a carnivore. In a way, that makes perfect sense (you can never accuse it of cannibalism) but holy shit. A plant eats meat. It’s nearly as confusing as goblins turning humans into greenery for cuisine while promoting vigilant vegetarianism (it's hard to go more than a week without mentioning Troll 2 in some form or another). 

Naturally, venus fly traps make ideal villains. Little Shop of Horrors amps it up by fitting its name to cast its a man-eating flower as a creature FROM outer space, but for a more earth-bound example, look to the animated framing story of Creepshow 2. It even teaches a few lessons about the wrongness of bullying and the importance of teaching youths about gardening. 

So dear readers, how did YOU celebrate your homeland this past week? Non-dairy pizza parties decorated with crepe-shaped hemp paper or learning a lesson about organic recycling with Cliff Clavin in Motel Hell

Monday, April 20, 2009

Neil Marshall Law

The commercial failure of films like Doomsday and Starship Troopers makes me die a little inside. How is there a massive audience for Fast & Furious when a gleefully over-the-top post-apocalyptic actionfest barely coughs up enough money to pay for a three pack of Vin Diesel’s wife beaters?

The world is a sad sad place.

Not quite as sad--or massively cool--as Neil Marshall’s bonanzaland of the near future. Heavily flawed but tons of fun, Doomdsday gives you a lot of...well...everything. it’s not always good, but it’s far from dull.

Quick Plot: A highly contagious flesh-eating virus spreads across Great Britain, leaving the government no choice but to quarantine Scotland to let the dying sort their own deaths out. One sobbing mother is able to send her young, now one-eyed daughter over the wall to eventually grow up into an ass-kicking Rhona Mitri. Twenty five years later, the disease seems to be reappearing, leaving the prime minister and his sinister right-hand man to send a team into the danger zone in search of a cure. Failing that, a few of the ghetto-dwellers susceptible to the resurgent plague will be sacrificed as a new quarantine zone is formed.

WIth a generous supply of ammunition and only 48 hours to use it, Mitri and a few Marshall alumni head to town with mini-Dead Reckonings probably purchased from a skillful used car salesman. It’s not long before they come across one band of survivors--Mad Maxish mohawked cannibals with awesome style and great technique using hand weapons. As if futuristic raves weren’t enough, the action soon moves to a less urban setting as Malcolm McDowell swings by to lead a band of survivors currently living under a Medieval lifestyle. But with gladiator shows. At this point, there’s still another 45 minutes left.

Doomsday is a ride, pure and simple. If you were expecting anything near the slow build of The Descent or the tight quarters of Dog Soldiers, you won’t find it in this sprawling epic of a movie. This is one ambitious film, but there are some semblances of Marshall’s skillful personal touch. For such a large cast, most of the leads and supporting roles are memorable enough for their deaths or heroics to resonate. Some of the action is breathtaking and the setting--which ranges from a lawless city to ancient castles--looks fantastic. If there’s a major flaw, it’s Marshall’s looseness with telling a strong story, which simply takes a backseat to car chases and stage dives.

High Points
Malcolm McDowell is always a welcome presence, particularly when he’s playing the a Shakespearean eccentric with excess power

While the opening is a bit of a slow go, the initial attack by the punk survivors--filled with a surprisingly high body count--is intense and rollicking

From the Snake Plissken-esque character design to the Waterworldiness of a cheerfully scavenger society, spotting Marshall’s nods and allusions to other post-apocalyptic fare makes for fun viewing

Low Points
I love the mixture of punk cannibal gangs and medieval village societies rising simultaneously, but because of their spread, we never really get enough of either. Maybe I’m being greedy, but I was hungry for a full-blown war between the two.

It’s hard to believe that a mere 20 years would turn half of a country into Robin Hood extras without any solid backstory to explain where they got all that period garb

The 48 hour countdown feels like a random touch to organize the timing; with two warring gangs, car/foot/horse chases, sword and gladiator combat, and a cannibal rally, the added ‘intensity’ of crunching time is just annoying

Lessons Learned
In the near future, neon hair dye will be in abundance and losing an eyeball will be awesome

Horseback riding at full speed is incredibly instinctive for Englishmen who have probably never seen a live horse in their sheltered lives

Futuristic cannibals are extremely talented when it comes to making a little meat--say from one average sized male--feed an entire population. The boys of We’re Going To Eat You should take note.

This has a good deal of re-watchability and a fully loaded DVD, so anybody with a soft spot for wild action or post-apocalyptic adventure won’t do wrong investing in a purchase. You won’t get an entirely cohesive story, but you will be spared dull exposition or, well, more than five minutes without some form of creative killing. It’s not for everybody, but if the recycling of decapitated heads makes you happy, then this is the film for you.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

At Midnight, I'll Have a Snack (and if I'm still hungry, I'll take your soul)

There’s a place for cheese and I’m not just talking about nachos. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is the first entry in the long-running "Coffin Joe" franchise, a collection of low budget Brazilian films that follows an enigmatic mortician as he pisses off townspeople by killing some men, raping some women, and proving that a cape and top hat never go out of style. All in all, it’s an entertaining romp that never really scares but often amuses.

Quick Plot: We begin with not one but two prologues set against thunder and extreme close-ups. First, Coffin Joe himself (writer/director Jose Mojica Marins) spins off some deep and dark philosophy, followed by a Gypsy witch ominously warning us to abandon the theater before it’s too late. Five seconds later, it’s too late and the story gets rolling as Joe prowls through his little village with the power of Monty Burns and the fashion sense of Mr. Hyde. Married but childless, he comforts himself by eating lamb on Holy Friday, whipping bar patrons who question his poker winnings, and lusting after the nice young woman engaged to his best (and understandingly) only friend. All the while, Joe keeps his funeral services in business by occasionally providing his own clients.

Poor CJ. Despite his refreshingly lack of a boggy conscience, the man is bored. Neither God nor Satan seems to want to play, even after he spends an agonizing ten minutes inviting the pair during a dark-and-stormy night rant. Having killed anyone around him that has the guts to engage in conversation, Coffin Joe is forced to make new friends and wait for the return of the souls he's wronged.

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is something of a cult classic, as it introduced the world to South America’s most charismatic sicko. Jose Mojica Marins' films are still being made today (the most recent, Embodiment of Evil, is newly available on DVD) but this was my personal introduction. As a horror movie, it’s more than dated and fairly weak with no real scare value to keep you up at night. As a piece of entertainment, however, it has an earnest (although a little more disturbing) John Waters-esque sense of camp that is hard to resist. I love an indie whose budget feels scrapped from used sofa cushions, and Coffin Joe's debut is sincere. Any film that uses Elmer’s glue and glitter as a visual effect deserves at least some kind of genuine praise.

High Points
The opening credits are scored to a weird and unsettling mixture of drums and screams, creating the mood for a much more atmospheric film than the one we’re given

I’m a sucker for anything set during Day of the Dead, and Joe’s midnight stroll does get a boost from its time and place

Low Points
Maybe this is addressed in a flashback sequence from subsequent films, but a little explanation of a) what made Joe such a jerk and b) how he still managed to have (an admittedly daft) friend would have given the character something extra

Lessons Learned
Expressive eyebrows will instill a very high level of fear amongst small town barfolk

If your prediction is death, you get a free fortune reading from the local Gypsy witch

Brazilian tarantulas bite very gently

If you’ve never met Coffin Joe, then this is worth a rental. Its minor infamy is a great starting point to a 50+ year series and you have to admire some of the work done with such limited time and resources. One DVD extra is a thorough interview with the chatty (and still long-nailed) director-star, who reveals quite a few details about just how bare bones production really was. I’m curious to see how Joe’s quest for the perfect family evolved over the years, but I’m not about to shuffle the queue just yet. Your life won’t be incomplete if you skip this film, but ff you’re a true horror fan interested in older films with more camp than thrills, then I recommend At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul for a fast and fluffy 90 minutes of popcorn enhanced fun.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Live For Nothing. Die For Sly.

Punched-in faces!
Slaughtered missionaries!
Fully clothed Stallone!

A few weeks ago, I made my night blood-filled and beautiful by renting Stallone's latest incarnation as John Rambo. Eight thousand or so deaths later, I was basking in the after effects of over-the-top (yet socially minded) violence when my unbridled enjoyment hit a bump. I became, dare I say it, slightly offended. Here goes:

The story, for those still unbaptized by the oceans of blood spewed from cinematic flying limbs, follows Stallone's Rambo through the no man's land of modern Myanmar. After a few unintelligible grunts, the world's bad ass-iest veteran attempts to rescue a band of well-intentioned but poorly prepared missionaries who have been captured by the less-than-honorable military after a surviving a massacre that makes Men Behind the Sun look like Sesame Street. Chief among the do-gooders is Sarah, played by the reigning princess of Lions Gate, Julie Benz. Ten days into their imprisonment, Rambo arrives with a motley crew of expat mercenaries to blow things up and save the Americans.\n\nHere's where something went mildly wrong for me: Sarah is curled up in a bamboo cage as an oily guard leers at her with clearly carnal intentions. Meanwhile, a group of captive Burmese women are forced to dance in front of an arena filled with hungry soldiers. As Stallone & Co. dispose of the outpost guards, the partying soldiers climb on stage to tear at the sobbing women. Rambo saves the whimpering Sarah just in time to preserve her sense of virtue; the same can't be said for the local ladies. 

Stallone doesn't linger on the rapes, but it's fairly clear what happens to the then-abandoned women. Sarah, on the hand, gets plenty of close-ups furrowing her blond brows as her humbly wooden crucifix dangles below.\n\nWhy does this bother me so much? As a lifelong female fan of genre cinema, I've grown accustomed to movies that include the mistreatment of women. It's like accepting that the tallest film goers will always sit in front me at a theater or that American figure skating pairs will never come close to beating the Russians in serious competition. I giggled at the nudity in Jason X and My Bloody Valentine 3D. I respect I Spit On Your Grave for putting a flawed but feminist twist on a male genre. Rape doesn't upset me when it's treated with weight. But there's something unsettling in watching the porcelain skinned Christian survive unscathed while five or more Southeast Asian women are attacked and most likely left for dead in the background.

Really, the Burmese military are not nice guys. They blow up children and make games out of gunning down locals. They probably commit their share of sexual abuse every day. Yet when a pretty Presbyterian is kidnapped, she's spared the old in-out for ten full days, just enough time for the strapping Stallone to swoop in on a selective rescue mission.

So what am I saying? Did I want to see Darla raped? Of course not. But there was something insulting in seeing her get away while the others are left to their fates. On the other hand, that may have been Rambo's  own commentary on the rescue of first-world hostages in third-world countries. Stallone made an excellent film, with incredible action and an admirable boldness in tackling Myanmar's oft ignored violent regime. I imagine the decision to include implied sexual violence was not easy, but was probably made to demonstrate the monstrousness of the soldiers. Sparing Sarah could have been seen as tactful in a film that could easily border on exploitation. For me though, it lingered there as feeling...well...racially unfair.

Am I right in having hangups about this issue, or am I overreacting to a minor subplot in a glorified (and glorious; I really did love it) B movie?  Plenty of films--genre in particular--do worse things, especially to women of color. I'm genuinely curious to hear if anyone else finds this offensive, or if I'm dancing on the border of militant feminist territory without a passport. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What's the Matter With Kids Today?

I was thinking last week how it’s been too long since I’ve watched an actual scary movie. Ignore, for a moment, the fact that about 233 out of the 250 titles currently on my Netflix queue are classified as horror and accept that films such as Rabid Grannies and Bio Zombie aren’t intended to give a gal like me nightmares.

My life, you might say, was wanting.

After a few shuffles and hopeful mailbox openings, I’m happy to report that I have been disturbed. Who Can Kill a Child?, a 1976 film from Spain, is sufficiently frightening and wrong enough to satisfy the masochist inside.

This one got to me.

From the brutal stock footage of dying refugee children that opens the film to the cheerfully sinister afternoon swim of the closing credits, Who Can Kill a Child? is a a rough ride. Obviously, that makes it a hearty recommendation.

Quick Plot: As all-too-real images of abused children roll in black and white, a narrator takes us through some of the atrocities suffered by children in the 20th century--medical experimentations in Auschwitz, orphans of war in Vietnam, starvation in Nigeria. Man commits a lot of crime, but nobody suffers more for it than the defenseless youths...until now.

On a tourist-filled beach off the coast of Spain, a happy British couple decides to celebrate the upcoming birth of their third child with a romanic getaway to the secluded island of Almanzara. They dock their boat with the help of some kids that are quiet but seemingly cheerful, save for one surly banged boy with a slight resemblance to Suri Cruise. 

Tom and Evelyn wander the hauntingly quiet town, enjoying the peacefulness and assuming the entire population is celebrating a holiday or savoring a siesta. Because they've apparently never seen a horror movie, the couple continue on, stopping occasionally to catch a glance of giggling tweens and answer ominous phone calls. They (and director Narciso Ibanez Serrador) take their time in realizing that something is clearly amiss and very bad things are about to happen.

Do they ever. These kids make the Children of the Corn look like a herd of pocket protector wearing members of the National Honor Society. With no explanation of why or how, the Almanzaritos have taken over with pitchforks and vengeance. Goodbye, homework and vegetables. Hello, human pinatas and ice cream breakfasts (okay, I’m just assuming the second part because that’s how I would have rebelled).

Who Can Kill a Child? is a freaky and fascinating ride for most of the way through. Its nearly 2 hour running time does drag here and there, but once the kids take charge, we (along with the baffled and not entirely bright adults) are stranded in a hell unlike the usual horror fare. The children seem to operate from a hive mind (a la Village of the Damned) but there is no sermonizing to explain the motives behind their sudden blood thirst. Imagine Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, but without the childhood sense of adventure. There is humor to be found, but it’s uncomfortably macabre, not campy or cute, made all the more disturbing by the bright eyes and giddy smiles on the bat-wielding pre-teens with a complete lack of sympathy.

High Points
Serrador‘s decision to not score some of the early scenes (pre-pinata) add an eerie level of discomfort that keeps both the audience and characters on edge

The acapella lullaby of the opening calls to mind another would-you-kill-a-child? classic, Rosemary’s Baby

Pregnancy in horror films requires some big plot explosion, and this one is an insanely upsetting doozy

Low Points
I’ll accept the 70sness of marital relations, but did Evelyn have to be such a dumb blond? Sample line: “Gracias. Is that what they say here?” Really? You have to ask?

Lessons Learned
It’s generally not a good ideal to travel to a nearly deserted island when you’re 6+ months pregnant

All Italians are fascists

Sociopathic and intensely violent kids take the driving age very seriously

I somehow had never seen this cult classic until recently, but I’m actually quite thankful I watched it at this point in my own life. Having young children in my family lets the significance of the title feel as deep and wrong as it should, but not having kids of my own makes me able to actually view it (those of you who turned off Inside due to its subject matter should probably avoid Who Can Kill a Child?). I’ve heard some reviews call it out for being too dated or cheesy, but I found this to be one of the most disturbing films I’ve seen in some time. The DVD isn’t overly extra heavy, but an intriguing interview with Serrador gives some nice behind the scene tidbits (like how much he disliked lead actor Lewis Fiander). This is a film for fans with patience for mood setting and the stomach for true horror.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Can You Tell Me How to Get, How to Get to Mulberry Street?

Mulberry Street is a refreshingly low budget, highly disciplined film that knows its limits and plays its strengths. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s a solid, often scary 100 minutes that should serve as a shining example of what indie horror could be.

Quick Plot: On a typical late spring day in Manhattan’s Little Italy, the long-term and low income residents of a formerly rent-controlled apartment face eviction as their newly high-priced neighborhood embraces gentrification. That turns out to be the least of their problems. Before the sun sets, rats are getting frisky, homeless people are getting hungry, tweens are getting dead, and New Yorkers of every sort are getting turned into man-eating, 30 Days of Nightesque running zombies hellbent on destroying the city, one nibble at a time.

Mulberry Street’s story is nothing revolutionary, but there are several factors at work that make this 2007 After Dark Festival entry a memorable piece of modern horror. The rat angle is different, (and since I nearly tripped on a kitten-sized rodent leaving work last week, all too real). Casting is also key. So many indie films get stuck with filmmaker’s friends in key roles, a problem because generally, someone's peers end up being around the same age. Mulberry Street wisely avoids this pitfall with an assortment of racially and age-ily(?) diverse characters that could be occupying any Big Apple building. A sympathetic and understated Nick Damici (also the film’s co-writer) plays a retired boxer about two decades past what most films would consider his prime. Even the female leads--Bo Corre as an immigrant bartender and Kim Blair as a young Iraq War veteran--are refreshingly unlike what you normally get in the majority of cheap thrillers.

And perhaps the most important thing I failed to mention: Mulberry Street is scary. Not quite as successful as, say, 28 Days/Weeks Later, but similarly filled with both shocking jump scares and the atmospheric uneasiness of watching everything about your everyday life destroyed. Director Jim Mickle is clearly going for some 9/11 parallels and he succeeds at capturing what it felt like to wander a city as its sense of normalcy slowly, then suddenly spun into fear unlike anything the majority of Americans had ever known. That’s horror.

High Points
A few surprising character deaths violate many of the tired rules of survival

The visual effects aren’t especially exciting, but the rodent-like squeaking sprinkled through the background is highly unsettling

You have to give respect to a film that seamlessly weaves in athletic, survival-minded characters (a burly bouncer, a tough soldier, heroic boxer) for fights that are realistically possible to win

Low Points
While I hate to criticize a low budget film’s effects, a few shots of the infected reveal what appears to be plastic vampire teeth I used to win for good behavior in kindergarten

I don’t have a problem with downbeat endings, but this one felt like it took one step too far by killing the final character we’d come to like. Am I missing a deeper significance, or was Casey’s death a simple nod to Romero's debut?

Lessons Learned
Always be nice to club bouncers

Gun control is working pretty well in lower Manhattan if by working well, you mean that the majority of downtowners are not armed with illegal weaponry. If, however, you value the protection of city residents against the plague of highly contagious man-eating rats, then perhaps gun control legistlation should be re-evaluated

Car alarms really do suck

This is definitely worth a watch, particularly for fans of New York, fast zombies, or those interested in quality horror made on a shoestring budget. My enjoyment was slightly marred by the fact that Netflix sent me not one but two scratched-beyond-salvageable DVDs, but I’m thankful I stuck it out for round 3. There are a few behind-the-scenes shorts, but the absence of a commentary track makes me hesitate to recommend a buy. This is a good piece of horror that’s best watched in one sitting with the lights off. There are several points that might become deeper or more impressive upon repeat viewings--look closer at the New York 2 background news, pay more attention to the ambiguous relationship between Clutch and his roommate, observe some of the nightmarish imagery Casey spots on her homeward trek--so a low-priced copy should certainly get you your money’s worth. If nothing else, take one night to support a low budget filmmaker that clearly loves horror, loves New York, and knows a thing or two about the evils of urban sprawl.

Friday, April 10, 2009

It Could Be Bunnies...

I was truly hoping to get a double Easter feature in for Sunday, with both Night of the Lepus and Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter on my queue, but sadly an intensely busy week has devoured my free time faster than you can say homicidal robot teachers. Speaking of which, those homicidal robot teachers get a quick visit in my weekly Pop Syndicate Toychest blog on how to find the right house or apartment without succumbing to a horror haunted fate:

And because it's Friday, because it's Cadbury Cream Season, and just because, here's George Bush getting cozy with an Easter Bunny:

Bonus points for anyone who wants to narrate the conversation between these two rascally rabbits.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The White Stuff

The Stuff does to corporate food products what Gremlins did to Cabbage Patch Kids. In the same way Joe Dante’s wicked little Christmas carol was a cautionary tale of the dangerous nature of "must have" product pushing --an unheeded warning, as seen by the Tickle-Me-Elmo mania ten years later--Larry Cohen’s 1985 horror comedy satirizes the evil of corporate greed and the impressionable consumers it destroys.

Quick Plot: When a bubbling white substance begins to ooze upwards from the earth, a passerby naturally dips his finger in it, takes a lick, and declares it delicious. Soon after, the stuff is dubbedThe Stuff and packaged in half pints, advertised with catchy 80s theme songs that highlight its zero calorie content, and devoured by supermarket shoppers across the country. The ice cream industry, facing bankruptcy, hires former FBI investigator (and Cohen compadre) Michael Moriarity (playing a man whose friends call him Mo, “Because no matter how much I get, I always want mo’’) to dig up the dirt on The Stuff. Meanwhile, a spunky boy with a dangerous craving for midnight snacks comes to despise the gooey dieter’s dream dish as his family--and, we assume, most of the world--becomes more and more addicted to its guilt-free sweetness. Toss in Garret Morris as a kung foo enhanced cookie maven, Danny Aiello as a retired FDA operator with dog training problems, and an unrestrained Paul Sorvino as a militia maniac with a hatred of communism and you have a bouncy, surprisingly intelligent, and ultimately over ambitious good time.

I won’t lie. If a dessert with no calories or fat and loads of sweet taste was put out on a grocery shelf, I’d be one of the first to try it (witness some bad times with the Olestra-poisoned Wow! Doritos). There. I've said it.

The Stuff is not a scary movie, nor is it meant to be. It’s probably impossible to make a frightfest out of a killer ice creamish substance akin to Carvel’s Thinny Thin or Yoplait’s Whips. Cohen doesn’t try. Instead, the auteur goes for sharp humor with a game cast, all of whom take their quirks and run with them. Like a lot of satires, The Stuff's lack of discipline feels fun for a while, but finally gets a little too messy for the film to completely work. Still, despite some fairly weak special effects and the 1980sness of the look, Cohen's work holds up today. We're all too eager to believe something that's too good to be true and those with the power to tell us are usually all too eager to rip us off in the process.

High Points
He may be a loopy right winged bird in real life, but Michael Moriority sure can liven up a role

Spotting playwright/actor Eric Bogosian as a put-upon supermarket clerk is a minor thrill

Any theme song must be catchy, and I’ve been singing “Can’t get enough...of The Stuff!” for two days straight

Low Points
While the entire last third goes a little haywire, the very last five minutes make no sense.
SPOILER: Why would Mo and little Jason keep any tubs knowing the danger its hazard? Yes, the corporate jerks deserve their punishment, but isn't force feeding them The Stuff recipe for an unwanted (by the characters) sequel?

Dog attacks aren’t scary when the only vicous thing seems to be saliva

Lessons Learned
Children of Long Island are the future resistance

In the 80s, models were allowed to eat

Work jumpsuits are one size fits all, which is convenient when you’re 6’4

Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in a while

Much like Moriority’s Mo, The Stuff is far smarter than you would think. Yes, the bottom half is rather nonsensical, but the rest is an imaginative little piece of 80s satire completely applicable to the age of Atkins Diets and Obama t-shirts (and note how The Stuff’s logo is eerily similar to Target's marketing art). The DVD's extras are disappointingly scant, but there is a director commentary sure to entertain. Unless you're frightened by the life matter inside the Staypuff Marshmallow Man, The Stuff won't give you nightmares. It will, on the other hand, make you laugh, think, and read ingredient labels with more care.