Wednesday, March 31, 2010


After watching 2008’s The Children, I was inspired by the powers of Instant Watch and black nail polish to revisit the 1980 film of the same name. A VHS mainstay of my youth, I was curious to see how a film whose snapshots stayed in my head for over 20 years would fare today.

Quick Plot: Two nuclear power plant employees who make Homer look like the employee of the month lazily leave work without checking a few gizmos and pressure levels. No overtime pay, plus it’s happy hour at Moe’s (seriously. Kind of).

Cut to a jaundice hued fog floating through the sunny small town of Ravensback, populated by the most bizarrely cranky adults since Bye Bye Birdie. As school children miraculously complete a round of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall (how long IS this ride home?) the bright yellow bus drives straight into the dull yellow haze.

Bad things come from airborne nuclear fallout, and instantaneous black nail polish on kid fingers is just the start. The earnest, if completely inept Sheriff Hart (Gil Rogers) discovers the bus abandoned and driver roasted like a marshmallow on the roadside. Slowly and not really surely, he lumbers into action.

In an era before cell phones, Sheriff Hart must make house calls to the missing kids’ parents, all of whom prove to be extremely surly. Dr. Joyce Gould looks ready to punch the poor policeman in the face for no real reason, although maybe there’s some residual stress from having to care for her possible daughter/lover/personal pianist whose presence or inertia is never explained. The Best Screen Couple of All Time lounge poolside as only swinging ‘70s alcoholics can, mother a topless bather and father an Ahnold caliber weight lifter wearing a Speedo. These characters have no actual significance in the story, but they are, in a word, awesome.

Before long, we discover exactly what’s become of the Ravensback kids. Sort of. We don’t know quite why, but they now are united with one goal on their minds: kill adults.

By hugging them.

Best method of death ever? Possibly. On one hand, the implications of your flesh and blood taking your life via embrace is disturbing and tragic. On the other, it’s rather hilarious. Especially considering the corpses bear a slight resemblance to Gary Oldman’s mangle-faced villain in Hannibal.

The Children starts off with little promise. Yes, it’s entertaining for nostalgic reasons, but the initial kills are ripe for laughter, with a mixed bag of acting skill and clumsy executed murders. About halfway into the film, however, something starts to click.

Recently, I discussed my admiration for horror films that take place during the day. The Children begins, quite terribly, in the early afternoon where all its sunny murders look dreadful. Oddly enough, when the sun goes down and director Max Kalmanoicz gets to play more with his staging, the film finds a strong sense of creepiness. Yes, samurai sword hand chops are still fairly ridiculous, but watching a nice country sheriff shoot children, only to have them pop back up like they’re playing Duck Duck Goose is actually unsettling.

High Points
An early jump scare with a hug-happy child is surprisingly effective

A gloriously dated scene has a ready-to-pop pregnant protagonist smoking a Marlboro

Low Points
The lack of acting experience is painfully obvious in a few minor characters, which wouldn’t be atrocious if they had a stronger script or direction to blaze through. When a farmer’s daughter enters a quiet home, there’s about 9 repetitions of the lines “What’s the matter? Cut it out! “What’s the matter? Cut it out!” because clearly nobody on set had anything better to contribute

At one point, we learn that the strange kiddie-led massacres seem to be occurring on a national scale. While this should offer more potential for terror, there’s something underwhelming about the revelations, almost a ‘why-should-we-care attitude about the characters onscreen when the world has gone to hell around them (and probably in much more interesting ways)

Lessons Learned
The best way to make a point is to demonstrate your mastery with an automatic car window

Never call in state troopers, even when multiple children are missing and several adults are turning up dead. You’re a town sheriff for crying out loud. You should be able to handle this yourself

When searching for a gaggle of missing kids and investigating the bizarre deaths of several townspeople, it’s probably not wise to stop for coffee

Shooting a dead dog is something to be disappointed about

My fond memories of this USA Up All Night indie were mildly dashed by some of this film’s spottiness, but it remained a good time on Instant Watch. Not really scary, but haunting here and there towards the end and pretty darn amusing before that. Troma’s DVD is out there, with a few special features and a producer’s commentary. I wouldn’t advise a blind buy, but try to catch it streaming or on rental. It’s huggable.

Monday, March 29, 2010


There’s a reason I have 13 entries and counting under the label “darn kids” on this blog. Evil minors are third only to deadly dolls and killer clowns as my favorite sub-genre of horror, something quite a few recent films (Orphan, Joshua) have cemented as pure joy under 5’. When they’re funny, these films are hilarious (Esther’s prick line still has me giggling like a Crazy) and when they’re scary, they can easily be terrifying.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist watching Tom Shankland’s The Children, a 2008 film I had been attempting to save for the next xmas season. Put me on the naughty list and let the blood roll:
Quick Plot: Grown-up sisters Chloe and Elaine gather their broods at a picturesque English countryside home to celebrate New Year’s with screaming kids dulled by casual drinking. Chloe and her potential miniskirt chasing husband Robbie are living the upper middle class liberal dream with two blue-eyed tots soon to be home schooled. Elaine’s lifesty’e is a little less ideal. Her eldest daughter Casey (a fine Hannah Tointon) is a sullen dark eyeliner-wearing teen bitter towards her wormy stepfather Jonah and half siblings Miranda and the possibly Asbergery Paulie.

After a meet ‘n greet filled with all the tenants of family reunions (awkward missed kisses, lost pets, vomiting), minor tensions reveal themselves. Don’t-Call-Me-Uncle Robbie hits on Casey. Casey considers herself a missed abortion and hates everything. Miranda hates Casey. And so on. There are no major squabbles or primal loathing boiling. Just the usual family dynamics about to be rocked by forces outside their control.

Slowly, Chloe’s little monsters start to misbehave in ways that would have most babysitters running into the arms of Michael Myers. One of the most terrifying scenes occurs before the film even enters its mayhem phase, when a New year’s breakfast descends into a sort of Freaks one-of-us nightmare with higher voiced screams and eggs. It’s familiar but extremely uncomfortable and a perfect segway into the Who Can Kill a Child  territory we’re about to enter.
I’ll tread lightly through the snowy spoilers because The Children is yet another fine example of chillingly effective modern horror with a familiar old school premise grounding the tale. As you can guess from the title, poster, description or foreshadowing, these kids ain’t right and all legal adults have some bloody times ahead.

We’ve seen--okay, I’ve seen--plenty of minors slicing their parents with irresponsibly placed kitchen knives, just as we’ve seen our share of blood staining white snow. Director Shankland isn’t necessarily reinventing horror cinema, but he infuses The Children with a unique eye and startlingly brutal style. Sure, the kids use the same weapons as Mikey or Esther, but you’ve never quite seen a mum so maternally insistent on her kids’ innocence get an eye treatment at quite the angle here. Blood on snow is a time-honored image, but Shankland’s camera captures the ruby tone absorbing the white cold with new macabre beauty.

The Children is a genuinely unnerving film, although a tad shallow. While it doesn’t quite capture the primal horror of Who Can Kill a Child (hate to keep bringing up that title but it’s an obvious influence throughout), this film grabbed me by my ponytail for a good 90 minutes and once again made me thankful brown eyes are a dominant trait.

That’s right sapphires: your naturally eerie stares are on the outs. 
High Points
Tointon’s Casey is an excellent character to center The Children. In the poetry of Brittney, not a girl, not yet a woman. Playing with her sensuality but still in need of mommy when death is on the line. A perfect cross between the evil elementary schoolers and yuppy parents she so resents

Between the giggling kids and frazzled adults, there’s not a weak performance among the cast

As those who read my column last week on daytime horror know, I instantly give bonus points to any film not afraid of a tan. All the terror of The Children takes place on a crispy sunny day and all of the visuals benefit

Low Points
I have no issue whatsoever with (MILD KID-SIZED SPOILER ALERT) not getting a solid explanation, but there’s something empty about the actual mystery. Maybe I’m just clinging to the haunting documentary opening of Who Can Kill a Child. Based on the director’s comments in the making of featurette, I think The Children was more an exploration of the parents’ behavior than a story of evil kids. In that sense, there’s some intriguing, if underdeveloped ideas.
Lessons Learned
If you don’t want your mother to know about the tattoo on your navel, avoid wearing shirts that highlight your midriff

Gold stars are not the answer to everything
Hoop earrings are inappropriate accessories for child-rearing
This is a nastily fun ride and more than worth a rental. Fans of the killer kid classics or well-made modern horror with a high blood dose will be happy to own it. No commentary, but the DVD does contain a few behind-the-scenes shorts (revealing, as you’d expect, the smiling and adorable child actors) and a few wisely deleted scenes. Give it an enthusiastic try...just not when babysitting.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Your Clown Name Would Be Shivers Too If You Couldn't Wear a Shirt

Hard to believe it was just 5.5 months ago that Kevin Kangas cured my coulrophobia with Fear of Clowns , a bizarrely bad horror that, to my knowledge, made history as the first film to ever star a topless clown or at the very least, the first to star a topless clown stalking an artist and never once cited as being a topless clown.
“A thundering disappointment...a dreadful mess of ineptitude...oddly watchable” were just a few descriptions I used. The High Point was the fact that although the lead character was a single mother, the film avoided using an inevitably awful (I imagine The Blind Side ’s S.J. awful) child actor. 
I wasn’t, in a word, kind to Fear of Clowns, which makes the virtual olive branch of sorts extended by Mr. Kangas himself all the more impressive. Skim through the comments left on my original review for proof of this filmmaker’s good natured sense of humor and refreshing ability to accept and even, it would seem, enjoy criticism. Based mostly on his support here and general enthusiasm for his own brand of low budget horror filmmaking, I decided it was time to venture into possibly terrifying for any number of ways sequel, Fear of Clowns 2.

Quick Plot: Reprising his role as a Bruce Campbell lookalike, Detective Peters (a refreshingly toned down Frank Lama), learns he is slowly dying from an unpronounceable brain disease (presumably caused by his over the top performance in Fear of Clowns). Bad news, but there’s worse on its way when Shivers, the well-toned, psychotic, and more allergic to shirts than Matthew McConaughy clown escapes from a mental asylum along with two fellow face-painted inmates and a shifty orderly.

Shivers & Co. gear up--sadly sans comically small Volkswagon and instead in a sleek rape van--and head straight to the home of one Lynn Blodgett (still played by Jackie Reyes and still generally referred to by full name, sort of the Liz Lemon of low budget horror). Now a successful artist cornering the market on clown-inspired paintings (poor She’s All That’s Rachel Leigh Cook weeps in envy), Lynn is less than thrilled to learn her single mom (still thankfully sans onscreen child) lifestyle will once again be interrupted by a mentally damaged clown intent on chopping her head off with a medieval style axe.
If you’ve read my review of Fear of Clowns, you probably recall me rarely using adjectives like ‘good,’ ‘effective,’ or ‘scary.’ I enjoyed its bizarre nature and entertaining messiness, but expected less than little from Kevin Kangas’ follow-up. What a refreshing dose of slushee it is that Fear of Clowns 2  is not only barrels better than its predecessor--admittedly not a great feat--but is also well-made and, at times, genuinely freaky.
Much like children, clowns tend to be more frightening when traveling in groups. Few films gave me quite as many shivers--thankfully not Shivers, as there’s no way any gal can handle more than one of those--than Victor Salva’s Clownhouse (a film that sadly disturbs me now for very different reasons). Like that controversial 1988 movie, Fear of Clowns 2 benefits greatly from Shivers’ equally homicidal cohorts. Clarence McNatt lets us imagine Michael Clarke Duncan gone bozo (and Futurama), and his homemade weapon of choice (baseball bat with spikes) suggest serious pain. The highlight of the film for many a viewer will most likely be the unfortunately underused Giggles (Phillip Levine), a creepy pedophile with a nasty laugh and a nastier resemblance to David Bowie.

Shivers once again proves that it’s next to impossible to take a topless clown seriously (when the psych ward director reveals that Shivers stole his costume from storage, I had to note “doesn’t he mean ‘lack of’”?) but Mark Lassise has a tighter hold on his mysterious clown’s insanity. Jacky Reres is solid as Lynn, and Lama takes his previously obnoxious detective into actual sympathetic territory throughout the film.
Fear of Clowns 2’s third act moves the action to a secluded (save for a horny farming family and a randomly fake breasted neighbor) farmhouse where Peters’ N.R.A. member friends hang out for $10,000 and the chance to fire rocket launchers at clowns. Personally, I would organize a national telethon to raise $10,000 to pay for the chance to fire a rocket launcher at a clown, but that’s besides the point. These retired soldiers and S.W.A.T. officers walk tough, but prove less than qualified for clown hunting. Hell, between forgetting guns locked in cars, poor fire extinguishing skills, and a propensity for splitting up, these guys probably wouldn’t survive a girl scout camping trip, but the actors have an interesting chemistry that keeps us invested their fates.

Where Fear of Clowns was an earnest, if complete mess, Fear of Clowns 2 is a surprisingly tight and well-executed little horror movie. Heads roll, then get strung up and worn as accessories. Giggling pedophiliac clowns hide in corners and suggestively tease soon-to-be victims. Characters we care about are put in danger and while they occasionally make decisions that would disappoint a kindergarten teacher in their stupidity, these are real, if quirky people we root for to beat the ragtag insane clown posse on their trail.
High Points
Chad Seiter's score is kind of a blast, calling to mind a bombastic circus theme whose only fault is a volume turned too high during a few dialogue scenes
There’s a genuine sense of humor pulsing through the editing, particularly apparent in a quick, under 1 minute cutaway to the offscreen death of a supporting character from the original film

Low Points
While Lama makes his dying detective something of a tragic hero, it feels as though Kangas missed an opportunity to play a little more with the is-he-crazy potential of a mind-debilitating death sentence
While we don’t learn why Shivers is so anti-shirt, we do learn the roots of Lynn’s coulrophobia. Considering this seemed like such a key character element in Fear of Clowns, the revelation is something of a disappointment
Lessons Learned
Although the whole numbering your days and driving you crazy thing sucks, brain diseases do offer the one benefit of curing smarminess, bad acting, and a dangerous addiction to Hawaiian shirts

12 beers will most likely impede one’s shooting accuracy
Fear not, muscle men committed to institutions for the criminally insane: there are clearly plenty of opportunities to work out and keep your abs fully toned while imprisoned
When being chased by a long-legged killer, always be sure to pause so has time to catch up. After all, he is only walking and you don't want to be rude

Fashion Tips Imparted
For the Ladies: Earth tones are ideal for blending in
For the Men: Replace Hawaiian shirts with subtler hued suits
For the Clowns: Nothing completes a look better than your best friend’s head dangling like a belt
Burning Question
In Fear of Clowns, we learned that clowns are not classified as white or black. As Fear of Clowns 2 brings us both white and black clowns, has Kangas stumbled upon the answer to ending racial tension in America?

While this not satisfy your average Friday night ticket buyer who thought the Oscars horror montage  was nifty and those Twilight kids anti-establishment, Fear of Clowns 2 is enjoyable, particularly for any fan of lower budget horror. Sure, some of the characters have IQs equal to the SPF rating on a topless clown's sunscreen, but this is a vast improvement over its predecessor and a genuinely fun ride. Not currently on Netflix, but you can stream the film over at Amazon for $2.99. Gratuitous female nudity and a Playgirl-ready villain make it the perfect he/she pleaser for any circus themed date night. If you're into that sort of thing. 

And let's face it: who isn't?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Something On a Stick Day's Eve's Eve

Mark your calendars, one and all, for a holiday rarely celebrated yet full of pointed possibilities. That’s right: March 28th is none other than Something On a Stick Day! Imagine a whole 24 hours randomly assigned to celebrate corndogs, cotton candy, ice cream bars, Salem With Trials, protest signs, and a whole lot of sharp things itching to cause some very painful horror movie deaths.

To name a few:

11. Jeepers Creepers 2

Not a great--or even good-- film by any means, but I’ll extend a tip of my hat to the opening scene, where a young farmboy catches a glimpse of one scarecrow that just doesn’t look the others, and not just because he’s a little too comfortable hanging out on that stick. Sadly the film only goes downhill from here, but it's an excellent early image worthy of at least one toothpick

10. Trick ‘r Treat

Don’t mess with a kid’s candy, particularly if the sweet tooth belongs to a pumpkin-headed, mangled face Halloween enthusiast with no tolerance for cranky candy bar swipers or snotty and insecure neighbors. Naturally, little Sam’s weapon of choice is none other than a juicy lollipop, the perfect something on a stick for autumn or spring. Or summer. Or winter. Or autumn again. 

9. The Hills Have Eyes
Poor Papa Carter spends his silver anniversary blackened like catfish while tied to a stake while his daughter gets raped, wife gets shot, and granddaughter kidnapped for a possible shish-ka-baby served on another family’s dinner table.

8. Children of the Corn

More effectively drawn in Stephen King’s short story, but the 1984 film does retain a few striking images of people staked out in the Nebraska cornfields. No one is safe, not a rotting corpse of a policeman, pre-Sara Connor Linda Hamilton, or man-child preacher Isaac. Bonus points for the implied itchiness of being tied to dried out cornhusks, particularly if have allergies.

7. Silent Hill
Poor Alyssa. Shamed by the community. Raped by a janitor. Burned at the stake at the encouragement of her Borg Queen aunt. All that's really left to look forward to is a future of blackness, annoying hourly alarms, ashy snowflakes, and the opportunity to watch others burned at the stake. The last part ain't so bad when said burnt-at-stake is infused with your blood (or the mother of someone that looks like you's blood, or something that supposedly makes sense to someone) and can therefore extend unending spools of barbed wire from her crispy appendages to gruesomely (by CGI standards) tear apart all the puritan-like townspeople that killed you first.

6. Wolf Creek

True, there’s no shrimp on a stick-headed barbie, but there sure is a head on the stick! Kind of. According to John Jarratt’s bush-wacked wacko in this 2005 shocker, the best way to use a knife--a real knife--is to jam it in a tourist’s back and sever her spine, rendering said backpacker a metaphorical head on a stick. It was definitely cuter in Lord of the RIngs.

5. Scarecrows

The life of a scarecrow probably isn’t all that great. Bird poop. Sunburn. Straw innards. And spending eternity dangling from a splintery stake in the middle of farm country. Luckily for the titular monsters of this 1988 chiller, the occasional crashed plane of bandits can call upon some sort of evil corn-infused mojo that lets them throw their voices and gleefully slaughter trespassers. 

4. Happy Birthday to Me

Not the best slasher, but easily one of the greatest movie posters of the ‘80s (and that’s a more competitive field than your average Iron Chef). Most of this 1981 film’s infamy comes from its cover art that captures the true glory of death-by-shish kabob. Painful, but delicious.

3. Zombi

You know the one contingent that actually observes Something-On-A-Stick-Day? Zombies, at least the Italian ones that hang out with Lucio Fulci. When not battling sharks or chomping through island natives, the retired conquistadors of this 1979 not-sequel-with-a-sometimes-sequel-title find innovative ways to kill alcoholics without taking a single nibble. Hence, the infamous splinter-in-the-eyeball scene. Not in zombie character, but the highlight of this zombie film.

2. Two Evil Eyes

Some guys are just asking to be impaled via log at a pagan festival. It’s only fitting if you’re a grumpy Harvey Keitel who tortures cats, hacks up his girlfriend, and generally acts like giant jerk worse than any bad lieutenant. True, the aforementioned cross-your-legs-and-wince stretch 'n stab is only a dream, but this Dario Argento directed adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's short story stakes itself in your memory long after Keitel wakes up.

1. Cannibal Holocaust

The ultimate woman-on-a-stick film, so great in its woman-on-a-stickiness that director Ruggerio Deodato was actually investigated by the authorities and suspected of murdering the actress famously shot in a state of impalement. Really it’s just a simple parlor trick involving a unicycle and some tasty balsa wood, you know, the kind of thing your uncle does at family reunions. If he's awesome.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Crazy In Love (but not with this movie)

Since seeing the trailer for Obsessed back in 2009, I've pretty much been convinced this Beyonce-powered Fatal Attraction rip-off was, in all likelihood, the best thing every made by human hands. It's a sad day when I learned otherwise.

Quick Plot: This is the story of Derek Charles (The Wire's Idris Elba, who will forever be known as Stringer Bell, will thus be referred to as Stringer Bell for the remainder of this review. I suppose by remainder, I mean whole thing).
Anyway, Stringer is a successful vice president of something at a coolly lit office somewhere in LA. Back at his new home, wife Sharon (Beyonce Knowles; remember, if it’s a serious movie, her roles are not played by the singer Beyonce, but by the actress, Beyonce Knowles...even though she sings on the soundtrack) spends most of the day not really fixing up the new digs and playing with baby boy. Life is filled with financial security, loving glances, and smooth R&B infused montages of happiness.

Cut to a meet-cute elevator encounter with Stringer and Ali Larter’s Lisa, a hot pantyhose-less temp eager to take his calls.
Literally, because she quickly ascends to serve as his makeshift secretary, a minor problem since Stringer had previously promised Sharon he’d only hire men for the job. Discrimination? Sure, but also some marital safety since the last femme to fix his coffee was none other than Sharon herself.

Naturally, Sharon has all the reason in the world to worry since Lisa turns out to be nothing less than a complete psychopath with the libido of Pepe Le Pieux. Luckily for Sharon, Stringer Bell is a loyal family man, something he’s quick to tell Lisa, sexist coworker Jerry O’Connell, Lisa, detective Christine Lahti, Lisa, Sharon, and Lisa, all about 35 times in the course of the film. 

And therein lies the biggest issue I had with what is otherwise not nearly as trashy a film as I was hoping: not once in Obsessed do we ever believe Stringer Bell will give in to the blond beauty thrusting herself at him with more earnestness than Nomi Malone. Not when she’s trying her damnest to fellate him at a Christmas party. Not when she’s clad in lingerie in the front seat of his car. Not when she’s wearing a dress straight from Kira Knightly’s closet in Atonement and slipping him Roofies at a tropical work getaway. This is a good, if rather daft and dull man and as a result, all we get to do is watch a strong well-dressed executive try his best to not touch a woman dry humping him at every turn.

Yes, there is some joyful bitch slapping catfighting rounding out the finale and yes, it’s the highlight of an otherwise inert film. At the same time, it’s not like we really know a single interesting fact about Sharon or Lisa to actually care about the outcome. Sharon is a married woman and mother. She wears colorful clothing and has big hair. Lisa is a crazy blond. She dresses like a skank and drinks dirty martinis. 

Whose side are we on? Wake me up when we care.
High Points
Larter doesn’t come near capturing a smidgen of the talent of Glenn Close, but the sheer ridiculousness of her character at least makes Lisa the most interesting thing onscreen

Low Points
So the day before I watched this film, I caught D.C. Cab, a truly joyful 1983 romp with not a single limit. You know what it DID have? A montage. An effing amazing montage. You know what Obsessed has? Two montages. A quiet, happy-family-move-in montage and another, Daddy-playing-with-kid-while-Mommy-watches-from-window montage, both with less pulse than a zombie flea.
Aside from the final countdown and a few random moments of embarrassing failed seductions, about 97 minutes of this 108 minute film

Lessons Learned
Cosmos will buy you all the info you need on the boss of a bitchy gay man
No matter what the film or target audience may be, Scout Taylor Compton remains a babysitter you should never trust with your children’s lives

The good ones are always married. Or straight. Or, one might assume, both.
Attractive women make popular additions to male-dominated offices. While this isn’t really a surprise, it is rather jarring to hear every heterosexual male in a suit comment so crassly on the newest employee

This is one of those days when I say a small prayer to the gods of Netflix for putting the right films on Instant Watch. I was truly excited to seeing Obsessed--one might go as far to say I was obsessed with seeing Obsessed, which would not be true but it would be exciting to say--and my hopes were dashed by the late night cable feel of a minor dud. There’s some fun to be had for sure, particularly in a bitchin’ girl fight and Beyonce Knowles’ attempt to be badass. Overall though, Obsessed doesn’t quite commit to the trashiness it wants to assume.