Sunday, June 27, 2010

How Lo Can You Go

Good-hearted films are a sweet treat. When you watch such a cornucopia of nihilism, exploitation, cash-cow quickies and uninspired sequels, it's easy to grow jaded on genre cinema. Thankfully, there are always hidden gems that dare to be different or, dare we say it, simply nice. Today's feature, Travis Betz's 2009 Lo, is such an example.

Quick Plot:
Awkward young man Justin (Ward Roberts) pulls the shades down in his apartment in order to best summon Lo, a crippled demon with a mean sense of humor. Why invite a squirmy evil thing that looks like the cross between BatBoy and Voldemort into your home? Mostly to see if the fuzzy beast can find April, Justin’s lady love who was recently dragged into hell, leaving only a Necronomicon-ish book behind dog-eared to Lo’s instruction page.

But who was this quirky redhead and what about her deserved eternal torment? Over the course of the brisk 80 minute running time, Justin slowly learns a few secrets as he crouches inside his protective circle with Lo, its musically inclined Nazi coworker, and a pair of tortured souls with their own tragedy to tell.

Lo is the definition of an independent genre film: cheaply made, bursting with heart, and occasionally, too quirky for its own good. Written and directed by rogue autuer Travis Betz, Lo toys with a light-hearted Evil Dead 2ish attitude mixed with the pathos and wit of Joss Whedon’s Buffy, The results aren’t always perfect--some of Robers’ Bruce Campbell-esque ‘talk to the hand’ fell flat for me--but the overall effect makes for something far more interesting and worthwile than your average straight-to-DVD horror film.

High Points
As the titular demon, Jeremiah Berkitt knows how to deliver a snappy one-liner while still coming off as genuinely evil

The twist (unspoiled) succeeds quite well: not only does it surprise the audience, it also takes the film to a much sadder place that feels so fitting to its mythological tone

A shadow-cast cameo from a hell-sentenced couple was my personal favorite scene, funny in dialogue but also disgusting and vital to showing just how scary a place hell is
Low Points
The first overly theatrical meet-cute flashback comes off as rather forced, trying way too hard to be clever and unique but possibly alienating some viewers in the process
Lessons Learned
When drawing a safety circle for demon summoning, be sure to give yourself enough leg room. And possibly, a chamber pot
Nazi demons have a soft spot for a sexy saxophone

Band-Aids were made for a reason

Though far from perfect, Lo is an innovative little Instant Watch more than deserving of 80 minutes of your life. Those with Anya-sized holes in their hearts following the end of Buffy (I know; that hole wouldn’t be very big since actress Emma Caulfield is just slightly wider than a pixie stick but still) will find a kindred spirit in Travis Betz. In that case, yes, it’s a tad cute and self-aware for its own good, but you’ll know within the first ten minutes or so if Lo is your cup of juice. Drink up.

Friday, June 25, 2010, it's vacation; I can't be bothered to make a clever title

There are a lot of options when it comes to choosing a vacation plan. Too bad most are simply one-way tickets taking you straight into horror movie hell. 


Cabin In the Woods

Sometimes you just want to get away from it all, snuggle into a flannel and tap into your inner woodsy hermit. Too bad this usually ends in zombification, skin-rotting disease, sexual abuse via forestry or genital mutilation. What, you think Evil Dead, Cabin Fever, and Lars Von Trier's Antichrist are exceptions to the rule?

Athletic Excursions

Most of us prefer to exercise our alcohol tolerance during a vacation, but there are the bizarre few who escape to foreign lands in order to best be active. Serves these physical overachievers right for encountering such horrors. Robert Fuest's 1970 chiller, And Soon the Darkness, follows two fit young women exploring the French countryside via bicycle, working their legs so much that it becomes impossible to run away from the mysterious menace hunting their ten-speed path. Similarly, the kickass girl group at the center of The Descent could be enjoying leisure tours of the Appalachian Mountains, but sadly, the only thing they learned from Deliverance was that a sleeveless red leather jacket looks good in the wilderness.

Snowy Escape

If you're like me, you see the sweltering heat of summer as a preview of hell, making a winter getaway in June as close as you'll come to the pearly gates. It makes perfect sense for the Norwegian med students to snowmobile their way through Dead Snow while on a school break; it's just a shame their drinking games get interrupted by Nazi zombies. Things could be worse. They could be fighting their own flesh and blood, much like the ill-fated parents of The Children, another winter-break horror that ends in doom.

Island Adventure

Because you know how much directors like the contrast of blood on snow, you wise up and hit the sand somewhere safe where no real-life horror can ever find you. Of course what you get instead is generally a supernatural menace thirsting for your suntanned flesh. Look to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie for a pair of innocent (just slightly nude) scuba divers thrown into an undead infested Caribbean paradise. And no, don’t assume you’re safe just because you already survived a harrowing horror movie fate. Poor Sheriff Tiler has to rebattle the titular Jack Frost in the 2000 sequel to the world’s greatest film about a killer snowman. Yes, there’s a killer snowman in the tropics. Don’t think too hard. You’re on vacation.


As long as you’re immune to seasickness, why wouldn’t you hop on board a cruise ship? Live music, shuffleboard, and daily all-you-can-eat buffet trips...What’s the catch? Nothing really. Just the minor inconvenience of being stalked and slaughtered by a tall dude with a machete (if, of course, you’re referring to the first 3/4 of Jason Takes Manhattan). Rather keep your itinerary in your own hands? It’s hardly safer, at least if you’re weak to the charms of Billy Zane (and who isn’t?). That’s the lesson learned by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman in 1989’s Dead Calm, and unless you plan on having sex with a psychopath and aiming a bow and arrow at your beloved pooch, I advise you observe it carefully.

Road Trip Fun

See America the way Henry Ford intended with a cross-country road trip accompanied by hours of I Spy. One can only cycle through 99 Bottles of Beer On the Wall so many times before the  need for a new adventure rises, at which point there are plenty of inbred cannibals (Wrong Turn), possessed mannequins (Tourist Trap) and dysfunctional psychotic families (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) waiting to make your vacation a little more memorable.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Because Not All Abductions Are As Fun as XTRO...

Dear extraterrestrial visitors,
If you ever decide to stop by this little blue planet, consider planning your vacation in advance. Yes, there are indeed some beautiful trees to be found in Arizona (who knew?) and some friendly mid-1990s character actors willing to embrace folksy accents, but there’s also exciting places like Dollywood, Times Square, Niagra Falls, Machu Picchu, and a lot of other attractions that may be more rewarding than drilling holes into young men’s flesh.
But hey, we all have our travel hobbies (mine include wax museums, so what do I know?) and so perhaps I’m trying to make the alien cruisers in 1993’s Fire In the Sky something they are not. Have fun. Wear sunscreen. And take lots of pictures.
Quick Plot:
A manly group of lumberjacks enter a folksy Arizona bar in near shell shock. Led by a strangely scruffy Robert Patrick as Mike, the men tentatively agree to stick to their story and call in the police (quickly aided by famed Montana detective James Garner) to explain some very mysterious happenings.

We learn in flashback that the gang was finishing up a day’s work tearing down a forest when, upon driving home after sunset, an incredible red light filled the horizon. Big dreamer Travis (D.B. Sweeney, forever he of ‘toepick’ Cutting Edge fame and one of my favorite drunken celebrity encounters in the subway ever) insisted on investigating, wandering under a gigantic space ship before being stuck by its beam. 

With the rest of the fellas squealing like thirteen year old girls learning that Robert Pattinson is really a slug in a man’s suit, Mike speeds away and leaves his best friend/fiance of his kid sister to his mysterious fate.

Upon returning to the clearing, Mike can find no sign of Travis. A search party is mounted, failing to come up with any evidence of the young man’s whereabouts. In the small town, people talk. Well, not quite. They just constantly stop what they’re doing any time the suspicious loggers enter a public place so as to ogle and whisper inaudibly in judgement.
Fire in the Sky is an interesting, if strangely organized thriller that doesn’t quite know where the best part of its story is located. As Mike, Robert Patrick is sympathetic and believable, but we as the audience just aren’t that interested in the financial and marital problems brought on by his insistence to tell the truth. Similarly, Craig Sheffer’s moody Dallis never makes much sense in the big picture: Garner and the rest of the police force want to make the ex-con a prime suspect, but we as the audience already know he (and all the men) are innocent. Why waste time developing a subplot that simply won’t go anywhere?

The answer, of course, stems from those five little words that tend to mildly doom any promising premise: Based. On. A. True. Story. 
Travis Walton did and does exist, and Fire In the Sky is supposedly a fairly accurate story to his tellings of what happened that day in 1975. The grabby tagline is fine for unsettling a certain audience, but the film unfortunately falls into a bland formula that insists on documenting the police investigation and relationship drama that came from the event. 
Of course, most people that celebrate this movie focus on the third act, where (mild spoiler, but not really) the newly recovered Travis remembers just what happened to him  in those five mysterious days. For this reason alone, Fire In the Sky remains a powerful, creepy little film that finds new ways to portray a not-so-friendly (though never quite defined) race of extraterrestrials. It doesn’t completely redeem what comes before (and after) it, but this sequence is truly terrifying and, whether ‘true’ or not, sends satisfying chills down any viewer’s spine.

High Points
Right from the opening, we totally believe Robert Patrick to be everything the town sheriff says: a good straight man with a clear record to his name. Though I kind of hated where his character ended up (more due to scripting than performance), I’d say Patrick  grounds the film with believable sympathy

You won’t find a review of this film that doesn’t compliment the actual spaceship sequence because darnit, it’s truly chilling
Low Points
Of all the ways to end the film, was a quicky epilogue that jarringly swerves away from such a powerful and haunting sequence really the right way to go?
Lessons Learned
Being abducted and probed by gooey Baby Oopsie-Daisy-like aliens will not harm one’s fertility

One can grow a mean collection of facial hair in 2 1/2 years
Unfriendly ETs have diverse film tastes, with interior design styles inspired by both Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and A Clockwork Orange

I was a little let down by Fire In the Sky, but that stems more from the fact that it’s so well-made and acted and yet weirdly misguided in its plot structure. Ultimately, the film didn’t win me over yet at the same time, I recommend a rental, particularly if you enjoy alien-centric thrillers. X-Files fans should easily dig this, and even straighter horror viewers will find some neat stuff.

Also, for whatever reason of contagious movie thinkery, Fire In the Sky is a hot pick for the week here in the blogosphere. For more talk about D.B. Sweeney's shivering and true story tinkering, head to From Midnight, With Love, where TheMike himself (but not as played by Robert Patrick) does some reviewing, and The Horror Digest, where Andre digs into the real stories of FItS and other such films so proudly wearing their genuine status.

Monday, June 21, 2010

(Dead) Bird Is the Word

Jeepers do I wish there was more historically set horror. Though I imagine big studios are reluctant to drop heavy money bags on a sub-genre that makes mass audiences feel dumb and low budget producers have enough to worry about without the added pressure of period-appropriate props, watching zombies shamble in a pre-panic room world or werewolves hunt car-less victims is just more interesting.
2004’s Dead Birds has a lot of appeal for bored horror fans. With a way better than average cast and more importantly, a Civil War setting, it takes a fresh (in an old fashioned way, if that makes sense) approach to good old Satanism and ghostly hauntings.

Quick Plot: A ragtag gang of bandits (deserting Union soldiers, a love interest nurse, and an escaped slave) introduce themselves by robbing a Confederate bank and spilling a whole lot of impressive/over-the-top blood. In need of rest, leader William (E.T.’s Henry Thomas, bearded and believably manly) leads them to a deceased soldier’s abandoned mansion where CGIish children, scarecrows, and weirdly hairless human-sized dog thingies slowly appear as our antiheroes split up to develop and reveal their own conflicts.

William feels guilty for accidentally shooting a child. His lady friend Annabelle seems haunted by the death of a lovelorn soldier and, in the most interesting, yet least developed plot thread, Michael Shannon’s Clyde and Mark Boone Jr.’s Joseph hesitantly plot to ensure their share of the loot doesn’t fall into the black hands of Todd (Isaiah Washington). Naturally, these flawed individuals are prime fodder for the mysterious villains eager to harass their uninvited guests.

In terms of plot and execution, there’s nothing overly exciting about Dead Birds. The ghoulish kid monsters have a creepy quality, but the forced jump scares are far too reminiscent of J-horror sprites. At the same time, the setting itself and high pedigree cast lend a whole lot in elevating the film above the usual straight-to-DVD fare.
High Points
Am I being too hopeful, or was the eerie ragdoll with eyes and mouth sewn shut a vague visual reference to the debut Doll’s House feature, Cathy’s Curse ?

Though some viewers may complain about the not-quite complete mythology the bizarre nature of the kills is both unique and disturbing
Low Points
Peter Lopez’s score isn’t terrible, but it’s used in such a predictable way that generally negates any scare potential packed by the surprise images

I don’t mind--in fact, my High Point proves, I rather enjoyed--the lack of any specific explanation, but leaving the fate of one major character to an incomplete image is a little frustrating
Lessons Learned
Sadly, real gold does not contain a chocolate center

Slutty 19th century nurses can really bring your day down

Always pay close attention to the incredibly obvious musical cues. It will totally protect you from the inevitable jump scares.
This is a genuinely solid watch that can certainly grab you if you’re in the right mood. Though I had a few issues with some of the execution, the Western/Confederate spin and confident ghost story is a definite rent that will probably hold up for repeat viewings. I’d love to see director Alex Turner sharpen his own voice a little more without relying on a few contrived cinematic tricks. Even so, Dead Birds is a solid recommendation that will offer tired horror fans something new.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Everybody's Doing It...

For no reason whatsoever, America’s youth (ranging in age between three and seventeen, by my accounts) have become insanely obsessed with collecting colorful bracelets vaguely shaped like random nouns. Bandz, as they’re called, are simply the latest commercial product in a long line of short-lived trends that serve to annoy teachers, rob parents, divide schoolyard friends and generally make the world a worse place.

Need further proof? Examine, if you will, today’s genre-centric list of films that capture the horror of materialism gone wild:


Joe Dante’s seminal Cabbage Patch Kids-inspired Christmas classic is the educational gift that keeps on giving, riffing on the dangers of irresponsible materialism with the cutest metaphor to ever squeak. As parents mowed each other down in shopping malls to deliver chubby faced baby dolls to their greedy kids, Dante captured the overly ambitious gifting craze with Gizmo, and adorable living teddy bear with a rule book even Santa couldn’t follow. Predicting--or possibly, inspiring--future toy fads like Tickle-Me-Elmo and, in an odd twist, the clearly Mogwai-based Furbies.

Child’s Play

It’s hard to be the fatherless poor kid at daycare in downtown Chicago, but even harder when mom’s idea of an appropriate birthday gift is a box of pants. Between delicious breakfast cereal and Saturday morning cartoons, it’s no wonder that young Andy Barclay becomes so fixated on obtaining a Good Guy Doll, a promised ‘friend to the end’ with a $50+ price tag. Misguidedly believing such a My Buddy knockoff will bring him peace, Andy guilts his mom into using her bonus in the back alley to purchase the toy. How to punish a child for his greed? Soul snatching, naturally.

Remember when your teachers, friends, neighbors, cousins, and kittens were shedding belly fat with the Atkins Diet? Didn’t it sound like the best idea since WOW Doritos? Then, just as you were about to declare jihad on bagels, you remembered that WOW Doritos were officially declared an agent of the devil (via your toilet). That’s the lesson you should remember watching Larry Cohen’s The Stuff, a gleeful satire that uses a delicious fat-free frozen treat to explore America’s obsession with lo-cal commercialism.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Perhaps the holiday’s best lesson at teaching kids to make their own costumes and avoid the temptations of everybody’s-doing-it store bought digs. What happens when your child wears the same rubber mask as 75% of the buying public? He or she turns into a rotten pumpkin. Serves you right for not thinking outside the box.

Suicide Club

Peer pressure has led to many a minor tragedy: feathered hair, bullying, Phish. But few lapses of individual judgement are quite as unfortunate as the events that occur in this 2002 surrealist genre glob, wherein offing oneself becomes way cooler than XBox, ‘N Sync, or talking to the hand. As usual, pop music is the main offender, with the sweet siren songs of girl group Dessert (or Desert) calling teens, comedians, housewives, and policemen to hurl their bodies in front of racing subway trains, chop off their appendages while slicing sandwiches, and leap to their deaths at the urging of their peers. Though the exact nature of the suicidal craze isn’t quite explained and the cure comes off as questionable, Suicide Club remains the thinking gorehound’s philosophical bible for exploring mass societal behavior with macabre humor and scraped off earlobes.


Sometiems it’s not just the kids that get hooked by ubiquitous marketing. Take Carrie Anne Moss’s June Cleaver-esque homemaker in 2006’s zombedy Fido. All this stay-at-home mom wants is to have the same merchant goods as the neighbors. In this case, that good is an undead servant to call her family’s own. Though most of the films on this list demonstrate the negative aspect of trends (and Fido’s premise basically equates to modern slavery), this quirky black comedy ironically results in the most positive outcome of all. Sometimes, true love truly does start with a price tag. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

There’s a Lightning Bug in the Doll’s House and It’s Making Me SQUIRM!

Actually, it’s making me happy as a ladybug on uppers that I got to watch Jeff Lieberman’s notorious 1976 classic, Squirm. I’m just guilty of a good headline. Hopefully, that’s just about all I share with the NY Post.
And thusly do I present a new, hopefully monthly segment here wherein everybody’s favorite South Carolinian blogging superstar T.L. Bugg (of The Lightning Bug's Lair fame) orders me to watch a film of his choosing. My only defense is to retaliate with a pick of my own. For our flagship movie club, I chose the 1989 Belgian John Waters (and Emily Intravia) favorite Baxter, a film I reviewed here ages ago and have strived to recommend to the rest of the world. Mr. Bugg’s review should be up today, so head over to catch his thoughts.  
Oh yeah. And he chose Squirm.
Quick Plot: Some TCMish text tells us that something mysterious happened one night in the small Georgia hamlet of Fly Creek. Following an angry thunderstorm, a few downed power lines are, unbeknownst to the incredibly folksy townspeople, sending thousands of volts underground to piss off an overwhelming population of pink Glycera worms who conveniently enough for a horror movie, have the voices of rabid elephants.

But let’s save that for the second hour of the film as the first is primarily devoted to pretty redhead Geri and her visiting big city nerd beau Mick. The would-be lovebirds have an exciting day planned filled with antiquing and fishing with a third wheel village idiot Roger, but a series of unfortunate events cause a few kinks. First, Mick earns the small town ire of the womanizing Sheriff when he discovers a worm in his aik reem (egg cream to us city folk). Rather than accept some added protein with his Brooklyn delight, Mick insults the big-haired waitress/prospective target of police sexual harassment and later reangers the man of the law by reporting a skeleton buried half-heartedly in Geri’s friend’s yard.

Clearly, something is amiss in Fly Creek but this being a ‘70s creature feature, nobody can be expected to act rationally in saving the doomed town. Perhaps it’s due to his helmet hairstyle, but Mick takes it upon himself to harness his inner Scooby Doo and crack the case, enlisting Geri to ‘distract’ suspect Roger, while he compares dental records pre-CSI style to identify the skeletal corpse (it helps that actor Don Scardino bares a slight resemblance to what I imagine Michael C. Hall’s awkward little brother must look like). 

Eventually--and it all does take a surprisingly long amount of time, proving that even in horror, Southerners are just dang slow--the super-race of angry earthworms emerge en masse to ooze through small openings and cause supporting characters to feel very icky.
Squirm is a pretty infamous film that holds the special title of being the penultimate feature presentation for MST3K. On one hand, the goofiness of Lieberman’s low budget yarn makes for ample riffing yet at the same time, it seems a little more aware of itself than truly misguided messes like City Limits or Manos: The Hands of Fate. You’d expect as much from the director smart quirky fare like Blue Sunshine. 

Unless you have a phobia of worms, Squirm is never really scary to adult sensibilities (though were the hairless pinkies replaced by fuzzy caterpillars, I’d still be trembling). Closeups of worm mouths are just kind of cute, while the mass globs of pink squiggles feel more like another brick on the wall in Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education” than anything that can actually hurt you. But despite the general limitations of his premise, Lieberman manages to construct an energetically enjoyable and truly memorable little genre film that holds up for a solidly fun 90 minutes of watching.
HIgh Points
Most of the more obvious comic aspects play out quite well, especially the trying-too-hard-in-wedge-heels physicality of Fran Higgins as annoyingly lovable lil sis Alma

Though it never really fits with the lighter tone of the actual film, Squirm’s opening theme song has a weirdly haunting effect
Low Points
On the other hand, the closing credits take their bow to an odd mush of love ballad cheese. At what point was I watching Ice Castles?
Much like The Descent 2, Squirm proves that there’s plenty of ambient lighting to be found without the help of candles, flashlights, lamps, or moon

Lessons Learned
Southerners look down on overpackers
Resist the urge to mock the hot-headed town sheriff until after he walks far enough out of earshot

Italian restaurants are not the best setting to bring up the topic of killer worms tormenting your town
Winning Line
“I’m not a tourist. I’m a Libra.”
Damn I wish I was alive to be hit on in the ‘70s

I’ve said this about everything from Bugsy Malone to Spider Baby , but Squirm is another one of those films I wish I had on VHS as an enthusiastic 8 year old. There’s a joyful sense of innocence mixed with the tenants of ‘80s trash--actually, no. My instinctive followup to ‘70s’ is ‘trash’ but like the self-proclaimed antique dealers that populate Fly Creek, Squirm is better described as junk, probably fitting in mood to what sits between Oscar the Grouch and his can. 

For those readers still attempting to translate my analogies, I’ll explain in more universal terms: Squirm is good clean (if you don’t mind worm guts) fun. The DVD includes what I’ve been told is a highly enjoyable director commentary that may warrant a discount bin price tag. 

Thanks to the one and only Lightning Bugg (not worm), for the recommend, and remember to hit up his lair   for some nihilistic canine action later today!