Sunday, January 30, 2011

You say dystopia, I say paradise

The words “starring Costas Mandylor” are really never good news. But when, in the very first scene of a movie starring Costas Mandylor, Ice-T plays a beat cop who fondles a passed out, plague infected woman not wearing a bra, the never good news just got a whole lot better.
Quick Plot: In a wonderful futuristic 2010 (the kind of world where cars blow up when they touch other things and gang leaders named Lucifer sport feathery shoulder pads and Ray Bans), a plague is raging throughout the nation and Caucasian gangs are seizing the streets. 
Meanwhile, a family who clearly put a lot of thought into how to deliver every one...of their lines decides to make a move from California to Phoenix in order to save the world. Pops is a scientist of some sort, but before you can say ‘are we there yet,‘ Lucifer crashes the road trip in order to kidnap the man who can maybe cure the whatever disease is kind of devastating the world. Sure.

Moving on, a pair of kickboxing brothers head the same direction, stopping to fight, in glorious occasional slo-mo, a middle aged mob that includes a dude that absolutely must be Gallagher’s older, tubbier beret wearing brother. This five minute battle proceeds with true wonderment, capped by a toast-worthy “Noooooooooo!” that sealed the deal marking Gangland as one of the great films of our time.

Surviving brother Derek (played by a Step By Step alumn, hollah that) is brought to a gang-run jail where he meets the mumbling beefcake some folks like to call Costas Mandylor, but the movie names Jared. Jared is great because he is played by Costas Mandylor, a man whose arms don’t seem to ever bend all the way due to overwhelming muscle mass in his upper body. That’s okay, because despite his limited thespian skills, Costas Mandylor does give us not one, but TWO of his own spins on the “Noooooooo!” scream before the film hits the 36 minute mark.

Have you married this movie yet? Because I have. I did it when we met Lucifer’s main henchman, a pontytailed dude in leather pants and an absent shirt. He’s basically Street Fighter’s Vega without the mask. He’s basically the most awesome thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

No I’m wrong! He can’t be the best thing, because Lucifer is working on some sort of Rocky Horror Rocky Frankenstein creation that is essentially a shirtless, even TIGHTER leather pants wearing muscleman sporting the same clear contacts as Class of 1999’s Stacey Keach. This guy defies words.

At some point, the fellas pick up a tough blond who has vowed vengeance on Lucifer for killing her sister. She may lack brute strength, but she totally makes up for it in speed and agi-agil...agility. Also, acting ability. That’s mean, maybe just vocal warmups.

Oh, and for some reason, all the beefy bad guys sound like werewolves. It's like the best parts of Turkey Shoot, with the added bonus of Lorenzo Llamas' ex-wife.
There’s a sort of Escape From New York/Zombie Death House narrative going on but really, a complicated plot is the last reason you’ll be watching Gangland. This is modern trash at its finest and I adored every moment of it.

High Points/Low Points
Like most movies of Gangland’s caliber, it’s almost impossible to actually cite what’s right or wrong with Gangland. The easy answer would be everything--or at least, the acting, script, fact that almost every scene involves at least one character stumbling over his or her lines, glorious California sunniness blazing throughout every frame despite the fact that the world is mired in martial law--you get the point. But these are the same things that make this movie such a blast to watch. So low points? Um. Look over there!
Stray Observation
Perhaps this isn’t the best place to bring this up, but why does Ice-T spell his name as such? The drink is tea that is iced, hence, Iced Tea. Now I understand a badass rapper (who would later make a living out of playing police officers, irony be damned) not wanting to take the same name that graces the back of every Applebees menu, but it just bothers me

Lessons Learned
When engaged in hand-to-hand combat with vicious thugs, it’s your duty as a representative of the law enforcement to not even think of using your department issued night stick or gun
In a dystopian near-past, local newscasters will only own one shirt
You will always be a p-pea--peasant if you don’t take what you want
One would assume skin-tight leather pants are a poor choice when planning on engaging in street battles with talented martial artists. One would be so very, very very, very wrong

When firing a gun at the only people left in the world who may be able to kill you, it is vital to aim at their feet
Everything and anything is highly flammable. I mean EVERYTHING

Optional Drinking Game
Take a shot at every “Nooooooooo” moment
Drink whenever a character uses the word ‘peasant’
Drink every time an actor trips over a line

Drink every time an actor trips over the word 'peasant'

Sip throughout the full duration of any dream sequence
Eat a pretzel whenever a bad guy growls (I don’t want you to get sick)
Drink any time someone hints at the possibility of a trip to Phoenix
Take a shot every time you spot a vicious post-apocalyptic thug with a slight weight problem

Winning Line(s)
Am I really expected to choose between just this sample of the following:

“Now you’re going to know what it feels like to DIE!”
“Bless the gun that kills you.”
“It must’ve taken a lot of balls to kill a little girl/It will take a lot less balls to kill you!”
Gangland is an awful film, one that requires immediate viewing by the entire universe if we ever hope to achieve world peace. Those who have seen 1986’s classic The Stabilizer might have a tickling inkling of what I mean. From Coolio and Ice-T’s opening cameos to Costas “I Can’t Put My Arms Down” Mandylor’s snarls, this is simply a gem of awfulness that will make your life better. Thank you, director Art Comacho. You have made Earth a place worth loving.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Don't Torture a Buggling

My complicated relationship with giallo has been documented before following my disappointment with Tenebrae and The Eyes of Laura Mars. It’s a genre I just don’t love or, more importantly, really enjoy much of. In full disclosure, I’d made the unofficial decision to just stop trying, despite the undying hope invested in me by some of my loyal readers.
It’s at this point that I’ve just realized I have an awful lot in common with the NY Mets.

Enter the world’s most talented lightning bug to the rescue! In continuing our monthly film swap, my esteemed blogging colleague T.L. Bugg chose for me 1972’s Italian classic, Don’t Torture a Duckling. As Zach is doing a series on Stephen King adaptions but had the nerve to NOT cover Stephen King’s Thinner, I insisted he watch it, and watch and review it he shall. Is it a ‘good’ film? Only if you believe carrot cake is a ‘good’ source of vegetables. But to me, it’s a pile of mid-90s horror cheese that even the classiest Bugg deserves to eat.
But first, let’s start being nicer to ducklings.
Quick Plot: A group of preteen boys cause some small town trouble on an Italian coast, teasing the local simpleton and slingshot killing lizards in the sun. One by one, they begin turning up dead, all with the same MO and often, mangled dummy corpse. Following each death, a new suspect emerges only to quickly be disproved or dispatched.
Surrounding the main tale is Patrizia (‘70s babe Barbara Bouchet), a modern (code: skanky) recovering drug addict (sure) who beings a flirtation with Tomas Milan’s nosy reporter. Also on hand are the bumbling authorities, an epileptic gypsy, Chris Sarandon-ish preist, his stern-faced mother, more stern-faced townspeople, and a mute little girl with a thing for decapitated dolls.

Like most giallos, Don’t Torture a Duckling plays an awful lot as a gory whodunit. Unlike Tenebrae or The Eyes of Laura Mars, however, it actually invites the audience into the mystery by making it both solvable and thematic. I imagine most savvy viewers will spot the killer (or killers, I spoil not yet) but a lot of the false starts are actually entertaining, even if they never feel the least bit possible.

As promised (ten seconds ago) I’m about to delve into spoiler territory. Virgin ducklings can skip down to the lessons section to preserve their chastity. All others, let’s talk:

The novelty of a Catholic priest murdering young boys is fun enough, but what I really loved about Don’t Torture a Duckling’s ending (outside of the PHENOMENAL dummy) was how, in hindsight, its very essence was inherent in the film itself. Father Don Alberto Avallone justifies his murders by trying to save the boys before they can sin, something hinted at by Patrizia’s flirtation and one of the kid‘s naughty drawings. In a way, Don’t Torture a Duckling is pure misogynist ‘70s Italian cinema, playing up the idea that women truly are evil temptresses leading innocent men to their doom. Hey, sometimes that in itself is fascinating, especially when it’s executed so well.

High Points
Best Supporting Actor, 1972: The Dummy. Holy pinnochio, that dummy.

Fulci is responsible for some truly terrible titles, but his work behind the camera is genuinely interesting here, with effective shaking and spinning landscapes used quite well
Low Points
There's something a little odd-fitting about Bouchet and Milan's random civilians ultimately being the smartest people in Europe

Stray Observation
Between this and The Beyond, can we agree that Fulci’s favorite dog breed was the German Shepherd?

Lessons Learned
If you thought the word ‘retarded’ was offensive, how about classing it up by calling deaf-mutes ‘subnormal?’
So long as you only use a decapitated Donald Duck stuffed animal, Walt Disney will not sue

Never kick away evidence at a murder scene when the ominous score is so clearly telling you not to
Don’t Torture a Duckling is already considered essential genre viewing, and I would echo that with an enthusiastic recommendation. I’m not sure if there’s a better DVD out there than my barebones Netflix rental, so a purchase depends on your wallet and special features standards.

Thanks to Zach for the swap, and now I send you over his way to trim those pesky holiday pounds with Stephen King’s Thinner!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Best Of: Year Two

Remember your second birthday? Twas a lovely time that probably involved cake, presents, eating paste, and if you’re anything like the Deadly Doll’s House, revisiting the best movies you watched and reviewed that year.

A countdown:

Sometimes a VHS transfer of a silly little genre film no one has ever heard of is a wonderful thing. This enjoyment is amplified when the viewer in question (i.e., me) works for an appliance company and has been wondering privately, “Where ARE all the good films about killer refrigerators?” Thankfully, 1991’s exists in goofy glory. By no means a buried gem, The Refrigerator nevertheless has an incredibly sweet spirit about it, focusing on a pair of newlyweds experiencing real marriage problems as their antique gateway-to-hell vintage fridge does its part to make their lives more miserable. I don’t necessarily endorse a journey through a hell frozen over to find this unreleased quickie, but you know what? It made me happy. And gave me further proof that there is indeed a horror movie made for every existing noun. 

24. Uzumaki

Imagine Hausu in an open space, then add a lot of snails. That's kind of how I took this manga-inspired horror from 2000, a bizarre but eerie trip into...I have no idea. Nope. I understood just about nothing of this one, but that in way meant I didn’t love it.

Following the haunting S&Man, J.T. Petty is slowly proving himself to be a fascinating mind behind genre film. The Burrowers was his more mainstream attempt at horror, and yet even with that conventional sense of modest studio money, it’s a marvel to behold. Set in the Old West, the film follows a few cowboys (wonderfully played by a gaggle of character actors like Clancy Brown and William Mapother) as they search for missing civilians who have been snatched up by weirdly monstrous worm things. The film is dark and atmospheric, but also funny in a manner you rarely see onscreen, helped immensely by the clever dialogue and cast chemistry. Historical horror fans can’t go wrong.

Roman Polanski is a hard person to like, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a filmmaker to admire. I will forever defend the wonders of Rosemary’s Baby, which made his 1965 precursor, Repulsion, a film that I would inevitably praise. Catherine Deneuve is a shy manicurist with an absolute phobia of men and sex. When left alone for the weekend, she descends into a paranoid madness, something not helped in the least by a rumbling and manic jazz score. A Criterion release, Repulsion is simply essential viewing for genre or general fans of great direction.

Did I enjoy this psuedo vampire love story? Not necessarily. Made by Bill Gunn as the antithesis of blaxsploitation, Ganja and Hess moves at a pace that makes molasses look like Jesse Owens. It follows a maybe vampire and his maybe new squeeze. It has no musical montages, midnight hunts or blood splattered showers. But with two great lead performances from Duane Jones and Marlene Clark, Ganja and Hess is a weirdly entrancing tale that is undoubtedly unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s the film I most want to revisit, yet don’t necessarily look forward to rewatching. When you’re a film lover who cherishes those kinds of puzzles, Ganja and Hess is clearly a hearty recommend. 

I generally disagree with boohooers who like to rant about the lack of true independent spirit in modern cinema, but when it comes to something like the gritty, gory, pooped out in the backyard of Brooklyn classic Street Trash, I can at least understand their point. 1986's bum body melt classic is enjoyable in a way that's impossible to duplicate. It's messy. Amateurish. Nonsensical and sleazy and yet, something about it made me say 'aw.' I can't quite explain why, but I swear the world of Street Trash exists on the same plain of the universe--albeit, a far different corner--as Sesame Street. Just trust me on that one. And watch the movie. 

Getting classy with the classics, I watched Eyes Without a Face to fill in some of those cinematic holes in my ‘50s foreign list. This French thriller is as sad as it is beautiful, as horrifying as it is sympathetic, and ultimately, a unique treat far more disturbing than its date would suggest. 

18. Lo

Fresh and original, Lo is a pseudo musical about a man whose quirky girlfriend was dragged to hell by the titular worm-like demon. As he tries to bring her back, our everyman hero is treated to a theatrical flashback into his relationship, complete with the occasional song and Nazi horned monster. Lo is one of those films you simply have to admire, and independent and unique story with hints of Joss Whedon-like humor and loads of charm. 

Sometimes you don’t necessarily need a musical sequence or Christopher Nolan complex plot to be a good, memorable film that connects with your target audience. Enter Splinter, Toby Wilkins’ lightweight little horror movie that’s reminiscent of early Stuart Gordon. A likable couple is taken hostage by a gun-toting tough guy (a wonderful Shea Whigham) and his drug addict girlfriend, but that’s the least of their problems once the oddball quartet encounters a zombifying parasite inside a gas station convenience store. With great stop motion effects and four genuinely good performances from our leads, Splinter is, plain and simple, a refreshing dish of horror comfort food.

Last Halloween, you couldn’t throw a popcorn ball at the blogging community without hitting a fan of Ty West’s ‘80s throwback thriller. I got there eventually, and covered in delicious popcorn balls I am indeed. The lovely Jocelin Donahue. plays an unlucky babysitter who slowly--eveeeeer soooooo slooooooooowlllllllyyyyyy--discovers the wealthy and weird older couple about to pay her rent aren’t quite what they seem. West’s style is sublime as it weaves an increasingly tense atmosphere, taking you to the point where you start to forget you’re watching a horror film just in time to be blindsided when it hits. Added to the mix are above average performances (particularly from the spunky Greta Gerwig as a talky best friend) to make House of the Devil a true and rare treat.

Notable for being the first time I ever thought to myself, “Hm. That Don Johnson can act!” Also a bizarre post-apocalyptic romp that involves one of the most interesting man/dog relationships in cinema history, as well as cannibalism, androids, and Jason Robards with painted rosy cheeks. Based on a Harlan Ellison story and directed with full abandon by L.Q. Jones, A Boy and His Dog is not necessarily a perfect film, but it’s one that offers surprise after surprise (plus more work for not so classily dismissed Tiger of the original Brady Bunch). 

On the other side of Ganja and Hess is the 1974 blaxsploitation vengeance tale with a side of zombies tossed in. The titular heroine is as kickass as she is gorgeous, and when a group of detestable white men kick her man to death, you better bet she’s summoning a top hat -wearing devil and his pinball eyed minions to serve some justice. I don’t know who in this world could possibly not enjoy Sugar Hill, but I imagine such monsters are related to the same people who seem to keep this film from getting a proper DVD release.

Rediscovering this 1993 thriller simply made me happy, which, much like #5 on my list, isn’t necessarily a mark of quality as much as it is my own odd taste. Starring a stretching-out-his-comfort-zone Macauly Culkin post Home Alone 2, The Good Son is  a modern telling of sorts of The Bad Seed. Over the top, ridiculous, melodramatic, and weirdly hilarious.

I own a barf bag once sold with second run screenings of Mark of the Devil, a 1970 period piece that wanted (and wants) its audience to believe it was the Saw of the ‘70s. What surprised me the most about Mark of the Devil, however, (aside from just how blue young Udo Kier’s eyes are) was how GOOD a film it actually was. Filled with some of the scariest, most interesting faces to ever break a camera lens, Mark of the Devil doesn’t shy away from gore (see: the rape and extended torture of a pretty blond nun) but it also tells an actual story about witchcraft hysteria in medieval Europe. Sure, the poster wants you to remember a severed tongue, but Mark of the Devil will have you thinking back on some of its performances, its landscape, and general construction instead.

As film lovers, we sometimes deserve a challenge, something Christopher “Severance Smith's time traveling mindtrip Triangle gives us in spades. A strong Melissa Leo stars as a distracted single mom on a day yacht trip with some very unlucky friends and then---well, to begin a synopsis defeats the very purpose of this film, which uses plot in a magnificent way while also giving us an extraordinary landscape on open water. It's a hearty recommend for a day your brain is fully functioning and another shot in the armor of modern movie haters' claim that there's nothing smart happening in horror. 

When a dirty bomb explodes in LA, a stay-at-home husband must decide whether to let his possibly infected wife inside. What follows is the closest thing I've seen to a modern day episode of The Twilight Zone, an almost two-man show that has you inevitably wondering, 'what would I do?' Actors Rory Cochrane and Mary McCormack do a fantastic job, as does director Chris Gorak in infusing a shoestring budget with true terror. Not necessarily the scariest film I've seen all year, but one that had a lasting effect and easily deserves more attention than a scant Sundance release earned it.

I’m a casual fan of 1999’s backwoods horror and wasn’t expecting great things from its fan-favorite sequel. But holy hillbilly, Wrong Turn 2 is joyous from the opening to the ending credits. Henry Rollins earns demigod status as a military maven turned reality show host, now forced, along with self-aware stereotypes, to battle West Virginian mutants. You’ve seen the story told before, but director Joe Lynch approaches Wrong Turn 2 with such all-out energy that at the end of the day, you’ve just had some of the most enjoyable 90 minutes of your life.

Another modern marvel that succeeded in making me squirm, Tom Shankland’s The Children is, quite possibly, the best cinematic equivalent of birth control ever put to screen. Two yuppie British families relax in the snow with a gaggle of kids and one sour teenager girl. Nobody thinks much of little Paulie’s car sickness...until it seems to spread and lead his cousins on an all-out murder spree. Brutal, scary, and not without depth (see my article in Issue 10 of Paracinema where I compare it to last year’s #1, Who Can Kill a Child?), The Children is an incredibly unsettling and well-made horror film that holds up on repeat viewings.

I'll point all thanks of this movie to my honorary little sister in horror blogging, Andre over at The Horror Digest. This 1960 (now remade) film takes place over a single day--and day it is, title be true--as a pair of vacationing English nurses are separated in a quiet French village. As someone who's lived abroad, I found And Soon the Darkness to be incredibly effective at capturing what it feels like to not speak the language of the only people who might help or hurt you. This film (by The Devil's Rain and Dr. Phibes director Robert Fuest) is the very definition of a slow burn, a full 100 minutes of mystery that doesn't necessarily climax into the biggest blowout, but drags you in so deep that by the time our heroine (wonderfully played by Pamela Franklin) uncovers the truth, you're holding your breath and squirming in fear. 

A feel-good film? Only if you’re a masochist. Lars Von Trier isn’t known for making light-hearted romps, so starting with a plot wherein a couple loses their toddler to tragedy is taking us in an already doomed direction that’s about to get a whole lot worse. Still, this is a gorgeously drawn film with two incredibly lead performances (Sandra Bullock owes Charlotte Gainsbourg her Oscar, first-born child, and Southern grit) and miles of material worthy of hourlong arguments. 

Ever find yourself in a mood where life suddenly seems to be perfect, a wonderful world filled with gleeful possibilities where everything tastes like cheddar cheese and dark chocolate? That’s how Drive-Thru, a random straight-to-DVD slasher starring not just one, but TWO Gossip Girl veterans, made me feel one boring Monday when its poster piqued my Instant Watch interest. Featuring an evil fast food mascot in the guise of a 7’ tall urban-talking clown (named, of course, Horny), Drive-Thru isn’t a good film by any means, but there’s something about its attitude that just feels like a Happy Meal. It wouldn’t shock me to learn that the film reels actually contain cocaine or some form of upper that convinced me I had just seen the best movie of all time. I’m still not really convinced that I DIDN’T.

4. Magic

When a villain terrifies Hannibal Lector, you know you’ve made the right film. Magic was recommended to me by dear friend Damocles, and truly, I will never forgive him for doing that...even if the film makes #4. Dummies are simply horrifying, but Magic, with his gigantic blue eyes, too-cute sweater vests and eerie little accent, is now a frequent flyer in my nightmares. No wonder why Anthony Hopkins threatened to set the doll on fire during filming.

Easily the most chilling film I’ve seen since I can remember what the word ‘chilling’ actually meant, this Australian Instant Watch isn’t quite a horror film, but I know I’m not alone in dubbing it the most terrifying feature released this year. Following a grieving family after the drowning of their teenage daughter, Lake Mungo unfolds like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries but grabs you in a way that physically hurts. Though there’s almost no blood, jump scares or gore, this is an incredibly cleverly crafted tale that slowly creeps into your psyche.

When you spend too much time talking to Internet entities about movies, you hear one argument repeated more than you can stand: there are no good modern horror directors. To them, I say two words: Maurice Devereaux. His earlier Running Man-ish comedy, Slashers isn’t a classic, but it bares the mark of a true filmmaker with an affection for the genre. End of the Line, on the other hand, is a terrifying, smart, and genuinely original subway set horror movie about an apocalyptic cult wreaking havoc in the underground tunnels. It’s heads smarter than most of what you see on the big screen, plus incredibly atmospheric and scary. I remember exactly how I felt after watching it a year ago: regretful that it just missed my year end list. Watch. It.

As some bloggers who will not be named have observed, I REALLY like to talk about The Exorcist III. Those who haven’t seen the film can’t possibly imagine why. The second sequel to a classic, made in the 1990s with studio interference? What could possibly be good bout such a movie? Turns out, almost everything. Directed by novelist William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist III works primarily for three reasons: superb dialogue, engaging performances (it helps with heavyweights like Brad Dourif and George C. Scott) and a few incredibly staged scares that will elicit audial responses of fear. It's not perfect--yes, the studio's interference over the script is obvious--and yet it somehow succeeds in being absolutely terrifying, plot contrivances be damned.