Monday, May 25, 2020

Scream For the Invasion of the Fishmen!

It's been quite some time since I sat down and watched a Sergio Martino horror flick. Perhaps part of the reason stamps from that film being Slave of the Cannibal God, a movie I despised. Still, the guy has a beloved reputation, went on to make the glorious Hands of Steel, and with Screamers streaming on Amazon Prime and nobody getting to the beach anytime soon, why not take a swim?

Quick Plot: In 1891, a small group attempts to recover a buried treasure on a remote island only to be devoured by a gaggle of Black Lagoon-ish fish creatures. Later (or rather, earlier, since the aforementioned prologue was added by producer Roger Corman two years after Sergio Martino finished his cut), a prison ship washes ashore, along with a few convicts and their strict doctor, Claude de Ross.

It takes the fishmen all of five minutes to cut the group down to just Claude and two criminals. The trio is reluctantly taken to the estate of Edmond Rackham, a monstrous aristocrat who is using genius scientist Dr. Marvin to control the aquatic population so they can eventually recover the treasures of Atlantis, buried deep below their island.

So, yeah. There's a lot going on in Screamers. We're also dealing with attempted rape from multiple directions for poor beautiful Barbara Bach and some squirmy racial politics involving the local islanders. 

THOSE THINGS aside, Screamers is otherwise pretty fun and certainly different. I don't usually expect my exploitation films to include subplots involving Atlantis and human evolution. There's also plenty of creative horrors to be found in the actual fishmen, and their webbed attacks are colorful and gross. 

How much of the final product should be attributed to Martino is apparently arguable, as Corman had that cut chopped up and freshened with additional footage shot by Miller Drake and possibly, a very young Joe Dante. Despite his recent past as a director unafraid of guts and gore, Martino apparently wanted his film to be more adventure and less Zombie (a clear influence). Oddly enough, it's the gooey gore that keeps things most interesting.

High Points
Fishmen! We just don't get enough fishmen in the world of horror!

Low Points
Unfortunately, there's so much front-loaded fishmen action (even if you disregard the non-Martino intro) that Screamers' center drags hard

Lessons Learned
Animals don't build traps

When roaming a deserted island, always be on the lookout for spear-floored pits

I have seen the future, and future is fishmen

Screamers is pretty messy (even by the standards of a '70s Italian horror picture) but it's also genuinely different from most genre fare. If you're looking for an Island of Dr. Moreau-ish tale, you're not going to find much more. Let your prison ship wash ashore on Amazon Prime and enjoy.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Support the Girls

You might think that there's no reason in the world why I haven't already seen 1989's Killer Workout. An '80s slasher that opens with a tanning bath death? Brought to you by the team behind Deadly Prey?! A movie whose alternate title is Aeorbi-Cide?!!

And yet, here we are, 31 years after this film's release and I'm only catching it now via Amazon Prime. The reason? For 31 years, I thought Killer Workout and Death Spa were one movie.

Look, it's been a rough 2020, but let us celebrate the fact that even amidst modern hell, we can find such gifts.

Quick Plot: Up and coming supermodel Valerie comes home to the best news a gal can hear: she's booked the cover of a major fashion magazine. Her agent advises her to get a quick tan before her morning flight to Paris, and in true Final Destination 3 form, things get very, very hot. 

Some time later, the action moves to a hip gym run by the hard-working Rhonda (Marcia Karr from Savage Streets). After a busy day of aerobics, a female member is stabbed to death on site in the shower. The grumpy detective barely has enough time to investigate before his number one suspect becomes victim number two. 

This pattern continues.

Within a week, a dozen gym members have been found brutally murdered. It's a testament to Rhonda's workout plan that her classes still seem fairly full. Take THAT, Jillian Michaels. 

Killer Workout is written and directed by David A. Prior, whose Deadly Prey involved a scene where a man tore another's arm off and proceeded to BEAT HIM TO DEATH WITH IT. We don't quite reach those heights here, but that doesn't mean we don't have a good time.

There are wackily filmed point of view elaborate murders, ridiculous plot twists, super earnest hand to hand combat scenes, and endless shots of poorly supported large breasts bouncing along to enthusiastic calisthenics. Were you really looking for anything else?

High Points
The sheer absurdity and messy execution of the ending reveal is so gloriously ridiculous that it's somehow perfection

Low Points
I mean, this is not a good movie by any conventional metrics. So, you know, that

Lessons Learned
When all of your male characters are pigs, your only option for working in a sex scene is an elaborate dream sequence

If you want a feel, head to Hollywood Boulevard

Maintaining a perfectly fit body is a lot of work, but if the reward is that you get to rock a gold lamé harem jumpsuit, sign me up

Killer Workout is probably the second best gym-set slasher that includes a tanning bed death to come out in the late '80s, but that doesn't mean it's not a damn good time. Your life will be no more important, but far richer for the experience. Have yourself an Amazon Prime time, and don't forget to stretch.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Hello Dollies

In 2008, Pascal Laugier unleashed Martyrs on the world, gaining a whole lot of love from the horror crowd. His followup, 2012's The Tall Man, was a good film that fell flat to an audience that went in expecting more flayings and came out with something far more positive. 

Now on Shudder, Incident In a Ghostland is Laugier's third film, and seems to dip deep into his bag of tricks. How does it work? Let's see.

Quick Plot: Single mom Pauline is driving her teenage daughters to their new home, an antiques-stuffed remote estate left to her by a late aunt. Oldest Vera is a bit of a brat, while younger Beth is an H.P. Lovecraft-obsessed bookworm with big dreams of being a horror novelist, even if she also happens to be scared of her own shadow.

The ladies haven't unpacked their first suitcase when a pair of violent, rapist murderers barge in. Vera is assaulted as Beth runs for cover and Pauline valiantly battles through multiple stab wounds to save her girls.

Flashing forward, Beth has gone on to make good on her childhood goals, becoming a celebrated novelist (a "master of horror," no less) with a supportive husband and happy young son. Vera, on the other hand, remains in that terrible basement, reliving her trauma over and over again.

Much like Martyrs and The Tall Man, Incident In a Ghostland has a very clear stopping point for a plot synopsis because, what do you know, there's a huge twist that changes everything and makes the film impossible to discuss further. 

This guy, you might say, has a few patterns.

I'll tread around spoiling Ghostland, a film that I can't decide whether to recommend or roll my eyes at. As he's shown before, Laugier knows how to stage an effective home invasion. His villains are unsettling in a slightly new way, but at the same time, do we really need another tale of pretty young woman being raped in a basement?

Yes, Ghostland has some surprises in store. At times, the little reveals are cool, especially in how they stop your eyeballs from rolling all the way to the back of your head once you realize that hipster typewriter has a hidden meaning. But when you sit back and start to add up the sum of Incident's parts, it's hard to find much there to justify some of the easy violence.

Laugier can direct a genre film. Incident In a Ghostland is beautifully shot and very well acted. And maybe that in itself is what makes it a disappointment. He can do so much more without falling into the trappings pretty woman running from rapists. Let's hope for something more interesting next time.

High Points
Look, I don't particularly love the nature of some of Incident In a Ghostland's violence, but as he's proved time and time again, Laugier knows how to make a sequence hurt

Low Points
There's an added awfulness to Incident In a Ghostland's legacy: actress Taylor Hickson, then just 19 playing the young Vera, was injured on set due to, by most accounts, some very irresponsible behavior on the part of the production company (Laugier included). It's one more reason to look at a film about the abuse of teenage girls with some pretty cloudy eyes

Lessons Learned
There's no better reason to write than to keep from going insane

Never underestimate the usefulness of an antique baby doll as a hand-to-hand combat weapon

I have a hard time explaining whether you should actually see Incident In a Ghostland, because I honestly don't know how I felt about it. This is a film FILLED with random creepy antique dolls, and yet I find myself wrinkling my nose trying to figure out whether I should feel some disgust at what's on and offscreen. Ultimately, it's pretty unsatisfying. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

They Did the Mash

Considering the socioeconomic wars of the 21th century (not to mention the three hundreds years before, at least in this country), it's not terribly surprising to see so many films of recent years tackling the battles of the rich vs. the poor. Here's another one, probably with more innards than most.

Quick Plot: Iris, boyfriend Dodge, and pal Casper are a trio of petty thieves who have a safe, simple system of ripping off wealthy homes, When Casper's gambling addict dad is kidnapped by loan sharks, the team needs to up their stakes with a bigger score. Using Iris's catering gig, they decide to make a big play at the dinner party thrown by the Dawsons at their luxurious, secluded estate.

If you don't read the synopsis listed on Shudder for Monster Party, that might be your stopping point for this review. As you can guess, things go terribly wrong and our petty criminals are left battling for their lives, Ready Or Not-style. If you already know the reveal of the Dawsons' guest list, read on.

As you know from looking at any quick description of Monster Party, the Dawsons and their fancy guests are recovering serial killers, celebrating their anniversary of not murdering strangers. While Casper & Co.'s impending robbery is certainly about to give the addicts' some form of license to relapse, 20something sadist son Elliot doesn't even wait for an excuse: without much fanfare, he decides to brutally kill Dodge.

Casper and Iris are quickly put on defense, with the Dawson's teenage daughter Alexis crossing the class lines to join them. Meanwhile, team leader Milo (the regal perfection that is Lance Reddick) urges his fellow addicts to resist temptation and maintain their celibate non-homicidal ways. 

It gets pretty bloody pretty quickly.

Written and directed by Chris von Hoffmann, Monster Party earns a fair amount of points for originality but loses a few from me for its overall mean streak. It seems to want to mix horror with humor, but it doesn't fully know how to do both. It's unclear who we're supposed to root for, with little real development being given to the haves or have nots. 

Always a treasure, The Craft's Robin Tunney offers an extremely strong presence as the Dawson matriarch, but the script doesn't seem to find her nearly as interesting as the audience probably does (part of this might just be that no script anticipates just how good Robin Tunney is). I lost count of the guests and honestly couldn't remember whose face had already been smashed in and who was still looking to tear a poor teenager apart with his bare hands. 

Still, there's plenty here for a solid 90 minutes. It didn't fully suit my tastes, but von Hoffmann might be one to watch, especially if he gets the crueler, easy kill jokes out of his system.

High Points
This really is a sharp cast, both with veterans who know how to make the most out of something small and a surprisingly likable group of young actors, particularly Jessica Jones' Erin Moriarty (Alexis) and Virginia Gardner (Iris), who was also the best thing in the recent Halloween re-whatever

Low Points
On one hand, I don't necessarily need a deep backstory for an entire dinner party, but at the same time, there are quite a few unanswered questions that feel more frustratingly unanswered than ambiguously asked

Lessons Learned
Nice people don't live in Malibu

It is apparently exceedingly easy to cut someone's limbs off

Katanas have a quick learning curve

There is a freshness to Monster Party that I appreciate, even if the details don't all add up to a fully satisfying experience. It's streaming on Shudder and should be satisfying for most horror fans looking for something fairly fresh.