Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Night of the Demons (2009)

After spending most of the past decade cranking out awful horror remakes, it’s reasonable to expect filmmakers to figure out what makes the original films such fan favorites. Yet, with one exception, studios keep mucking things up and the remake of Night of the Demons is no exception.

The film opens with a flashback to 1920’s New Orleans, as a well dressed woman hangs herself off the balcony of the Broussard mansion, rather than be captured by a demon possessed gentleman. Perhaps hanging is too weak a term, as the rope appears to be woven out of piano wire and pops the poor lady’s head clean off her shoulders. A bit over the top, but the physical effect is well executed and the flashback, filmed in the style of a silent film of the time, works well. But it sets up a significant departure from the original story, which becomes a problem later in the film.

Cut to modern day New Orleans, where Angela (Shannon Elizabeth, 13 Ghosts) is sending out email invitations to her Halloween party at the Broussard family mansion. She needs the party to be a success, or else she and her cat will be out on the streets. It’s not made clear why Angela needs the money so badly, or how she knows so many college students as, despite her good looks, Elizabeth seems a bit too old to attract the college crowd simply via email. Oh well, Linnea Quigley (who appears in a cameo, reprising her cheeky opening scene) was much older then her costars in the original and no one let that get in the way.

We next meet Colin (Edward Furlong, T2, Pet Semetary 2), a low-level drug dealer trying to smooth things over with his supplier. Though he’s not invited to the party, he plans to bribe the gatekeeper (Tiffany Shepis, in a too brief part), get inside, and sell enough drugs to save his hide.

Also getting ready for the party are three college girls. Maddie (Monica Keena, Freddy vs. Jason), dressing up like a survivor girl, is talking with Lily (Dioria Baird, TCM: The Beginning, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days), who’s dressed like a sexy kitty. Then, in a faux pas moment, in walks Suzanne (Bobbi Sue Luther, Laid to Rest, Killer Pad, The Poughkeepsie Tapes), dressed like a buxom kitty from an anime porno. Guess who survives the night.

Anyway, the threesome spend a little time discussing the benefits of bikini waxing, which had members of the FanGirlTastic boards asking if women really talk in such a graphic fashion. Now, I have no clue how realistic the scene is, not being privy to an all female chat about men’s preferences concerning a groomed nether region. And I don’t know if screenwriters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch have any insight into what women talk about when the guys aren’t around. But the actresses play the scene well, suggesting the script might contain a ring of truth. Either that, or actresses in horror films are accustom to dialog that has no place in real life.

The party is a big one, as the Broussard mansion is overflowing with revelers by the time the girls arrive. In a clever nod to the original’s tag line (“Angela’s having a party, Freddy and Jason are too scared to come…”), we see revelers dressed as the Jigsaw puppet and Victor Crawley wandering through the house, only to vanish later when the nasty stuff starts. Lily bumps into her ex, some guy named Dex, who’s at the party with his friend Jason (Yes, these characters are so forgettable you can refer to them as “some guy named…”). Maddie notices her ex, Colin, is at the party, and tries to avoid him. And Suzanne is chugging drinks and dancing on the table. It’s not long before the cops show up to close it down, as Angela doesn’t have the right permits.

Maddie, Lily, Dex and Jason return after the police leave, having left Suzanne passed out in a corner. Colin, coming back to retrieve his stash from a heating vent, discovers his bag has fallen into the basement. He persuades the group take a look downstairs, where they discover a hidden room with six decomposing corpses arranged in a black magic circle. Angela, desperate after her gatekeeper walked off with the party’s take, decides to steal a gold tooth from one of the corpses. It’s no surprise that she’s bitten by the corpse (after all, that’s damn rude behavior) and is possessed by a demon. After mentioning that seven is the perfect number, she heads upstairs and, you guessed it, mayhem ensues as the group finds themselves locked in the house while trying to ward off demon attacks.

It’s a long build up (over 50 minutes before Angela gets her demon on), but now we can finally forget about the plot and meaningless character development, and get to some demon action. Not so fast, as someone decided that being chased around a dark, deserted house by demons isn’t good enough for a modern audience. Instead, our survivors find refuge in the maid’s room, where the walls covered in mystic runes designed to ward off demons. And they somehow decipher the runes and find out that the reason the owner of the Broussard house hung herself decades ago was to prevent the seven demons trapped in the house from possessing seven living people and free themselves to roam the Earth. Even more amazing than our survivors being able to read the sprawling runes is that they can replicate the spells without a “Klaatu barada, necktie” moment as the demons do their best to erase the walls and gain entry.

Like so many other remakes, Night of the Demons tries to cram in too much plot, which gets in the way of the story (to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs). The original film worked because of its simplicity, its plot nothing more than a vehicle to get a bunch of horny kids into a haunted house for a party, where drink beer, have sex and end up being chased by demons. Surviving until sunrise is suspenseful enough and once the demons showed up, the movie didn’t take a break to add more to the plot.

Yet the remake seems to thrive on showing how it can one-up the original in random, rather pointless ways. The party is larger than in the original, the world now depends on one of the group surviving, and the name of the house’s owners has changed (likely to fit the New Orleans setting, but it still feels rather pointless). Even the famous lipstick scene is amped up with a pointless, bloody reappearance of the hidden tube (though it does provide the funniest line in the movie). While the idea behind a remake is to try improving on the original (as well as make a buck on a familiar title), filmmakers need to stop trying to tweak things in meaningless ways. Better production values and effects are fine, but if you want to start changing the plot, revamp it like The Fly and The Thing, not in a pointless fashion that comes off like a smug attempt to show how sophisticated you are compared to filmmakers in the 80’s. We don’t need to have Freddie to be coming back to haunt the children he first molested, Jason doesn’t need a Batcave and a bunch of kids trying to survive a demon attack is scary enough without the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

And the less said about the ending, the better. Again, it’s a cheap attempt to upstage the original. And while it does tie into the beginning of the film, it’s such a cheat that one wonders how stupid the screenwriters think their audience is.

Now, as this is a remake of a classic blood and boobs 80’s film, I feel it’s my duty to mention that this film, while including a few brief moments of bare breasts, pales in comparison to the original as far as nudity is concerned. And most the nudity occurs after the demon attacks begin, which is rather silly when you consider the mansion was packed full of dancing, drunken, horny college students at the start of the film. If anyone did get naked before the cops busted in, I don’t remember it. I guess the screenwriters were too concern with rather pointless character development, but come on. This is Night of the Demons we’re talking about, not Let the Right One In. Stereotypical characters will work just fine and get us to the demon action that much quicker, which is what the audience is paying to see.

And, once again, the women carry the burden of shedding their clothes (which, in Ed Furlong’s case, should be considered a blessing). Come on, Hollywood, we know that college frat boys are not that inhibited at a party or after a couple of six packs, and besides, female horror fans need some eye candy as well.

The move does have some good points. The practical effects are well done and the scene where Angela seduces Suzanne is nicely shot (though Elizabeth doesn’t come off as menacing and sexy as Amelia Kinkade in the original). The acting is good and the film looks much better than some of the online trailers might have led you to believe.

In fact, if you didn't know a superior version of this tale exists, you might enjoy it as a late night junk cinema fix. But Night of the Demons 2009 lacks the scares and sense of fun that makes the original such a cult favorite, and ends up being no different the the dozens of direct to DVD horror films release every month.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Night of the Demons 3 (1997)

Well, it had to happen. After a terrific start and a solid sequel, Night of the Demons 3 (released direct to video in 1997) is a spectacular miss. It’s not that the film skimped on the sex and violence, but the script lacks the punch and sense of fun present in the previous movies. While Kevin Tenney’s screenplay is pretty solid (despite ripping off his earlier screenplays), it seems director Jim “James” Kaufman decided on a more somber tone, which dooms this sequel.
The film starts out with a cop staked out in front of Hull House, who decides to check out strange noises and lights coming from within. Unfortunate for him, the cop meets up with Angela (Amelia Kinkade, reprising her role once again), a confrontation that doesn’t last long.
As the opening credits play, with awful CGI spirits floating over a flaming landscape towards Hull House, I began to have my doubts about the film. It’s obvious that the filmmakers were trying to update the terrific animated credits from the original, but the CG is just horrid that one’s hope for the movie starts to sink before the film starts up again.
The film then introduces us to two groups of teens, who will be meeting up with in the near future. We’ll start with Abby, the brainy schoolgirl and her friend Holly, the head cheerleader. Abby is jealous of Holly’s ability to get boys (and her breasts, as she compares chests while they change into their Halloween costumes). Holly tells Abby all she needs is a little self-confidence, as she’s no slouch in the looks department. Of course, it would help if she took off her glasses, put on the right make up and… oh hell, you know the rest.
Anyway, our second group of teens is out crushing around in a van, looking for trouble. We have the van’s owner, Orson, a wanna be punk trying to act like Vince, a sociopath in the making. It’s no surprise Orson wants to be like Vince, as he’s got the hots for Vince’s slutty girlfriend Lois. Or, actually, any girl that can “… suck a golf ball through ten feet of garden hose.” It’s obvious he thinks Lois can and figures that acting like a future felon is the way to make his dream come true.
Riding in back is Nick, your standard movie pretty boy delinquent. He’s not shy about flashing his switchblade, but he just looks too clean and pretty to come off as threatening. Next to him is Reggie, the humorous sidekick that seems more out of place then pretty boy Nick. Guess who gets it first!
But it’s not Angela who draws first blood (okay, she did kill the cop, but I’m talking post opening credits). After picking up Abby and Holly, whose car has broken down on the side of the road, our group of seven teens pull up to a convenience store for supplies. By this time, Holly flirts with Nick, who brushes her off, while Abby seems rather attracted to crazy Vince. Ah, the bad boy syndrome at work.
Inside the store, underage Reggie tries to buy a six-pack, only to have a shotgun pointed at his nose by a ticked off store clerk. Vince takes the gun away and starts threatening the clerk. Of course, a couple of cops chose that moment to walk through the door. Vince, being rather hotheaded (and a bit of an idiot), opens fire, starting a prolonged gunfight that leaves Reggie on the floor with a serious gut wound, one cop blown out a window and Nick saving Holly from being shot. Everyone piles into the van, where Vince deciding to hide out at the abandoned Hull House.
Now, I have to give Tenney (returning to the franchise after writing and directing the original) some credit for figuring out a new way to get a group of teens into Hull House. The script acknowledges that everyone knows what happened to the students from Saint Rita’s Academy (NOTD2), so it’s doubtful that a bunch of kids would even try to have a party there. However, I don’t think a massive gunfight is a good way to generate any empathy for most of the characters. As they drive over the underground river, the audience is given three teens so villainous (and not in a high school way, to paraphrase Diablo Cody) that they deserve to die. Another is already near death, and one of the good girls is pining for the bad guy, so she’s probably not crossing the underground river again.
Sure, some of the characters in the earlier films are jackasses (look at Stoogie in the first film), but none of them were potential killers. Expecting the audience to care about the three delinquents and the fate awaiting them is a serious flaw in the script. It’s like asking the audience to sympathize with the insurance adjuster in Saw VI. It’s just not going to happen.
And speaking of crossing the underground river, we are now treated to a CGI effect that is not only out of place, but just unnecessary. Just because a director has access to a computer effect program, it doesn’t mean one should use it.
Back at the convenience store, we find the shot police officer alive and well, thanks to his bulletproof vest. Inside, Lieutenant Dewhurst, a magic loving detective who is retiring at midnight, pieces together what happened, even though the clerk is saying a robbery started up the gunfight. Getting a confession from the clerk, Dewhurst takes off to find the kids before the trigger-happy patrol officers gun them down.
Whatever good will Tenney garnered earlier, he loses with the character of the Lieutenant, basically Detective Dewhurst from Tenney’s first feature, Witchboard. Hell, some of the lines are lifted from the earlier picture’s dialog. This might no have been so jarring had Tenney taken a moment to tie the Lieutenant to the earlier film, like mentioning a weird case with a Ouija board or something like that. But such a scene never occurs, though it might have ended up on the cutting room floor, giving one the impression of self-plagiarism from the scriptwriter’s earlier work.
Regardless, things are getting tense at Hull House after Angela comes down the stairs. Orson revels he’s picked up the fallen cop’s gun and offers to watch the girls while Vince and Lois force Nick upstairs to search for other residents. Angela starts seducing Orson, allowing Abby and Holly to carry Reggie to the van in an attempt to escape, but Holly won’t leave without Nick.
Meanwhile, Orson discovers that French kissing a demon is never a good idea. And once he turns, the mayhem ensues as Angela and her growing demon army starts taking souls, something new for the franchise that conflicts with the earlier films. Up to this point, any victim killed by a demon (including the cop at the beginning of Part 3) becomes a demon, without any indication of surrendering their souls to Angela. And the sudden change in the rules is never explained, though it likely is meant to tie into the second movie, but the connection is never made clear. Sure, the change allows Angela to interact with and seduce her victims, bringing another dimension to the character, but it rings false if you have fond memories of the first and second films.
Still, the biggest problem with the movie is it just feels tired and old. Even Amelia Kinkade, who was terrific in the first two films, seems bored. She does have a few standout moments, including fellating a gun barrel so well that she sucks the bullets out of the revolver (and you have no idea how hard it was for me to mention that scene as one of the best moments in her performance). But it’s obvious she’s rather tired with the role, one of the few she was able to get in the 90’s before becoming a professional animal psychic.
Toss in some subpar makeup (especially Angela’s demon face, which looks like it was built out of too much Play-Doh) and it’s obvious that the demon’s days are numbered. It’s too bad, as the franchise could have kept going, had this installment lived up to the previous films. But a clich├ęd, self-plagiarizing script, some mediocre acting and heavy-handed direction locked Angela away in Hull House, unavailable for another Halloween party.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Night of the Demons 2 (1994)

Released on home video in 1994, Night of the Demons 2 is a bit of a surprise. The MPAA had spent the past decade beating up horror films is response to the slasher craze. The failure of the new NC-17 rating was becoming evident, as most theaters and newspaper listings treated films with the rating like pornographic features (and Showgirls didn’t help much). And the advent of home video was raising new concerns about children getting a hold of unrated horror films, with no one remembering that a decade ago, retailers were selling Rambo 2 toys to children.

So along comes this sequel to the cult classic, with full frontal nudity and more gore than the original. Yet it earns an R-rating, which might seem rather surprising. Perhaps the MPAA was swayed by the ending, when the teens finding salvation from the demons through old time religion. Seriously.

The film opens on an evangelical couple entering the deserted Hull House to spread the Good Word. Angela (Amelia Kinkade) is still roaming the halls and offers her new visitors some refreshments. After the couple declines a slice of Devil’s Food Cake, Angela carves into them instead. So, how does the death of two missionaries lead to the championing of religion over the demons? Well, just read on.

The film then moves to St. Rita’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for troubled teens. I have no idea why most of the kids are considered troubled, as they are pretty normal (by movie stereotype standards). You’ve got the horny jocks (Kurt and Johnny) spying on the girl’s dorm with binoculars. And you’ve got the nice girl (Bibi), the slutty one (Shirley) and her friend (Terri), all prancing around the dorm room with their friends, while in their panties (and less), with the blinds up. Yup, that’s a bunch of normal movie teens.

Even the bookworm (Perry), who’s studying demonology, seems pretty normal. The only person with the least bit of troubled history is Melissa (nicknamed Mouse by the girls). She’s Angela’s sister, orphaned when her parents received a Halloween card from Angela after the events at Hull House, which caused them to committed suicide. Although everyone assumes Angela ran away for some reason, Mouse has dreams of her demon sister coming back for a horrific family reunion.

Well, it’s time to meet the faculty. Father Bob oversees the academy. He’s not as strict as his predecessor and wants the kids to take some responsibility for their own behavior at the Halloween dance. This is in direct conflict with Sister Gloria, who is very old school. She walks around breaking up cuddling couples, reminding them to “leave a little run for the Holy Ghost” and practices fencing moves with her ever present yardstick. The two butt heads, but the good Sister defers to the demands of Father Bob (as a good Catholic woman, you can’t upset the patriarchy).

Now, as a former Catholic, I can really thing of no more saintly names as Bob and Gloria. It appears the filmmakers didn’t know much about the Catholic tradition of naming children after saints, and I can’t remember a Saint Bob, or a Saint Gloria, for that matter. But then, I’m a very lapsed Catholic, so what do I know.

Anyway, Shirley and Kurt fall afoul of Sister Gloria and are banned from the Halloween dance, along with Johnny and Bibi (who are a couple, which makes you wonder why Johnny feels the need to spy on her with Kurt). Meanwhile, Perry is grounded by Father Bob for his demonology experiments, even as he tries to convince the priest that he conjured up Angela.

Shirley decides she’s not about to give up on a Halloween party and convinces the ever horny Kurt to get Johnny, Bibi, Terri and Mouse to come with her for a celebration they will never forget. Kurt, thinking he’s going to get lucky, convinces everyone to come along, only to be neutered by Shirley’s date, Rick, and his friend Z-Boy.

Shirley didn’t tell her party guests that the gathering was at Hull House, which causes Mouse a bit of distress and she decides to stay in the car. The rest enter the house, with Johnny and Bibi venturing off for some “exploration,” and Kurt trying to hook up with Terri. Shirley and friends, however, plan to scare everyone with a sacrifice, and when the black cat offering escapes, Shirley decides that a Mouse will do.

It’s all a prank, with a retractable knife, but strange things are starting to happen and everyone decides they want to leave. Z-Boy is missing, having met up with Angela for some nookie (and we all know how that will end), but Rick decides he can find his own way home and drives the rest of the group over the underground river containing the demons.

At this point, the movie should be over, but Bibi keeps the plot rolling by acting stupid and taking along a lipstick tube she found at Hull House. By the time she realizes her mistake, Shirley gets a hold of it and decides she likes the shade.

Back at St. Rita’s, Perry has discovered Shirley’s invitations and spills the beans to Sister Gloria. The Sister rushes away from the party to discover Mouse is missing. In her absence, the kids replace the square music with some rock and begin to have a good time. Our Hull House explorers, having pulled into the academy, decide to join in. But when Shirley has to use the restroom, the lipstick spouts a long, phallic worm that impregnates her with a demon (no, I’m not kidding), which allows Angela to join the fun.

And Angela kicks the party into high gear, with a seductive dance that’s a big hit with Johnny. But things turn sour as Shirley kills Nick, and Angela knocks Johnny’s head off. Then Shirley kisses Terri, infecting her with a case of the demons. See what happens when kids take responsibility for their own fun? All hell breaks loose.

Angela kidnaps Mouse and heads back to Hull House with the intent of sacrificing her. Father Bob, rather grumpy about being awaken in the middle of the night by Perry, doesn’t believe any of this, but agrees to go to Hull House to dispel the legend of Angela. Bibi, feeling responsible for Mouse, goes along and Johnny follows suit. Perry arms himself with Holy Water balloons and squirt guns, while Sister Gloria finds the perfect ruler in preparation for a massive battle with the demons of Hull House.

And this is when the movie kicks into high gore gear. Bodies melt and explode, a decapitated corpse uses its head as a basketball and a spiked baseball bat meets someone’s skull (and wins). And, in the final battle, our remaining heroes face an awesome practical Angela-snake. It’s this final 20 minutes that had me wondering how the filmmakers got away with it.

But it’s not too hard to understand, once you step back from the gore and mayhem. And, just so you know, HERE BE SPOILERS. So, if you hadn’t seen the film yet, watch it first, than come back. I’ll be here.

I’ve heard people wonder why the religious right didn’t get behind the Slasher craze. After all, if a teenager did something “wrong,” a masked killer would make sure they didn’t sin again. But, in one of the few instances where I can give those zealots credit, the right knew Old Testament message was lost on the kids cheering for the gore and violence. But with Night of the Demons 2, the scriptwriters craft a movie that offers salvation through the saving power of faith and the Catholic Church.

It’s not pro-any-religion, considering the two evangelical missionaries hacked up in the film’s opening moments. No, we're talking the strict, Old Testament-type Catholicism that saves the day. Father Bob, who dismisses the idea of demons and strict discipline, is dispatched and possessed moments after he walks over the threshold of Hull House. But Sister Gloria, killed by Angela during the battle, comes back to life (thanks to the power of faith) in one of the biggest WTF moments I’ve seen in a while.

And the surviving teens learn to embrace the power of faith as well, with one kicking a cross-shaped opening in a boarded window to vanquish Angela at the end. I think the presentation of the strict Sister Gloria as a heroic figure, earning the teen’s respect and admiration in the end, helped sway the MPAA to grant this film an R-rating.

But don’t let that little message keep you from checking this one out. It’s a great time for horror fans, as the religious angle is just window dressing for a film chocked full of blood, guts and boobs. The original is still the best, but this sequel shows that Angela can still throw a killer party.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Night of the Demons (1988)

As promised, though a bit late of a start, here's my review of the original Night of the Demons. Expect Part 2 to follow soon until we reach the remake, released this week.

Coming off his first film, Witchboard, Kevin Tenney served up a cult classic with a light-hearted romp in a haunted (oops, make that possessed) house that’s still a lot of fun today.. Night of the Demons is a great roller coaster ride of a movie full of gore, nudity and thrills, a perfect Halloween movie for the spooky season.
This movie caused a surprising amount of controversy when it was released in theaters back in the late 80's. The gratuitous nudity and graphic gore by Steve Johnson (Dead Heat, Species) earned a lot of critical ire and forced the film to be trimmed for its theatrical release. But I feel the bookend scenes of the movie, involving a crotchety old man planning to put razorblades in Halloween apples, rub a few people the wrong way. He gets his comeuppance, have no fear, but the film was released during the media frenzy over poisoned candy and tampered carmel apples. And while these scenes were not directly attacked, the apple threat comes during the opening minutes of the film and I’m sure it put the MPAA and other moral guardians on high alert. One can only imagine their disgust that a horror film would dare include such a scene. What if senior citizens decided to imitate what they saw on the screen? Not that they were the target audience, but seniors could sneak into the theater, just like underage kids!
Regardless of the response from the MPAA and major critics, the film did well in the theaters on a limited release and garnered some good reviews. And thanks to a well-staged promotion for the VHS release, including an unrated version and some great promotional extras to rental shops, the film became a cult classic. And deservedly so, as the film is a lot of fun and holds up well for a modern audience.
The story keeps things simple. Angela (Amelia Kinkade, billed as Mimi Kinkade) and her friend Suzanne (Linnea Quigley) invite a group of teens to a Halloween party at the abandoned Hull House. A funeral home located on a plot of cursed land that was the site of countless acts of massacres and mayhem throughout the ages. The house is surrounded by a high stone fence, which is built over an underground river that keeps the demons from traveling to the surrounding woods.
As Halloween is the night demons can come out and party, how can they resist a group of horny teens? Angela and Suzanne are possessed and start dealing gory mayhem to their guests. The survivors must get out of the maze-like house and over the massive fence to escape (as the gate has vanished), or stay alive until daybreak. Both options seem unlikely, as each victim become possessed, adding to Angela’s unstoppable army.
The characters are little more than the basic cut and paste teens you’ve seen hundreds of times before, though the cast does a good job with the roles they are given. The one that seems a bit out of place is the bad boy/faux gang member. The actor can’t quite pull off a convincing tough guy menace and really doesn’t look the part. It’s a minor distraction, as most of the cast is little more than mincemeat for a demon pie.
The gore gets nasty at times, as with a brutal eye gouging scene, some nice burn makeup (after a very effective stunt sequence with two burning demons bouncing off the walls of a hallway) and a memorable “hide the lipstick tube” moment with Linnea Quigley.
Quigley supplies most of the nudity and is featured in one of horror’s most memorable close ups. About ten minutes into the film, while Angela is busy ripping off a minimart for party supplies, Suzanne is distracting the two clerks by bending over in a short, frilly skirt, while pretending to look at merchandise on the bottom counter. You’ll know the moment, as the screen is suddenly filled with a tight shot of Quigley’s, um, bum, filmed with a reverence reserved for head shots of Selma Hayek or George Clooney. One can only imagine the reaction to that scene from the crowds in the theaters or drive-ins where the film was screened.
The film also features a scene where a grade school boy scares his sister, then comments on her “bodacious boobies,” which are threatening to bust out of her bra. Only in the 80’s could kids get away with lines like when the boy asks her sister’s date if he’s only after her “ta-tas.” From the mouth of babes….
Tenney keeps the tone light and fun, despite all the gore. The film is as menacing as a spook house ride and while a few moments are genuinely creepy, it’s hard to take things too seriously. But what Tenney gets right is the chases through the house. While I find most movies that feature long tracking shots of monsters and victims traveling down dark hallways rather dull, Tenney manages to infuse some life into these static shots. The labyrinthian location is used very well, and Angela looks terrifying as she glides down the hall in search of victims. Kinkade’s dancing skills (she was lead dancer in several music videos and tours during the 80’s) serve her well, as her performance is on par with that of Katrin Alexandre as the monster in The Unnamable.
Lots of films are called cult classics, but this one earns the title. It’s hard not to enjoy this film, as Tenney and cast serve up the cheese with a smile. This movie is a pure Halloween treat that should be in any horror fan’s collection.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Witchboard (1986)

I was talking with a group of people at a local bar over the weekend, and the conversation strayed into a discussion of starlets of the 80’s. Of course, the first woman mentioned was Tawny Kitaen. While she’d appeared in several B-movies, her most notable performance was in a Whitesnake video, rolling around on the hoods of two Jaguars in a white negligee. It was an iconic moment of the 80’s and all the attention should have boosted her movie career. But it didn’t and she started working on television, appearing on Hercules, Married… With Children and Eek The Cat. Her last movie role was in 1997’s Dead Tides, with Roddy Piper and Miles O’Keeffe.
Then, in 2002, her troubles with the law began. She was arrested for allegedly hitting then-husband Chuck Finley (a major league pitcher) with a shoe. Three days later, he filed for divorce and placed a restraining order against her. Her problems continued, as she was arrested for cocaine possession in 2006 and a DWI in 2009. During this time, she was appearing on reality shows such as The Surreal Life (in the sixth season, where she was crawling on the floor of a closet in the final episode) and Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008. Perhaps this was to be expected, as David Coverdale, an ex-boyfriend and lead singer for Whitesnake, supposedly commented on her volatile personality back in the 80s.
It’s too bad her film career never took off, as she was a competent B-movie actress. Her roles in Bachelor Party and The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak reveled an actress capable of downplaying her sexuality for someone more wholesome and level headed. She never played the sultry temptress, but was often cast as the beautiful woman who would fall for an average guy, rather than the rich, snobbish suitor.
A few days after talking about her at the bar, I caught a few Whitesnake songs on the radio at work. Whether it was pure coincidence or subliminal messages from beyond, I decided to revisit Witchboard, one of my late night cable favorites from the 80’s. And does this film scream 80’s at times. The clothes, the hair and the slang make it impossible not to date this film. But that doesn’t matter, as the movie is pretty entertaining.
The movie opens during a party, hosted by Linda (Tawny) and Jim (Todd Allen). Jim’s a bit put off by Brandon (Stephen Nichols), Linda’s ex-boyfriend and Jim’s ex-best friend. Yep, as in Bachelor Party, Tawny plays the incredibly hot girlfriend of a working class fella (Jim’s a construction worker), who’s resisted the draw of a rich suitor and his family fortune. It was a role she played often, and one that always gave me hope when I was younger. After all, if working stiff Jim could be living with Tawny Kitaen, why couldn’t I get a date with the head cheerleader? Okay, I knew the answer to that one, even back then, but at least I could dream.
Sorry for the digression. And yes, I was a big geek when I was younger. Still am.
Anyway, back to the party. Brandon pulls out his Ouija board and convinces Linda to help him contact the spirit of a David, a little boy he communicates with on a regular basis. They even have a secret code, so Brandon knows he’s got David on the line. However, the hostility between Brandon and Jim upsets the little ghost, who knocks the board over and blows out the tires on Brandon’s Porsche.
This brings the party to an abrupt end, and Brandon forgets to take his Ouija board home. Despite the warnings against using it alone (as a single user gives the spirit too much access), Linda contacts David. He’s nice enough at first, but soon becomes menacing towards her. Several mysterious deaths follow and Brandon convinces Jim that Linda’s personality changes aren’t due to a possible pregnancy, but are the early signs of possession. Together, they try to find out if the little boy is trying to gain control of Linda, or if a more nefarious force is at work.
On whole, it’s a fun little horror film. While light on the gore, the script works well as a supernatural mystery. Moments of misdirection are handled well and you won’t feel cheated by a sudden twist, as all the pieces fall into place on camera. And the plot moves quick enough to let you overlooked the script’s predictability.
If you haven’t seen this movie, I offer you a word of advice. Do not look at the trailers, the making of feature or any other extra on the DVD. If you do, it will spoil what is, in my opinion, the greatest jump scare ever filmed. You really don’t want to ruin this one, as it will likely send you through the ceiling.
While this next paragraph might be a bit of a SPOILER, it should be no surprise that Linda ends up possessed by the end of the film. And this is Tawny’s shining moment. If you ever wondered what Chuck Finley faced on that fateful night in 2002, look no further than the last 10 minutes of this film. Tawny exudes such an evil presence that you can’t take your eyes off her. It doesn’t matter that she still looks smoking hot while wearing a man’s three-piece suit and swinging a fire axe. She is batshit insane and quite terrifying during the scene, delivering the performance of her career.
I wish the rest of the acting came close to this moment, but the movie falls short here. While most of the work is adequate, Allen stumbles as the lead. While he tries to convey his character’s fear of being unable to emotionally connect to anyone, Allen often appears to sleepwalk through his performance. It’s a hard trait to portray on film and Allen just wasn’t up for the task.
And I do have a problem with the basic plot. If a male spirit was trying to possess someone, I don’t think a beautiful woman is your best target. Instead of focusing on evil schemes, you’d likely end up spending most of your time in front of a mirror while groping yourself. Better to possess her boyfriend, so you can implement your nefarious plans during the day, then come home to her at night and, well, grope away. And, if you’re looking for minions, I’m sure you’d be able to get a lot of guys to follow you, all hoping that some of your mojo would rub off on them so they could attract beautiful girlfriends.
I continue to be amazed at some of the thoughts that run through my brain after a few beers.
In an interview last month, Tawny Kitaen seems to have found some peace. She’s become a better mother to her children (according to both her and her ex), she claims to be off drugs and is volunteering at a shelter for at risk women. She seems happy with her current life, and I hope that’s true.
I also hope she’s able to find her way back into genre movies. Maybe The Asylum is looking for another 80’s icon to appear in a giant fish film. I’d love to see her as a scientist trying to find a way to kill, say, a mega barracuda. Oh, get the Wilson sisters from Heart involved and I sense a mega hit in the works!
Until The Asylum takes my advice (and it’s free; all I ask is for a small credit), check out Witchboard. While not a classic by any standard, writer/director Kevin Tinney (Night of the Demons) serves up a nice little horror movie for his first feature. Perfect for any fan of 80’s horror, or those with fond memories of the gal in the Whitesnake videos.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Resident Evil films. I never worried about how the films broke away from the spirit of the games. If you think about it, the games would be boring as a film. Claire run up the stairs, solves a puzzle and gains a key, then runs back down the stairs to solve another puzzle, then repeats the action yet again. Hell, I had a hard time making that last sentence interesting, so I can’t even think of how to make it fun in a movie.
Maybe George Romero would have made a decent horror film out of the franchise, had he been allowed to shoot his script. But survival horror games often rely on providing players with a very limited amount of ammo and weaponry, so one spends a lot of time avoiding the zombie theat. It makes for a great game, but I don’t know of any director who could translate the chills of playing Resident Evil in a darkened room with the more passive act of watching the story on a movie screen.
So, Paul WS Anderson took iconic elements from the games, added a lot more zombies and gunfire, and crafted a fun little franchise following Alice’s (Milla Jovoich) struggle to end the reign of the Umbrella Corporation. The series isn’t a classic by any means, but the films are terrific fun. And at least it wasn’t the train wreck called Doom, where the entire storyline was changed and little of the original was left.
So now we come to Resident Evil: Afterlife, shot with James Cameron’s 3D technology and it’s a big, shiny, fun rollercoaster ride. If only the movie ended three minutes before the credits rolled….
I’ll get to that later. The film opens in Tokyo, with a nice nod to the game’s origins. The Alice clones storm the main headquarters of Umbrella in a beautiful orgy of blood, gunfire and psychic attacks. Unfortunately, the ladies meet up with the latest T-virus warrior (the big blond guy in the trailers), who manages to escape the base before destroying it, and the Alice army, with a massive explosion.
However, the big guy’s ship has a stowaway, the original Alice (how he knows this, I have no clue). He injects her with a vaccine that neutralizes the T-virus and eliminates her super-powers. Yet Alice manages to survive a cataclysmic plane wreck (in the most ridiculous effect sequence in the movie), and heads off to Alaska in search of Arcadia, the land of no infection mentioned in the third film.
What Alice finds is a ghost town of abandoned airplanes haunted by Claire (Ali Larter), fellow zombie ass kicker from the third film, now in a state of amnesia with a mechanical spider on her chest. The two head out down the West coast in Alice’s prop plane, looking for other survivors.
I need to comment on Milla’s performance in the plane graveyard. While no great thespian by any means, she conveys Alice’s change from super-human to mortal quite well in these scenes. Her massive guns shake for the first time in the past two movies, her posture is more tentative then cock-sure. Milla conveys the sense of her character’s rediscovered mortality through a strong physical performance and it’s quite convincing.
Of course, the two find survivors barricaded in a LA prison. They also discover that Arcadia is a massive cargo ship, which is anchored just offshore. As the group try to formulate a plan to reach Arcadia, new zombies start picking them off and a battleaxe wielding giant knocks the gate down. This sets up the next big action sequence, with Milla pulling a John McClane as the zombies follow her plunge off the building, while she lands with a single roll onto the ground several stories below.
But wasn’t Alice robbed of the T-virus super powers? Well, as Claire is taking on the giant without any major injuries, I’d say just let it ride. No reason to let common sense get in the way of a good time.
The group makes it to Arcadia, only to find it was under the control of Umbrella. However, the crew abandoned both the ship, and the cryogenically frozen survivors from Alaska, days ago. That means it’s all a trap, set up by….
Oh hell, you already know who is behind all this. But it doesn’t really matter. This is a terrific comic book on the big screen, full of great stunts, gore, cool monsters and kick ass women.
What, you want more? Okay, the film boosts some of the best 3D since Avatar. The images are clean and bright, and I had to fight the urge to brush smoke and fog away from my eyes at a few points. The cast delivers decent performances, and both Milla and Ali look great as they kick all sorts of monster butt.
In fact, my only complaint was the cliffhanger ending. Yes, I liked the character appearance during the credits. But while the previous three films reached a conclusion while only hinting at a potential sequel, this one should have posted a “To Be Continued” tag in the ending credits. Unlike the other films, this conclusion felt like the story stopped in the middle of a chapter.
Look, I don’t mind being teased into a mild climax with a promise for more. But to be told that any climax will be delayed for a year or two annoys me (yes, that sounds more sexual than I intended). And given the fact that a follow up film is dependent not only on box office performance, but the possible series reboot, Anderson should have let the series end when he had the chance. Sure, he could have always written a sequel. But he had the perfect ending and he blew it. Now fans are stuck hoping for a sequel that might never happen.
Regardless of how it ended, the rest of the film is great fun. If watching badass women kicking monster and zombie butt sounds like a great way to spend a couple hours, then the thought of watching it unfold in state of the art 3D should send you racing to the theaters.
Just be ready to mentally roll the film back a bit as the credits roll.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

DVD Release: Piranha (1978) and Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

Just in time for the premier of Piranha 3D, Shout! Factory has release two more classic drive in classics from Roger Corman: Joe Dante's original Piranha and Humanoids from the Deep. And once again, these DVDs are worthy editions to any horror fan's collection.

Piranha comes boxed with a terrific Lenticular cover of a previously unseen poster and is full of great features. The film is presented in a new Anamorphic Widescreen version and the transfer looks great.

Unlike the dumb as a bag of rocks (but never the less enjoyable) remake, Piranha includes a wry sense of humor and a more fleshed out plot. Unlike the prehistoric monstrosities released into an enclosed lake, these fish were the results of a military experiment during the Vietnam war. The school is released into a river by accident and begin to make a beeline to the ocean, stopping to snack at a summer camp and a lake resort. Adding to the complications, these fish can live in either salt or fresh water, so if they make it to the ocean, nothing will prevent them from spreading across America.

As with many of Dante's films, Piranha has a dark sense of humor, letting the film acknowledge it is ripping off of Jaws and many other monster films. In fact, it's likely that was the only thing that prevented Universal Studios from slapping an injunction of the production (Jaws 2 was release the same year). After Steven Speilberg saw the film, he not only convinced Universal to drop any legal action, he also got Dante to direct Gremlins.

While the effects budget was limited, the attacks are quite brutal, even when compared to the remake. Part of the reason is all the bites are shot in close up, hiding that the fish were puppets on rods. And the fish were equipped with steel teeth, allowing them to gnaw into prosthetic arms, legs, fingers and torsos with surprising gusto. The result are shocking and surprisingly graphic.

And, instead of one prolonged siege, Dante and company pull off two different climaxes, starting at a summer camp inhabited with lots of grade school kids. One wonders if the MPAA would have grant a R-rating to the remake if director Alexandre Aja had included such a sequence.

The features include a Making Of featurette, with new interviews from Corman, Dante, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski and others, as well as bloopers and outtakes, the trailer with commentary shown on Trailers from Hell, an extensive still gallery and scenes from the network TV version. The only disappointing feature was the commentary by Dante and producer Jon Davison. Quite a few moments of silence punctuated the commentary and Dante seems very disinterested at times. Still, this edition deserves to be a part of your DVD library.

Releasing Piranha with Humanoids from the Deep seems fitting, as I saw both as a double feature back in the early 80's. Somehow, I managed to convince some of my college friends to check them out and I doubt their opinion of me was ever the same.

If you see The Creature from the Black Lagoon as an manifestation of male lust, then it's surely the lighter side when compared to these fish monsters. The Creature is all underwater ballet, afraid (at first) to touch the object of his desire. Humanoids is a different beast, the male lust gone Neanderthal, raping women and brutally killing off any potential competitors.

The story takes place in a fishing town in California. Most of the fishermen welcome the inclusion of an industrialized cannery, while the Native Americans in the area (represented by one spokesperson throughout the film) object. What neither side in the debate realize is that the cannery has conducted some rather shady experiments, resulting in mutated man-fish that are compelled to mate with human women in order to evolve.

The plot makes even less sense as the movie continues. Yet the film moves at such a brisk pace, you don't have time to notice the gaping holes. The acting is as solid as you might expect (with Vic Morrow giving another great performance as a racist idiot), the effects by Rob Botin are solid and the movie packs enough blood and nudity to keep most horror fans interested.

The DVD extras are great, including Corman's response to the inclusion of the brutal rape sequences. According to Corman, he explained what he expected from director Barbara Peeters: the men get brutally killed, the women get raped by the fish monster. Apparently Peeters delivered on the demise of the male victims (s0 much that Corman had to edit the killings to get an R-rating), yet the scenes of the women being victimized were all shot in shadows or silhouette, prompting Corman to have the scenes reshot by the assistant director.

Most of this is known to horror fans, but Shout! Factory didn't include Peeter's response to the accusations (for reasons unknown to this blog site). And I feel the reason for such an omission should have been explained in the extensive extra features. While it's my only complaint, I feel it's a major one that needed to be addressed.

Still, the film holds up well, despite Morrow's hair style. It's a brisk, sleazy treat that will make a welcome edition to most horror fan's collections. If you liked Piranha 3D, you'll want to check this one out.

Both films are available through Shout! Factory's website,, and most Sunrise Video.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Piranha 3D (2010)

No one can accuse Piranha 3D of not delivering what director Alexandre Aja promised, which was to fill the screen with waves of bare skin and bitten flesh. And the film does for its 89 minute running time, just long enough for the audience to start feeling overdosed on bloody water and bouncing boobs.

Discussing the plot is futile. This movie is dumb as a bag of rocks, with its only clever moment (a great cameo in the opening scene) spoiled by the trailer and endless publicity. The script only serves to drive the prehistoric piranha to the spring break partiers and put the main characters in peril. When the film pauses for a moment to explain a plot point, such as when an aquarium shop owner explains how these fish survived in an underwater lake with no food source but each other for eons, it buckles under its own stupidity. But who really cares. Such scenes is nothing more than a flimsy excuse for you to suspend all disbelief until the next attack. Or the next dropped bikini top.

The acting is as good as you can expect. The actors make the most of what they are given, which isn't much, and no one give a bad performance. However, Jerry O'Connell gets to steal the show as a sleazy porn producer fueled by champagne, tequila, coke and an enormous ego. Oily and menacing, O'Connell chews up the scenery like, well, a school of ravenous piranha and delivers the most enjoyable performance in the film.

The nudity is, well, stunning. No quick glimpses or shadowy presentation here. It's all long shots and in your face (thanks, in part, to the 3D presentation). And while the scenes at the spring break party are rather crass, others are shot with a stunning reverence for naked women. A topless parasailer, pulled through the water before she's airborne, is filmed from below in a visually stunning shot. And the underwater ballet, where two naked women "dance" together (displaying breath control that would make Micheal Phelps envious) is as beautiful as the opening credits in a Connery-era Bond film. Except this time, the lights are on and no one is a silhouette. I'm surprised at how much the MPAA let Aja get away with in this scene. Maybe the 3D image was too blurry for them.

With all the bare flesh flashing across the screen, I was a bit surprised that the guys didn't get into the act. The men are surprisingly chaste for a bunch of spring break partiers, with only one mooning scene as a comedic aside. Aja, and the filmmakers that will follow him, might consider adding a few beefcake shots for female horror fans next time. I'm sure they'd appreciate it.

The gore is a great mix of practical and CGI. K.N.B. EFX Group once again produces some amazing work, with very realistic wounds and munched up bodies. And some of the gore gags during the siege on the spring breakers are simply breathtaking. It's nice to see Karo syrup blood back on the screen.

As for the fish, they still look a bit silly, though less than in the early previews. And when onscreen alone, it's hard not to chuckle a bit. But the feeding frenzy moments are great, and at times it's hard to tell when the victim is a practical effect or a CGI construct.

The 3D is about as good as you can get for post production effects. It's obvious that Aja and his crew planned for the conversion, because I didn't notice any of the darkness associated with Clash of the Titans. Even the night time underwater shots are clear and visible. And this foresight allows the 3D to be used more as a gimmick than a simple add on. Puke, fish and body parts are continually thrown at the audience and it works so well, I doubt the film would be as much fun in 2D. So see it in the theaters if you can.

I felt this film was a great time. It made me wish that some of our local pub theaters could invest in 3D technology. This film is perfect for a group of friends sharing a few pitchers of beer, hooting and laughing at one of the most shamelessly cheesy horror films ever made.

Beware, it isn't for everyone. It's lewd, crude, very bloody and easily earns it's R-rating. But if you find these more of a virtue than a vice, it's a perfect summer movie.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

DVD release: Galaxy of Terror (1981) and Forbidden World (1982)

The 80's was the last decade that horror fans could hit the multiplexes for the latest low budget offerings. Soon, the major studios would force independent films out of the theaters and directly to home video, thanks to the blockbuster mentality, which continues inundated moviegoers today.

But the 70's also signaled a chance in low budget horror. Vincent Canby in The New York Times called Jaws a big budget Roger Corman film. Then came Star Wars, and Oscar winner Corman knew Hollywood was figuring out how to make better B-movies. So he responded in the same fashion that filmmakers did in the 50s, when television threatened to draw movie goers to their couches. He delivered what the other guys couldn't or wouldn't: More sex and violence.

Nowhere is this more evident in 1980's Galaxy of Terror, and 1982's Forbidden World. Thanks to Shout! Factory, these classics of sleaze cinema are on Region 1 DVD for the first time, with great looking transfers and lots of special features.

Galaxy of Terror is the better known of the two, only because of the giant space worm rape scene. Yes, you read that right. One wonders if Corman was daring the studios to try and top that scene. But in addition to that set piece, the movie contains lots of great effects, beautiful set design (thanks to production designer James Cameron) and a great cast, including Ray Waltson, Erin Moran, Robert Englund, Sid Haig and Taaffe O'Connell as the victim of the space worm's advances.

The plot is rather messy. A crew is sent out by the Planet Master, a figure with a glowing head, to the planet Morganthus on a rescue mission. Once there, they is picked off in several imaginative and gory scenes. The ending, which I won't spoil, leaves more plot holes than the rest of the film.

But that doesn't matter. Galaxy of Terror is a wonderful haunted house in space film, and hold up well today. The sets are amazing, the effects are stunning and the film moves at a brisk pace from one death scene to the next. The crew really delivers the good for the money they available, often raiding fast food restaurants for styrofoam packing to use as the ship's walls. And given the script, the cast really delivers.

The DVD contains a great commentary (in which the worm rape scene is the focus of the discussion), terrific cast and crew interviews, TV, radio and theater trailers, a photo gallery, a PDF version of the original screen play and more. The transfer is beautiful and well worth the cost.

If you've never seen this film (but know of it for the worm scene), get yourself a copy and enjoy. And if you've seen this film, you've probably already got it in your DVD player. It's one of Corman's best from the 80's, even if it wallows in the gutter with glee.

Forbidden World is a nice companion piece, as the opening sequence was filmed on a Galaxy of Terror set the day before it was struck. Corman, always one to get the most bang for his buck, just wanted to reuse the set for a yet unwritten film. Production didn't start until months later, giving the opening a bit of a disjointed feel (the effects lifted from Battle Beyond the Stars didn't help give the introduction of the hero a fresh feel either).

Troubleshooter Mike Colby is sent to a planet to take care of a mutant life form that killed all the other lab animals. It appears this new life form was an attempt to generate a new food source, only now the mutant is turning humans into a protein source it can consume, and everyone is a potential mini garden. So the scientists and Colby must figure out how to kill the mutant before they become the next garden plot.

And there's your plot. The rest of the film is chocked full of nasty gore, VERY gratuitous nudity and a monster that looks like the Alien creature done up for a Saturday morning cartoon. While Galaxy of Terror was considered an Alien rip-off, Forbidden Planet is a better example of Corman's ability to take a popular film and lift enough elements to keep his film familiar, but not cause any legal entanglements.

The film is not as much fun as Galaxy of Terror. The editing is rather choppy and becomes strobe-like, which is rather distracting. The cast is not as strong and the creature looks pretty lame.

However, the movie does offer up some fun moments. The ultimate demise of the creature is echoed in horror films today, and the gore is really well done. And the film is chocked full of exploitive nudity. In one scene, the two female leads end up in a prolonged shower scene for no reason. Once again, Corman delivers what the studios didn't offer and seemed to dare Hollywood to match such a moment.

The Shout! Factory release is a 2 disc set, with the director's cut available in a Full Frame version. It contains 5 minutes of footage that Corman considered too comedic for the horror film he wanted. Also included are cast and crew interviews, trailers and much more. It's not as good as Galaxy of Terror, but it's a solid film and worth the blind buy to me.

These films are great examples of 80s sleazy/cheese and something every horror fan should check out. Now it's time for me to watch my new copies of Piranha and Humanoids from the Deep. I'll let you know what I think in the next few days.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Grade A Cheese and Total Sleazy: A great night at the movies

Wow, the theater was empty last night as Seth's Birthday Double Feature opened at the Clinton Street Theater. Maybe it was the weather, maybe other events happening around town. But all you horror and exploitation fans still have 5 days to take in a great double feature and I strongly suggest you don't miss it.

Maximum Overdrive
Only a few movies make me smile like a little kid when the main title music starts playing. One is The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which has thrilled me since I was a young boy. Another is Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive, which I caught on VHS back in the 80's. I wore out my personal VHS copy, thanks to continuous viewings, though I have yet to replace it with a DVD version. After viewing the film for the first time on the big screen, I'm intensifying my search.

The plot is simple. Earth is passing through the tail of a rouge comet and all mechanical devices are suddenly brought to life with a taste for mayhem. This is illustrated in the opening scene, as a drawbridge decides to open on it's own. Cars slide into each other to the sounds of AC/DC's "Who Made Who?" (oh, I'm grinning again) in a grand, destructive hint of things to come.

The action then moves to the Dixie Boy Diner in North Carolina, where Emilio Estevez and a group of overblown Southern stereotypes hunker down as animated big rigs circle them like a school of sharks. Good thing the diner's sleazy owner (Pat Hingle) has a surplus of munitions in his basement that would make the NRA swoon.

Okay. let's face it. This movie should be awful. The direction is pretty pedestrian (King admits to being "coked up" during the shoot and having potential errors corrected by the crew), the acting is pretty bad at times, most of the characters are little more than stereotypes and the plot makes no sense. The film doesn't bother to explain how the machines can see and target their prey, how they can move non-motorized parts and why some vehicles retain human control longer than others.

But, whether intentional or not, this movie just seems to come to campy life. The stereotypical performances demanded by the script are hysterically broad and WAY over the tip at times ("You can't do that. WE MADE YOU!"), adding to the films charm. Yet, the dialog veers into vintage King at times. One example is the banter between Estevez and John Short as they crawl through a sewer pipe, which sounds and feels surprisingly realistic.

And the carnage is just stunning. Vehicles crash and explode with such energy and beauty, you almost feel you're watching clips from The Road Warrior. And King doesn't skimp on the gore, which forced several scenes to be trimmed to appease the MPAA (including one shot that King said made George Romero cringe!).

And the print is amazing. When I talked to Seth before the film, he claimed it was possibly the best 35mm print out there, and I'm inclined to agree. The picture is amazingly clear, with few skips and scratches, and the soundtrack is crisp and clean.

If you like this movie, or are just a fan of classic cheesy films, don't miss this screening! If you do, you'll be sorry.

Chained Heat
I'm not fan of the women in prison genre, but as I paid for a double feature, I decided to stick around for the sleaze classic Chained Heat. And boy, did I need a shower later.

Linda Blair stars as a young woman sentenced to 18 months in prison for vehicular homicide. Unfortunately, the big house she's headed for is more interested in exploitation than rehabilitation.

For starts, the warden (John Vernon) is making pornos with several of the female inmates, as well as selling heroin to the rest of the population. He's a bit worried that someone on his staff is cornering the market with their own supply. That would be the assistant warden (Stella Stevens), who is not only selling drugs for her partner (Henry Silva), but also supplying him with sexy young inmates to act as whores for his extravagant parties. Stevens is also playing the white gang (lead by Sybil Danning) against the black gang (lead by Tamara Dobson of Cleopatra Jones fame). Add in sadistic guards, murder and double crosses, and you know a riot is inevitable.

As mentioned, I'm not much of a fan of the genre, but this is a well made exploitation film. Though nowhere near as sleazy as some foreign entries, it still hits all the notes. Gratuitous nudity a prolonged shower scenes, lesbianism, sadistic rape and violence, it's all there. And, as you might expect from the cast, the acting is pretty good for a picture of this type. Vernon really hams things up, Stevens comes off tough as nails, Danning and Dobson are pitch perfect and Silva is charmingly sleazy. All while Blair walks about with her big, innocent doe eyes, getting slapped around and abused until she reaches her breaking point.

For fans of the genre, this print is well preserved and a treat. For others, it's worth watching, as an example of a type of movie that will never be made again (as it's sequel, Chained Heat 2, demonstrates). Be forewarned, it is offensive and VERY un-PC. But you don't get a chance to wallow in such sleazy very often, so indulge your wild cinematic side and stay for the second feature.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Star Wars and Zombies: "I've got a bad feeling about this."

Well, I finished Death Troopers and have to say that zombies should have stayed out of the Star Wars universe. Or at least found a writer that didn't seem to be cashing in on a current trend.

The basic plot is a prison ship, on it's way to a penal colony, looses power and decides to raid an abandoned Star Destroyer for parts. Of course, they bring back a disease that kills 99% of the crew, only to reanimate them with a powerful hunger for flesh. The survivors (including a space pirate and his hairy first mate) take refuge on the Star Destroyer and discover the ship isn't as abandoned as once suspected.

This book is rather pedestrian and uninspired. The plot is poorly paced, as the zombies don't start showing up until midway through the book. Instead, the author wastes time on dull, overly long character development that feels a bit pointless, as the new main characters are not very memorable. And the teenage brothers feel written into the story for demographic reasons alone.

The zombies show some potential, as the disease allows the author to tailor the creatures to the Star Wars Universe. These suckers are rather fast, able to communicate and slowly retain the skills they learned while alive. In short, the longer they are undead, the better they are able to use blasters and, eventually, pilot ships. And we are treated to a brief encounter with a group of zombie Wookies, which is pretty cool. Unfortunately, this is one of the few times the author puts the Star Wars setting to good use.

I could overlook the shortcomings of this book if it didn't feel like a simplistic attempt to cash in on the current zombie craze. The few gruesome scenes of zombie action don't add anything to the story, other than the required "ick" moment. And, as I mentioned earlier, the author doesn't use the Star Wars universe to any advantage. It all feels like an hollow exercise in marketing, hammered home by the ad at the back of the book (after the preview to another Star Wars novel) offering you the chance to continue fighting the zombie horde in the Star Wars online game.

And the author didn't bother to put a Jedi Knight on either ship!!! He blew a great opportunity for a zombie horde vs. Jedi with a Light Saber scene. Blasters are basically space shotguns and not too exciting as most everyone, including the zombies, end up armed at some point. The story needed someone like Yoda, bouncing off the walls in a blur of glowing death, making mincemeat out of a crowd of zombies. Or a zombie Jedi, slowly relearning how to use a Light Saber to block blaster fire. Too bad the author dropped the ball on this one.

Might be worth a read if you find it at your local library or at a used book store. But I'd recommend avoiding it and searching out better zombie (and Star Wars) novels. It's books like these that will lead to the death of the undead (for a while).

Next up: Zombies and comics.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The current Hollywood business model and the demise of off beat cinema

Lately, I've read a lot of online articles about the state of blockbusters and family entertainment and how such a narrow focus is ruining movies. But I think these articles are missing the main problem. If you think about it, the fault lies in the current business model adopted by the studios, which is leading to the blockbuster/family trend invading the cineplexes and forcing out smaller, independent films.

I think the studios are trying to maximize each movie's potential return by thinking like a short term trader. First, each movie is designed to make a shitload of cash on opening weekend. This involves making the film more of an event than anything else, and opening it in as many theaters as possible (often on two or more screens in the same multiplex). Then, as income trails off after the opening week, pull most of the prints, allow it to be shown on a few screens, but open the main theaters for the next cash cow. Every film is designed with the intent of generating massive returns in a short time, then dramatically scaling back the release to make way for the next blockbuster.

This strategy is also affecting home releases. The studios have closed the gap between a feature's theatrical run and home video release and want to tighten it further. Look at the outcry from theater owners in Britain when Disney announced the home release date for Alice in Wonderland by 5 weeks. Back when VHS releases became affordable for home purchase, you might wait up to a year before a film hit the market.

A shorter release window makes sense, if you subscribe to the idea of studios acting like short term brokers. The quicker the home release date, the faster the return comes in on your investment. And a quicker release date probably means more impulse buys, as the movie is fresh in the minds of consumers.

Of course, to maximize the profitability of any movie, one has to appeal to the largest demographic possible. As the teenage market seems to be fading (thanks to online sources, if you believe the studio's stance), Hollywood is targeting the family market. And, if you want a big return, it makes sense. A family of four attending the latest 3D cartoon will likely spend more than $100 at one screening (tickets, snacks, glasses, etc.). And you have a built-in audience for the DVD release, as the kids will want to watch the film at home, again and again.

The search for the largest audience is also the reason why most films try for a PG-13 rating, rather than an R. Families can go (with older children) and teens can walk into the film without a parent. The downside is that leaves anyone looking for something different are forced to wait for the months of late August to early November, or January to April, if they want something with more bite, intelligence or weirdness.

Unfortunately, that window is narrowing. The summer blockbuster season starts earlier each year (Iron Man 2 was released in early May, weeks before the traditional Memorial Day start of the big movie season). And often, the movies that make it to the theaters after the winter big releases tend to be blockbusters gone bad (seen the preview for The Green Hornet yet?), rather than low budget or independent films.

You can spend a lot of time blaming blockbuster and family movies for the lack of decent films coming out of Hollywood. But I believe it's the studios sticking to a model that will generate the greatest amount of money in the shortest amount of time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Last House of the Left (2009)

Well, I had a free rental from Redbox Monday night, so I decided to check out 2009's Last House on the Left. I was curious about this one, as Craven's original film was just not that good. The pacing was uneven, some of the acting was awful and the buffoonish cops were jarring. Without the incredible onscreen brutality, and the controversy it generated, this film would be sold in one of those 50 film Mill Creek collections.

To my surprise, this film manages to improve upon the original, thanks to a tighter script and a strong cast. But before we celebrate the end of the bad remake curse, I have to warn you that the movie does stumble quite a bit and comes is rather bland. Part of it is the simple "been there, seen that" factor, as the basic story remains the same. But a few small changes introduced in the script come off as unnecessary and awkward.

Now, it's hard not to discuss where remake stumbles and succeeds without delving into spoiler territory. However, the trailers pretty much ruined the movie for me (more on that later) by giving away several key elements, so I don't feel too bad mentioning them here. But, be warned, here come the SPOILERS!

The film starts as Krug is being transported to prison by two plainclothes policemen, until he's rescue by his gang. Before fleeing the scene, Krug chokes one of the cops to death while holding a picture of the man's children in front of his bulging eyes. It's a pretty nasty scene, but absolutely unnecessary. By showing how brutal Krug and his gang can act, the scene spoils the impact of their actions later in the movie.

Anyway, the movie switches to the Collingwoods (John, Emma and daughter Mari), as they head to their isolated vacation home. The family is still reeling from the death of the Collingwood's son, who recently died in an accident. Mari borrows the family car and heads into town to meet up with her friend Paige. The two meet a teenage boy, Justin, who invites them back to his hotel room for a bit of a party, as Justin has some pot. Everything is fine, until Justin's dad, Krug, shows up.

The gang is in need of a new vehicle and Mari's SUV fits the bill. Krug decides to teach Justin a lesson in responsibility (as he shouldn't have brought guests to the hotel) by kidnapping the two girls. While driving down the forest roads, Mari tries to escape as the vehicle passes her house. The SUV wrecks and the gang takes their anger out on the girls. Paige is stabbed in the stomach and left to bleed to death, while Mari is raped by Krug.

I have to interject for a moment. I watched the unrated version and I believe this scene was trimmed to appease the MPAA. As presented in the unrated version, this is the most uncomfortable, graphic and brutal moment of the movie. While the original slowly escalates with several individual acts of degradation, the remake drives the gang's cruelty home in one knockout moment.

Mari staggers away from the gang and makes it to the lake. As a member of her school swim team, she's pretty fast and almost makes her escape. But she can't out swim a bullet and is left to die after Krug shoots her.

Stranded in a sudden storm and in need of medical attention, the gang stumble upon the Collingwood house. John is an ER doctor, so he stitches up Francis, who's taking quite an interest in Emma. Emma, however, is more interested in Justin, strictly in a maternal sense. Justin sees Mari's photo on the fridge and, full of remorse, leaves Mari's necklace in the kitchen around his coco mug. While my description sounds rushed, the movie builds slowly here, allowing the gang to come off as normal, while the Collingwoods start to sense something wrong with their guests.

As the house is now isolated from the rest of the world (phone and power lines are down, no car and shoddy cell reception), John and Emma let the gang stay in their guest house. After setting the gang up for the night, they discover Mari, near death, on the porch. They bring her into the house, where John struggles to save her without access to proper medical tools.

This is the strongest part of the movie, in my opinion, and justifies keeping Mari alive. John is forced to cauterize the gunshot wound and re-inflate a lung with household items. Then, while looking for other wounds, he discovers evidence that Mari was raped. It's a powerful moment, as you see John's emotional state run the gambit from dedicated surgeon to distressed parent to flat out rage after Emma informs him that Justin left Mari's necklace in the kitchen.

The Collingwoods decide to take their boat and get Mari to the hospital, leaving the gang for the police to arrest later. Now, we all know that's not going to happen, as Francis is looking for a drink and some loving, and the keys to the boat have been misplaced.

So, of course, mayhem ensues.

As I mentioned, the remake is full of moments that work well. The violence is brutal and very realistic (up until the climax, where yet another character dies, only to come back up again). And the script wisely avoids any attempt to defuse the building tension with comic relief.

But the film stumbles badly with Justin. It's not the fault of the actor, by any means. It's just that the character's presence is unwarranted. As both an aid or a surrogate son to the Collingwoods, Justin turns out to be as jarring as the idiot cops in the original.

And, as I mentioned above, most of the surprises are spoiled by the trailer. If you saw it, you know Mari survives and you know Krug's fate. Yes, the trailer gave away the end of the movie! I have no idea why studios feel the need to show you everything in the trailer, but I wish they would stop. As with Paranormal Activity and Quarantine, showing most of the highlights will ruin a film's impact.

For the most part, this remake isn't bad. But while the film is stronger than the original in some regards, the addition of Justin shows that Hollywood just can't leave well enough alone. Worth a cheap rental, but nothing more.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mega Piranha (2010)

Okay, I've not seen the epic Birdemic, but Mega Piranha is likely the next best thing. This is one of the silliest, lamest efforts yet released by Troma.... Oooops, I mean The Asylem, and my face still hurts from grinning. Yes, it's so bad it could be considered a lot of fun.

Okay, the plot. Scientists, working in Venezuela, are trying to increase the food supply. So, naturally, they start tampering with piranha in order to help eliminate hunger in South America. The film never explains why, but I suspect that Mega Carp wouldn't be that exciting a title.

As you might imagine, the buggers get loose and start heading towards the ocean. And, while the scientists didn't breed them to live in the ocean, nature finds a way and soon, it's Navy Seals verse armored (oh, yea, the fish's scales have thickened, making them impervious to even nuclear weapons) piranha for control of the Florida Keys.

Now, if the fish stayed in the water, eating boats and Navy vessels, that would be silly enough. But the piranha are willing to beach themselves for tasty tidbits and eventually begin launching themselves into buildings to satisfy their ravenous hunger in scenes reminiscent of the Birdemic trailer. Warehouses explode, harbors are destroyed and, in the climax, giant piranha are ramming themselves into Florida seaside condos. All of this in very sub par CGI (if you think the fish in Alexendre Aja's upcoming Piranha 3D looks bad, you ain't see nothing yet).

If you're grinning from the above description, go rent this movie. If not, avoid it at all costs.

The acting is abysmal. The commander of a nuclear sub looks like he just stepped off the stage from a high school play. Tiffany (yes, the ex-pop star) comes off better than Debbie Gibson in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, but that's not saying much. And Barry Williams (as Secretary Grady; get it?) looks absolutely bored throughout the entire movie.

But they all pale compared to the hero, played by Paul Logan. A 2 X 4 would give an Oscar winning performance compared to him. Sure, he might be trying to channel Dirty Harry or Snake Plissken, but he falls painfully short of the mark. His performance is so monotone, so unexciting, that it's painful to watch at times.

But, for fans of bad cinema, this film is a treasure trove of chuckle inducing moments. Like when Logan is on his back, kicking away an army of piranha leaping out of the water after him. Or the giant piranha stuck in the side of a beachfront condo. Or the murky waters of the Orinoco River, which at times look like the crystal clear waters of a coral reef. Or Logan defending himself from an underwater piranha attack with a knife. Oh, and I have to mention the piranha swimming down the river, leaping like a school of salmon. My face still hurts from laughing fit I had over that scene.

Look, it's not for everyone. It's not very gory (no surprise, as it was a Syfy movie) and it defies all attempts at seriousness. But for lovers of bad films, it's a great late night treat. It's the cinematic equivalent of an extra large, extra greasy cheese pizza, served at the right temperature and perfect for a night with a few friends and a good supply of beer. Dig in and have fun, if you dare!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Gamed with A Zombie! Part Two

As mentioned in my earlier post, May of the Dead (held on May 31 at Guardian Games) was a great opportunity to try out zombie and undead themed games. But I also had a chance to talk with Martin Vavra of Galaxy Sailor Productions, who showed up to promote his web series, The Last Stand.

The series deals with the survivors of an airborne virus that killed millions. The virus mutated, reactivating the dead and turning them into rabid zombies. The disease, now spread through the zombie's bodily fluids, is poised to infect the rest of the population unless the survivors can find a safe place to bunker down.

This web series is filmed here in Portland, though Vavra mentioned that not many residents know about the show. So I'm spreading the word. The first two episodes (available on Daily Motion through July 19th) are well shot, nicely written and are a bleak, uncompromising depiction of humanity after the fall. I wish I knew more about the fate of the survivors that didn't make it to episode two. But those events seems likely to come back and haunt the current cast later in the series.

Much more ambitious than a zombie shoot 'em up series, I recommend checking out The Last Stand. I think Portland zombie fans will find a lot to like about this home grown effort. The episodes revert back to after July 19th, and more episodes are on the way. The website also has lots of information about the series, so be sure to visit. I'll post any new developments as they become available.

Back to the games. I tried out another local product, the RPG Cannibal Contagion. At the start of the game, players are given randomly generated characters, each with randomly generated abilities and psycho-triggers. The game master then sets up a scenario where the characters are about to die, and it's your job to prevent such an outcome.

Battle is handled by playing your hand of cards (a standard deck of cards with Jokers included) against the game master's hand. You will either take damage, which affects your various abilities, or your sanity will be decreased. If that happens, you have to follow the actions dictated by the player controlling your psycho trigger.

Did I mention that players fill out forms guessing who will be the first to die, to go insane, to turn and so on? If you're right, you gain more power tokens. So sometimes, screwing with the other person might be to your advantage.

The game seems like it would be a lot of fun, but the rules are too complicated to comprehend in your first go round. And, with only about an hour to play, I was frustrated by my lack of understanding the rules and the potential consequences of my actions. However, with the right group of people and a chance to read through the book, this game could be a real blast. For more details, visit the official website.

As most of the other games had started as our game ended, I pulled out my edition of Zombies!!! and started up a game with a few other players. This is a 2 - 6 player game, where everyone starts at the town square. Each player draws a tile at the start of their turn, generating a map of the town. It makes the game unpredictable, as you have no idea what's around the next corner until someone places the tile on the table.

Of course, each tile is occupied by the living dead (the number of zombies dictated by the tile). Combat is very easy, accomplished by rolling a six sided die. If you roll 4-6, you kill the zombie. Roll a 1-3 and the zombie takes a bite, unless you have enough bullets to increase your score (for example, a roll of 2 plus two bullets makes a 4). Be careful, though, as bullets are in short supply.

You have two ways to win the game. Either be the first player to kill 25 zombies or be the first person to make it to the center of the helipad (the last tile drawn). If you die, you're not out of the game. But you must start over in the town square and forfeit half the zombies you've bagged.

Players also have three cards, which will either help them or hinder the other guy. Yes, this game takes the idea of tripping your best friend to escape the zombie horde to heart. You can move a certain amount of zombies at the end of your turn, adding to the other player's woes, or use a card to give the person in the lead a real headache.

This is an easy game to learn, and a lot of fun to play. Several expansion packs are available, including a circus scenario with zombie clowns! Check out the official website for more details.

Finally, I played a round of Last Night on Earth, a zombie board game. The board is designed so several pieces are chosen at random, as are the characters. The game offers several scenarios which you can play, from killing a certain amount of zombies to saving town folk. If you fail in your mission, or do not complete it in a given time, the zombies win.

One to two players control the zombies (depending on the amount of heroes playing).Heroes get to draw from a deck of cards (gained by searching various buildings), in order to gain some advantage in their battle. Unfortunately, the zombies also have a deck to play against the humans.

Unlike Zombies!!!, this is a game where cooperation is the only way to survive. Players can aid each other, and trade cards that might be better used by certain characters, but only when they are close together. As any good zombie fan knows, only when humans start fighting amongst themselves are the zombies able to gain the upper hand. Stay together, work as a team and you might be able to survive the last night on earth. You can get more information on this game here.

As our game ended, so did the 2010 May of the Dead. I'm hoping that, like the undead, 2011 brings about the resurrection of this zombie game festival.

All the games mentioned on this, and the previous post, are available at Guardian Games. Visit them on the web, or swing by their store at 313 SE 3rd Ave in Portland. And be sure to mention you read about them on The Shadow Over Portland!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Gamed with A Zombie! Part One

Well, I'm sure a lot of people spent their Memorial Day over a BBQ, out camping or any of the other normal activities our society thrives upon. But for some brave individuals, the perfect way to cap off the holiday weekend was to sit in the dark and try out games of skill and daring with members of the Living Dead.

Yep, I spent most of Memorial Day at Guardian Game's second May of the Dead celebration and I had a blast. Games, gory movies on the big screen and a lot of cool looking zombies shambling in, all looking to try out new zombie games or play some old favorites.

To get into the spirit, I started off with It's Alive, though it's not really a zombie game. You play a mad scientist trying to bring his creation to life before the opposing players complete the task. For this, you need body parts, represented in the game's deck of cards.

You draw a card at the start of your turn, then decided if you will buy the body part (if you have the money) or put it in your graveyard, earning half it's value (rounded down) in cash to further your quest. But if you feel you can get a bit more money out of it, you can try to auction the part off to other players.

Of course, the quality of these body parts (there are eight pieces you must collect) must vary, for while you have 6 opportunities to draw a hand from the deck, it will cost you anywhere from 2 to 8 coins. You could go broke fast, if you aren't careful.

Of course, you can buy another doctor's discarded part, but it has to be on the top of his graveyard pile and you must pay the full price for it (the money goes to the bank, not the doctor who's graveyard you're raiding).

Or, you can let the villagers get it for you.

If you draw the Villager card, you have to pay their price to keep them from storming your castle. It can be either in coin, in body parts from your lab (rather costly, as your lab can only store one of each body part at a time; the rest go to the graveyard) or a combination of the two. However, once you pay them off, you can use the card to raid another doctor's graveyard for free on your next turn.

Finally, a few expensive wild card are scattered in the deck. You want at least one, as these cards act as any body part you want.

If you are the first doctor to collect all eight parts, you can claim your victory by calling out "It's alive!" in your best Colin Clive voice.

The game is a lot of fun. However, the auction part, as written in the rules, has the doctor selling the part open up the bidding, then players bid on it in a clockwise fashion. Bidding stops after one rotation around the table. We found that rather dull, and decided to allow open bidding, making the game a lot more fun.

Minor quibble aside, this Yehuda Berlinger game is a blast. You not only get some beautifully illustrated body part cards, but also an illustrated slab and a castle wall to hide your monster from prying eyes (and keep the opposing player from knowing what you need to win!). It's quick and easy to learn and, as most games won't last more than 30 minutes, it would make a great party game. Recommended for 2 - 5 players, but every one at the table agreed that a 2 player game be rather dull. Get five mad scientist together and you should have a great time.

Next, I tried the new game from Steve Jackson, Zombie Dice. Basically, you're a hungry zombie looking to score some tasty brains. You take three dice (each representing a potential victim) out of the tube and roll them. Each die has a varying number of brains, footsteps and shotgun blasts printed the sides. You get to keep all brains you roll, as you've just claimed another victim. Any dice that roll footsteps indicate a victim that got away. But no worry, you get to roll those dice again.

Of course, shotgun blasts are very bad. You put those aside, and if you get three before you decide to stop rolling, you lose all the brains you've collected that turn and must pass the dice to the next zombie.

As the goal is to collect 13 brains, you have to plan on being stymied by those pesky shotgun blasts a few times in your quest for dinner. But if you've collected five brains in your turn, and only have one shotgun blast, do you roll three more dice and try for more, or do you keep what you've got and call it good?

To help you decide, the dice are the color coded. Green dice have more brains then shotgun blasts, Yellow dice are even, but Red dice means your victims have a better chance of blasting you in the head.

Again, this game is easy to learn and a lot of fun. I only have one minor quibble with it. The game doesn't include any tokens allowing the players to keep track of the brains they've collected. I suggest supplying your own (you can find various items that will work at most game stores) and keep them with the dice. I think it would be easier than handing out paper every time you play.

One final note. Zombie Dice would make a travel game, as you only need a small, flat space to roll the dice. And two players will have just as much fun with this as a large group. Saying "Yum, Braaaains" after collecting your unlucky thirteen victim is up to you.

Well, all this talk of brains reminds me that it's dinner time. I'll post my further adventures in May of the Dead later this week, with a brief review of Cannibal Contagion, Zombies!!! and Last Night on Earth. Also, I'll tell you all a bit about a zombie web series filmed right here in Portland!

More to come soon....