Friday, December 31, 2010

'Killjoy 3': Best Band production in a decade

Killjoy 3 (2010)
Starring: Trent Haaga, Spiral Jackson, Jessica Whitaker, Darrow Igus, Victoria De Mare, Al Burke, Olivia Dawn York, and Michael Rupnow
Director: John Lechago
Producers: Charles Band, Henry Luk, and Tai Chan Ngo
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Four college students (Jackson, Rupnow, Whitaker, and York) become the latest victims of the demonic clown Killjoy (Haaga) when they inadvertently place themselves in his clutches. Killjoy, together with his newly created clown posse that includes Punchy (Burke) and Batty Boop (De Mare), is seeking revenge on their professor (Igus), who is in turn seeking to control Killjoy for his own mysterious reasons.

Finally, a film that is a solid reversal of the ten-year downward-trend that's been evident in the vast majority of Charles Band production. Not only is this a really fun movie, but it's what the original "Killjoy" film SHOULD have been!

As 2010 has wore on, I have been growing increasingly depressed in regards to the future outlook of my favorite source of movie madness--the Charles Band Film Factory. After two less-than-impressive sequels to films from his glory days--Demonic Toys 2 and Puppet Master: Axis of Evil--and a dearth of decent finds as I turned to Band's more obscure efforts in collaboration with producer JR Bookwalter, I was getting ready to call this blog "good enough" and turn it into an archive.

But then the good people at Full Moon Features sent me a little care package, which included "Killjoy 3", their final release of 2010... and my hope for more Full Moon viewing in the future has been restored!

"Killjoy 3" is not only the movie that the original "Killjoy" should have been--a weird and colorful romp of evil clown-driven supernatural murder and mayhem--but it also captures the darkly humorous mood of classic Full Moon films like "Demonic Toys", and "The Creeps". It's a fast-moving, sharply focused story that doesn't waste a second of screen time and which keeps accelerating and growing more intense and insane until it reaches its gory climax. And writer/director John Lechago even manages to throw in some bits of characterization for both the demons and the victims without slowing the film, making this one of the best scripts for a Full Moon feature in a while. Heck, it even features a denouement that is dramatically appropriate and not just a half-assed sequel set-up.

A large portion of the credit for this film's success rests with Trent Haaga and Victoria De Mare, half of the demonic clown act that kills its way through the the college kids who get caught between Killjoy and the professor that is the object of his wrath. Although Haaga didn't originate the role of Killjoy, he makes a vastly superior killer clown to Angel Vargas from the first film. Vargas was one of the best things about "Killjoy", but he his performance was unfunny and more annoying than scary... he only looked as good as he did, because everything else was completely awful. Haaga on the other is both hilarious and scary, often both at the same time. He has some nice lines and he delivers them with great gusto. The same is true of De Mare, who plays a succubus in clown make-up; writer/director Lechago praises her as "fearless" in the behind-the-scenes material included on the DVD, and she would have to be as her costume consists of hooker boots, a feather boa, and full-body make-up. But in addition to being courageous, she is also able to deliver a performance as crazy and scary as the one given by Haaga. De Mare's best moments as Boop comes during a sequence scene where she is trying to seduce straight-arrow football quarterback Michael Rupnow and him him betray his fidelity to his good-girl girlfriend Jessica Whitacker, while Whitacker is trying to trick Killjoy by pretending to seduce him. De Mare, like Haaga, is both scary and funny during these scenes.

Other nice performances come from Spiral Jackson (as shy football player Zilla) and Al Burke as Punchy the Clown, especially during the scene where Zilla tries to convince Punchy that it's time for him to throw of the yoke of servitude to Killjoy and fight for the emancipation of demonic clowns everywhere.

Finally, Darrow Igus turns in another excellent performance for Full Moon as the enigmatic Professor. The plot twist and tie-back to the first "Killjoy" film wouldn't have been nearly as effective is a lesser actor had been cast in that part

However, as fun and enjoyable as this film is, it's not perfect.

Although demonic realm of Killjoy is far better realized in this film, it still feels cramped due to the film's small sets and budget. Also budget is the one truly weak spot in the film--the demonic clown known as Freakshow (and played by producer Tai Chan Ngo). The character is supposed to be a conjoined twin, but the person supposedly growing out of his side is a virtually unaltered, off-the-shelf baby doll. The film would have been much stronger if this character had been cut, since it add anything significant to the story and there wasn't money to do it right.

On the flip-side of this, I felt like the film would have benefited from a little more set-up of the main characters. While Lechago took more time to do this than in any other Full Moon film in recent memory, there were still some elements that could have done with a little more development. For example, one of the girls (played by Olivia Dawn York) is presented as the "slutty one" by inference in some of Killjoy's comments, yet there is no actual evidence of this in the film. Everything surrounding this character would have been so much stronger if it had been her caught with a guy in the closet during the film's opening scenes, even more-so if she was being "eaten" by the guy. Everything surrounding her would make more sense and be more dramatically appropriate.

Despite these flaws, however, this is a film I feel great about recommending to all fans of classic Full Moon efforts. This final film of 2010 gives me hope for Charles Band and his co-horts for 2011 and beyond.

Click here to check out the "Saturday Scream Queen" profile for Victoria De Mare at the Terror Titans blog.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Kiss Daddy Goodnight' is a movie to sleep through

Kiss Daddy Goodnight (1987)
Starring: Uma Thurman, Paul Dillon, and Paul Richards
Director: Peter Ily Huemer
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Laura (Thurman) is a teenaged model who augments her meager earnings by picking up wealthy men at gigs and art galleries, drugging them, and then stealing and selling valuable art objects from their homes. It's a nice living until she becomes the love object of a crazy old man (Richards) who will stop at nothing to make her his and his alone.

"Kiss Daddy Goodnight" is one of the dullest movies I've ever sat through. While the characters and acting are appropriate for the film-noir movie the filmmakers were trying to make, the glacial pace and unfocused story is not. It's not until about the halway point that any sort of menace or threat to Laura starts to develope, but what little tension and excietment this generates in the film quickly evaporates when the attention is shifted to the go-nowhere storyline of Laura's small-time thief, wanna-be musician friend's efforts to start a new band. The film would have been slow-moving enough without that pointless, plot, amd it becomes downright glacial in pace when it gets added to the mix.

By the time the film gets focused and gets interesting--in the last 15 or so minutes--most viewers will already have noddded off.

"Kiss Daddy Goodnight" is a film that can safely be ignored by everyone but Uma Thurman fans on the magnitude of the stalker who persues her character in the film; it marks Thurman's first film appearance. I promise you, watching the shadows creep across the sidewalk as the sun moves in the sky is more interesting than this film. It's obscurity is well deserved.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

'Sabbath' is full of good concepts but still fails

While straightening up my office, I found some movies I'd misfiled. For who-knows-what-reason, I'd put about half a dozen DVDs in my "Watched" drawer when I had done nothing of the sort!

I'll be trying to get to those movies as soon as possible, but by way of setting the stage for one of those upcoming reviews, here's an Oldie But a Goodie that originally appeared at

Sabbath (2008)
Starring: Ashley Gallo, Bobby Williams, David Crawford, Rob Holmes, Cory Wisberger, and Cheyenne Stewart
Director: William Victor Schotten
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Geller (Gallo), Mack, (Williams), and a trio of oddball misfits (Crawford, Holmes, and Wisberger) struggle to join forces and stay alive as the dead rise from their graves. They are, literally, the last five living beings on Earth, as it is Judgement Day and angelic beings and shadowy demons are prowling around them, waiting and watching for one final event to occur.

"Sabbath" is a low-budget zombie picture that shows every indication of being made with dedication and heart. The best part is that there was a fair degree of talent at work in the cinematography department. It even has a number of appealing aspects as far as the story goes. Unfortunately, it's simply not very good. It is a tie between this film and "Revolt of the Zombies" for the Dullest Zombie Movie I've Ever Seen Award.

Basically, the film suffers from all the usual flaws that are often found in horror movies at this level. Establishing shots go on forever. Lots of scenes of characters running, walking, or standing in forests with nothing else really going on. Lame fight scenes that might have been less lame if a) the director had attempted less of them, and b) more rehearsal time had gone into staging them--the climactic battle in the churchyard wold have been so much better if it had been concentrated into about half or one-third of the time it takes in the existing film. The actors mostly seem lethargic, as if they are at a rehearsal instead of actually making the movie. Almost every scene continues well past the point where it should have ended. There's also the sloppiness and shortcuts taken where just a little extra effort or investment would have improved things immensely--like giving the Angel of Death a scythe that looked like it might actually cut something, and dressing the demons in black tights instead of black jeans and sneakers.

In fact, "Sabbath" would have been far less boring if the director had recognized that he was stretching about 45 minutes of movie to nearly twice that length. It also would have been less boring if the script had seen a couple more revisions and if it had ended up with a little more sound logic to underpin the fact that the five main characters in the film aren't the
final five living beings on Earth by accident.

Late in the film (VERY late) we learn that all five characters had some part to play in the accidental death of Geller's daughter. The Angel of Death and some other angel (the Angel of Mercy? Archangel Michael? It's never named, but it's played by Cheyenne Stewart) are waiting to judge let just one of them into Heaven as the last soul before the gates close forever. However, the timing of the little girl's death as given in the film makes no sense, as she supposedly died two full weeks prior to the events of the film. We are to believe that on the ENTIRE planet Earth, no other events of that nature occurred for two weeks? The film would have been far stronger if the death of the little girl had occurred the day before the Judgement Day instead of weeks prior, as the notion of these five people needing to be judged "after the fact" would have made more sense.

I really wish I could like this movie more, because it has some aspects to it I really enjoyed.

I liked mystery of the grim reaper, the angel, and the evil spirits (or demons, whatever they were) creeping about or even assisting the film's main characters unseen by them; that's something I've never seen in a zombie picture before. One of the film's best moments happens when the Grim Reaper smites a zombie just as it was about to attack Bobby Williams, and he is then left trying to figure out why the zombie just keeled over. I also liked the way the film overtly got into the the mystical Judgement Day aspects of mass-zombie attacks instead of presenting it as one character's superstition and then dismissing it with a scientific explanation. I also liked the very end of the movie, even if I 'm a bit unsure of what exactly the director was trying to convey.

The best thing I can say about "Sabbath" is that it kept me watching. The bit with the angels, demons, and a mystical Judgement Day unfolding around the characters gave this zombie flick an unusual dimension. In fact, that whole aspect of the film may make it worth checking out for experienced watchers of the zombie genre.

'The Lost Books of Eve' is Great Biblical Fantasy

The Lost Books of Eve, Vol. 1 (Viper Comics, 2008)
Story and Art: Josh Howard
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

At the very beginning of Existence, the Garden of Eden stands at its center, as a place of peace and tranquility and home to God's favorite creations--the first humans, Adam and Eve--while all manner of beasts and supernatural beings in between roam everywhere else. But when Adam is abducted from the Garden, Eve leaves the safety of her Paradise to find and rescue him. Her quest to reunite with her beloved Adam brings pits her against fallen angels, demons, and even worse creatures... and her search for Adam soon becomes a search for knowledge that will eventually put humanity in its proper place in God's Creation.

Art by Josh Howard
This slim graphic novel collects all for issues of Josh Howard's mini-series of the same title. As of this writing, it is out of print and it is the only collected series from this fine talent that has not been given a new edition, unlike his signature series "Dead@17" and his alien conspiracy tale "Black Harvest".

And this is a shame, because "The Lost Books of Eve" is not only the most intelligent work Howard has produced yet, but it is also the best showcase so far of a central feature of his fluid, cartoony artwork: Howard has a great gift for drawing female characters that seem frail and vulnerable while at the same time you have a feeling they can kick your ass if they put their minds to it. He has a talent for drawing and writing strong female characters without making them hyper-sexualized or somehow masculine... he captures the ideal feminine image in his work.

And is characterization of Eve, Mother of All Humanity, is the perfect example of a Howard female. She is beautiful without being sexualized--despite the fact she, naturally, spends the book in little or no clothing--and she possesses an innocent and vulnerable quality even while showing herself to be a ferocious fighter and possessed with an iron will when challenged. Driven first by love, then by a need for knowledge and a desire to understand, Eve is a perfect fantasy heroine.

But as great a character as Eve is, what makes this book truly excellent is that Howard spins his tale between verses in the Old Testament's "Book of Genesis" without attacking the Scriptures that so many people hold sacred. It's makes for a far more interesting read, and is a far more creative endeavor, than the approaches that have been standard fare in recent decades: Comics creators tend to either crap all over the stories of the Bible, or they adhere so slavishly to them that there's no point in reading their stuff, because King James already commissioned something far better than they could ever come up with.

In "The Lost Books of Eve", Howard tells a completely original story without violating the Bible in any way; it is the foundation upon which his stories are built and he wisely does not try to undermine it. The creativity with which he places Eve (and the hapless and slightly dim-witted Adam) in a fantasy universe that feels like a natural extension of the Old Testament, as well as the mythologies of other cultures from which he incorporates bits and pieces, is something that deserved far more recognition and commercial success than the project apparently received.

I wish there would be a "Lost Books of Eve" Vol. 2, because I would love to see the end of the beginning of Eve's story--since we all know how it ultimately ends. Unfortunately, I doubt that Howard will be returning to the Dawn of Creation any time soon, as he Howard described a recent installment of his "Dead@17" series as an "unofficial sequel" to this book.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Eve

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

'The Elongated Man' is good in small doses

DC Showcase Presents: The Elongated Man (DC Comics, 2006)
Writers: Gardner Fox and John Broome
Artists: Carmine Infantino, Sid Green, Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, et. al.
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

"DC Showcase Presents: The Elongated Man" is another huge (500+ pages) low-cost reprint book presenting classic DC Comics stories in black-and-white. This one features the early appearances of the Elongated Man, collection stories from issues of "The Flash" (where the character debuted as a curious superhero competitor to the Fastest Man Alive) and "Detective Comics" were he headlined his own back-up strip.

The Elongated Man is a chemist and amateur detective named Ralph Dibny who gains the power to stretch his body in impossible ways by drinking his own hyper-concentrated variant of a substance sideshow contortionists use to stay limber, Gingold juice. Always hungry for attention, Ralph swiftly gave up on the notion of keeping his identity secret, and one interesting point about the series is that this was the first superhero in the DC stable to dispense with the double-identity mainstay of the genre. He was also the first DC superhero to marry his love interest, Sue.

Aside from a few team-ups with Flash and Kid Flash, the book focuses on Ralph and Sue traveling around the world, enjoying the care-free status of the independently wealthy and solving bizarre mysteries where-ever they go. Not only does Ralph have a bizarre superpower which he uses in bizarre ways--such as elongating his kneecap to smack a thug in the face--but he appears to be a weirdness magnet. Sue, serving as a sort of reader surrogate at times, observes on more than one occasion on how they can't go anywhere without Ralph's mystery-sniffing nose starting to twitch (literally).

Aside from the Flash (and his associated supporting cast), the Elongated Man stories have no recurring characters aside from Ralph and Sue. While that's partly because these are stories that focus far more on gimmicks than character--more on that below--the relationship between the two is about as ideal a marriage that I think has been presented anywhere else in American comics, free of the usual soap operatic twists and turns that haunted Reed & Sue Richards and Barry & Iris Allen over the years. Discounting odd occurrences like Sue's mind being transplanted into the body of a French con-artist and visa-versa, the Dibny never marriage suffered any challenges or stresses more severe than the usual arguments any couple will get into now and then. It's an aspect I believe mature readers--as in adults--will find appealing.

But there are many more aspects of the book that adults will have a far harder time appreciating, as the stories within its pages are definitely written for children,or those very young at heart. The mysteries that the Elongated Man investigates usually have solutions so bizarre that they're the sort of thing I believe only a kid can fully appreciate; if you've ever listened to kids make up stories while playing with their Legos or action figures or dolls, you know exactly what I mean. In fact, the most impressive thing about this collection of stories is the ability that writers Fox and Broome have to get in touch with their inner children. Most writers--including myself, I fear--would say "Nah, that's too silly... I can't possibly write that."

The silliness Elongated Man's adventures were of course part-and-parcel with many of the Julie Schwartz-helmed titles from the 1960s--be they ones featuring Batman or the Flash--but it is extra-concentrated here. So much so that it becomes too much if you read more than two or three of them in a row, or so it was for the 40+ year-old me. I think adults can better appreciate the material here in small doses, even if I am certain that a kid could probably devour the entire book in one or two sittings.

What I never got enough of, however, was the fantastic Carmine Infantino art that graces the first 450 pages of the book without interruption. Infantino's highly stylized artwork is perfect for showcasing the odd nature of Ralph Dibny's powers, as well as for capturing the lighthearted feel of the adventures he has with wife Sue. In fact, the 100 or so pages where readers get the rare treat of seeing Infantino ink his own pencils should be counted among the best work he did during the 1960s.

By way of contrast, stories illustrated in a more naturalistic fashion late in the book, by Neal Adams and Irv Novick fall flat, because they lack that surrealistic feel that Infantino brings to the tales; it's an interesting dichotomy that an artist noted for a knack for giving even round objects sharp edges would be the absolutely right person to illustrate a series about a man who is infinitely fluid.

Trivia: Editor Julie Schwartz, co-creator of the Elongated Man, stated that if he had been aware that DC Comics acquired the rights to Golden Age character Plastic Man in the mid-1950s, he never would have bothered with inventing a new character.

Sandra Bullock: Most Desirable Neighbor

In a season of silly Top Whatever lists, the survey determining what famous person Americans would most like to live next to has got to be the silliest. (Of course, it's intended to be silly; it's undertaken every year as a promotional effort by a Seattle-based real estate firm.)

Sandra Bullock was the most popular wanna-have-as-a-neighbor celebrity with over 25% of all Americans wanting the actress next door... although more than 25% also responded that they didn't want any of the choices in their neighborhood! The full survey results are linked below.

Sandra Bullock Named Most Desirable Celebrity Neighbor for 2010, While Cast of Jersey Shore Voted Least Desirable

Sandra Bullock is welcome to move in next to me any time she wants. I'll even buy the morning mochas every so often.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Picture Perfect: Princesses of Mars, Part One

If you want to know why Santa Claus really wanted to conquer the Martians, all you have to do is look at these portraits of Martian beauties Dejah Thoris and Thuvia. (This is the first of a series of posts that spotlight the most attractive aspects of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic sci-fi/fantasy tales of adventures on the dying planet of Mars, as seen through the eyes of various artists. Where applicable, click on the linked names for more of the particular artist's work.)

By Chris Samnee

By William Stout
By M.W. Kaluta
By Adam Hughes

Saturday Scream Queen: Joan Collins

Born in 1933, British actress Joan Collins gained imfamy during the 1950s and 1960s for leading a wild and "liberated" life style, a reputation she enhanced by starring in soft core porn films based on the steamy romance novels penned by her sister Jackie Collins during the 1970s.

During the early 1970s, Joan also starred in half a dozen horror films and thrillers, such as "Dark Places", "Tales That Witness Madness", and the classics "Fear in the Night" and "Tales from the Crypt".

As the '70s decade gave way to the 1980s, Collins' career shifted increasingly toward television, and she eventually joined the cast of night-time soap opera "Dynasty", the role she most famous for today.

No need to be bugged by 'Empire of the Ants'

Empire of the Ants (1977)
Starring: John David Carson, Joan Collins, Pamela Susan Shoop, and Robert Lansing
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A group of would-be investors and a con artist (Collins) trying to sell worthless swamp land become intended prey for giants ants.

"Empire of the Ants" is perhaps one of the more ridiculous "giant animals on a rampage" movies. If you're a ten-year-old who likes monster movies, you're probably going to find this film exciting and scary. However, if you're any older than that, you're going to be annoyed at the bad creature effects, even worse trick photography, and the stupendous degree to which every cast member over-acts. Either that, or you're going to be so amused at how awful everything about this movie is that you're going to so amused that you'll want to gather some friends together and make the movie the centerpiece of a Bad Movie Night.

The special effects are so sloppily made that it's plain to see that the actors supposedly fighting the giant ants during trick photography sequences are just poking at thin air... and the ants are just being ants. Similarly, there are several scenes of giant ants climbing buildings that are plainly regular-sized ants crawling across photographs of buildings. This is not something little kids are likely to catch, but adults will notice fairly quickly. It's amazing that this film is so ineptly made, given that its director had about half a dozen other creature features focused around giant creatures or people shrunk to tiny sizes where he used tricks similar to the ones he used here. Perhaps there simply wasn't enough time or money to do this right, or maybe he was starting to lose his touch.

The only thing that saves this movie from a Two Rating and being fodder for the Movies You Should (Die Before You) See blog is the fact that it's paced fairly well and the abundance of unintentional hilarity makes it even more watchable if you have a taste for movies so bad they are good.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

I hope everyone out there is having a great holiday weekend with family and friends. (And if you're one of those people who don't like being wished a Merry Christmas, please accept the alternative well-wishes at my Multi-cultural, Ultra-hip Holiday Page!)

And here are some Christmas tunes and videos for you to enjoy!

(In case you can't tell, "Little Drummer Boy" is one of my favorite Christmas tunes.)

The Christmas Gargoyle that appears outside a friend's house every December!

Fear-filled Phantasms: Christmas Horror

I'm not a big fan of Christmas-oriented horror, even the well-done movies and stories. I like the whole good will, happy-sappy, ho-ho-ho'ing Santa Claus aspect of it all. And the decorated trees and pretty lights. I especially like visiting with friends.

Some feel differently, and that's where the following images of Christmas horror comes in.

Your guess is as good as mine. But it's pretty awful!
Joan Collins pays for being naughty in "Tales from the Crypt"
Perhaps the most iconic Christmas horror image of them all
from "Silent Night, Deadly Night"

But the real Santa were to mix it up with monsters and killers, he'd kick their asses.
Assuming he couldn't fill them with Christmas cheer and get them to change their wicked ways.
(From "Paul Dini's Santa Claus vs. Frankenstein")

'Tales from the Crypt' is a classy, classic anthology film

Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Starring: Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Nigel Patrick, and Ralph Richardson
Director: Freddie Francis
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

This anthology film from British horror company Amicus is the original screen adaptation of the "Tales from the Crypt" comic book. And it's a fabulous one--with a fine cast of actors, great camera work, and mostly tight scripting.

From the framing sequence--which features a group of tourists that find themselves stranded inside an ancient tomb where they encounter a mysterious crypt keeper (Richardson)--we know we're in for a treat. The crypt keeper's interaction with the lost tourists is the conceit that brings us into the stories.

The first tale in the film is "All Through the House", in which an evil, scheming wife (Collins) murders her husband on Christmas Eve... only to discover what Father Christmas does to those who have been naughty. There are some great visuals and fabulous contrasts of colors here, not to mention great acting by all featured (even the child actor, which is a rare occurance!)

Next up is "Reflection of Death", perhaps the weakest tale of the bunch, because it feels like it's been padded. It's the tale of a man who gets in a horrible car-wreck but finds that no-one will help him or his mistress after he's crawled from the wreckage. There's a nice, chilling twist in this one, but it takes entirely too long getting there.

The third story, "Poetic Justice", is my favorite of the bunch, and it features horror great Peter Cushing in his most touching (and probably deeply emotional) performance ever. He portrays a lonely widower who is driven to suicide after a pair of cruel businessmen cause him to believe that the neighborhood children, who have been his only joy since the death of his wife, have come to hate him. The poor old man gets his revenge, however, in a way that's fitting of "Tales from the Crypt". (In real life, Cushing himself lost his wife shortly before working on this film. I'm of the opinion that Cushing largely plays himself in this sequence.)

The fourth tale, "Wish You Were Here", is a pretty straight-forward spin on the classic "The Monkey's Paw" story. It is based around the standard of a string of badly worded wishes that backfire tragically and horrifically, but the climax of the story is so terrifying and skin-crawling that it literally had me squirming in my chair. Both as a kid and as an adult, the finale of this story is the one that hits me hardest.

Finally (aside from the creepy wrap-up to the framing sequence), we have "Blind Alley", the tale of a vicious administrator of a home for the blind, who is given a fitting punishment by his charges when they've finally had enough. This one also feels a bit padded and it drags a bit, but there are enough chills and scary moments--not to mention fine acting by Nigel Patrick as the hateful, gluttonous administrator.

"Tales from the Crypt" is a little-seen gem, and I recommend it highly to anyone who thinks fondly of British horror films from the Sixties and Seventies.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'Trailer Park of Terror' is trashy, gory fun

Trailer Park of Terror (2008)
Starring: Nichole Hiltz, Jeanette Brox, Brock Chuchna, Stefanie Black, Matthew Del Negro, and Trace Adkins
Director: Steven Goldman
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a bus-load of troubled teens on a church retreat crash during a rain-storm, the passengers and their chaparone (Del Negro) take refuge at a nearby trailer park. Unfortunately for them, the trailer park is merely the ghostly reflection of a murderous den of hillbilly criminals that died in a gory, revenge-fueled massacre decades earlier. They now re-inact their brutal ways on hapless travelers, under the command of Norma (Hiltz), one of their victims who has turned victimizer thanks to a deal with the devil (Adkins).

"Trailer Park of Terror" has something for just about every horror fan. It takes nearly every disgusting thing you've seen in a Killer Hicks movie from the 1970s forward and combines them with a sadistic sense of humor that will put you in mind films like "Spider Baby" and "Re-Animator", as well as slightly more modern off-kilter horror features like "From Dusk 'Til Dawn". Further, the ghosts mostly manifest themselves as disgusting walking corpses, so lovers of zombie films will have something to sink their metaphorical teeth into, while admirers of Torture Porn flicks will get to watch one victim get her arm sawed off while tripping so high she doesn't notice until after the fact, and another victim is turned into jerky meat while still alive. And then there's the horny teens that are forced to be the stars of a snuff flick.

I'm not a big fan of mean-spirited and sadistic horror films, so there was quite a bit about "Trailer Park of Terror" I didn't care for. I also like my gory ghost movies and slasher flicks to have a "morality tale" aspect to them, and when they don't--or it's a weak part of the film, as it is here--the film invariably loses me, so that was another reason for me not to like this flick.

However, this thing is so well-written and so finely acted by everyone involved that I couldn't help but like it. Virtually all the characters are so purely one-note and cliched with the hillbilly ghosts  that combining them all in one place manages to breath a form of demented freshness into the film--the writers didn't even try to expand the victims beyond horny teen, asshole teen, druggie teen, and so on; nor to give the ghosts more definition than rapist redneck, robber redneck, cannibal redneck, and so on.

The only character with even the slightest depth to her is Norma, who in life was the only non-psychotic inhabitant of the trailer park... at least until she decided she had enough of them and gunned them all down and killed herself. But the facets to the Norma character never manifests itself quite in the way one expects as the film unfolds, something which becomes which is highlighted and becomes even more interesting due to the plethora of one-note stereotypes that otherwise inhabit the film. It also helps, of course, that Hiltz is a better actress than her repeated casting as a white-trash bimbo (here, and in the television series "The Riches" and "In Plain Sight") warrants. I'd like to see in more horror movies, and in different roles than what she seems to be playing over and over.

The only real down-side that I saw to this film is its somewhat disorganized structure. It starts with an extended sequence in the past and then interrupts the present with a couple of extended flashbacks that both fill in back story but also stand alone to some extent, giving the film the fell of a half-baked anthology. Given the film is based on the anthology comic book series "Trailer Park of Terror", I understand why the filmmakers wanted to make a nod in the direction of their source, but I just wish they had done it in a less choppy fashion.

In the final analysis, though, "Trailer Park of Terror" is well worth watching.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Christmas Visitor for Naughty Kids

In 1925, a young Joan Crawford posed for this Christmas-themed publicity photo. It doesn't have the playful air these things usually have. I can't quite decide whether she looks unhappy, stern, or angry. I imagine they were going for seductive, but Crawford didn't manage to project that.

So, what is going on in the photo?

For me, this picture portrays the elf who visits really naughty kids on Christmas Eve and takes gifts they got from people other than Santa and either leaves coal or broken toys in their place.

(What? You thought I was going somewhere else?)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Greed, lust, love, and justice have 'Impact'

Impact (1949)
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Helen Walker, Charles Coburn, Anna May Wong, and Tony Barrett
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After his gold-digging wife (Walker) and her sleazy lover (Barrett) fail in their attempt to murder him, through-and-through nice-guy and self-made business tycoon Walter Williams (Donlevy) hides out and recovers in a small Idaho town as he reads newspapers accounts of his wife's ongoing trail for his murder. Although his heart is full of hunger for revenge--a revenge he hopes to see delivered when his wife is executed for supposedly murdering him--his growing romance with the widowed owner of a gas station and car repair shop (Raines) who hired him as a mechanic, causes his inherently good side to reassert itself and he returns to San Francisco to clear his wife and set the facts straight. But things don't go quite as he had planned....

"Impact" is an interesting and unpredictable film from beginning to end with talented actors portraying interesting characters as they deliver sharply written dialogue and move through a story that features a number of film noir and mystery genre standards being deployed in unexpected ways. The creators of this film even managed to do successfully what so many try and fail at: Just when you think the film is about to be over--when it reaches the point where many lesser films would be over--things instead get really bad for our poor hero and the film changes gears and keeps going for another 15-20 minutes. More often than not, when filmmakers do this, my reaction is, "Oh, for God's sake... you just blew the perfect ending and now you're wasting my time with unnecessary crap and undermining your movie." But not this time.

"Impact" stars in a film-noirish vein, with viewers quickly realizing that both Fate and his evil bitch of a wife are conspiring to make the life of  Brian Donlevy's character--a man who is no-nonsense and gruff in his business dealings but who is endlessly kind and compassionate to his friends and loved ones--very unpleasant.  But after the attempted murder, the film breaks away from that tone and instead places Donlevy's character in a peaceful town full of nice people. Instead of going darker and following Walter Williams on a revenge spree,  it instead lightens up a bit... even if there is still quite a bit of darkness in the sense that Williams is passively watching the justice system move his wife ever-closer to execution for a murder she didn't manage to pull off. But even as he nurses his hatred, the kindness of the characters around him eventually draws out his true, fundamentally good nature. And once Williams reveals to the authorities that he is not dead, the film enters yet a third mode, as it becomes a courtroom drama, with a little bit of film noir coloring for good measure.

The genre-mashing and shifts in tone that go on in this film could well have doomed it, especially the final portion. It's a testament to the skill of the writers, the director, and the actors that the audience is drawn deeper into the story and becomes more eager to see how it will all turn out instead of being put off.

Naturally, the actors have a great deal to do with the success of a film, and "Impact" is no exception; a bad actor can ruin the most well-developed character and spoil the most finely crafted lines.

In this film we're treated to Brian Donlevy playing a sensitive male before they were in vogue... and he even has a scene where he cries without seeming wimpy or laughable. I'm not able at the moment to think of another Guy Moment quite as heartbreaking as the ragged sob that issues forth from Walter Williams when the realization that the person he loves above all else was behind the violent attempt on his life; it's made even greater by the fact that Donlevy was such a tough character, both in his screen roles and in real life. An extension of the unexpected depth of Donlevy's character is the relationship that develops between him and the widow played by Ella Raines. It's a mature relationship, between two mature people that have both loved and lost and who realize that it's time to give love and life a second chance. It's the sort of relationship that any adult should hope to be in, as well as the kind of relationship that isn't often portrayed in movies. Raines' performance strikes the exact right balance between tough self-reliance and vulnerability to make her character the ideal match for Donlevy's Williams.

Another great performance comes from Helen Walker, Williams' despicable wife. For the majority of the film, she is a run-of-the-mill femme fatale that the audience is eagerly waiting to be served her just rewards, but in the scene where she is confronted by her supposedly dead husband, Walker conveys more with body language and facial expression than pages of dialogue would be able to do. In that scene, Walker shows her character's emotions going from surprise, to panic, to defeat, to the realization that she she can still take advantage of her husband's kind heart to save herself and destroy him even now, with barely an uttered word. She also manages to fully convey the depths of evil within the woman. It's a scene that clearly shows what a tragedy it is for movie lovers that she never achieved the leading lady status that she would have been more than capable of handling.

"Impact" is one of hundreds of movies from the 1930s and 1940s that were in danger of slipping into oblivion but was brought to the public again with the advent of the digital age and the DVD. It's a film that any lover of classic mysteries needs to check out, and both sources for it feature an excellent, crystal-clear print. (I rarely bother to comment on the quality of these public domain films on DVD, but this one was so well preserved that it's worth noting.)

(Trivia: Brian Donlevy lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army at 14. He also loved to write poetry. When he retired from acting, he turned to short story writing.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Alison Lohman

Born in Palm Springs, California, Alison Lohman caught the showbusiness bug at an early age. A naturally talented singer and actress, by the time she was in high school, she had appeared in over a dozen musicals and other stage productions. The jump to film was a quick one, and her short stature and slender build meant she was often called on to play characters younger than her actual age, such as when she at 22 played a 14-year-old in Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men".

Lohman has mostly appeared in dramas and comedies, but her very first film appearance was in Charles Band's kid-oriented creature feature, "Kraa! The Sea Monster!", which she followed up with a part in the dark sci-fi thriller "The 13th Floor". More recently, she starred in Sam Raimi's 2009 spectacular return to horror "Drag Me to Hell," which was highlighted in the Chiller Channel's documentary "Chiller 13: The Decade's Scariest Movie Moments". (The show aired yesterday, but check your local listings; there are several rebroadcasts coming up.)

For reviews of a couple of Alison Lohman's non-horror films, click here to visit Watching the Detectives. To read my review of "Kraa!", click this link to visit The Charles Band Collection.

'Kraa!' is a patchwork picture
with future star

Kraa! The Sea Monster (1998)
Starring: R.L. McMurry, Teal Marchande, J.W. Perra, Coltin Scott, Alison Lohman, and Candida Tolentino
Directors: Michael Deak, Aaron Osbourne and Dave Parker
Producers: Charles Band and Kirk Edward Hansen
Rating: Two of Three Stars

Kraa, an inter-stellar planet-wrecker-for-hire, is set loose upon Earth, and the local agents of the Planet Patrol (Lohman, Scott, and Tolentino) are sidelined in a coordinated strike by the evil Lord Doom. A renegade biker/scientist (McMurray) and the owner of a small diner (Marchande) emerge as the world's only hope for salvation when they team up with a Planet Patrol scout who managed to make it to Earth (Perra).

"Kraa! The Sea Monster" is one of a handful of films made by Band during the late 1990s when he was trying to make a mark (and a buck) in kids' entertainment. This is the first of those efforts I've seen, but if it's any indication of the quality of the rest of them, it's easy to see why that initiative failed.

This movie has the disjointed, patchwork feel of a Godfrey Ho movie. There are three distinct parts of the movie--the teenaged cops of Planet Patrol who start out seeming like they are the film's heroes but who quickly get stranded on their space station and are reduced to a role mostly as observers, and their nemesis, Lord Doom; the Earthlings who become involved with the alien effort to save Earth from Kraa; and the rampage of Kraa, in the form of a guy in a costume stomping around on a bunch of miniatures. While all three parts of the film reference each other, there is virtually no overlap between them, with the teens of Planet Patrol never interacting with the Earthlings helping their colleague, the Earthlings never interacting directly with Kraa or his rampage, and Kraa being referenced by everyone but no character is ever tricked into any shots featuring him, or visa-versa. It causes the film to feel very disjointed, and because the parts are all so disconnected from each other, there are no threads for the viewer to grab onto and be pulled into the story.

And that's a shame, because there are actually some good concepts here.

First, there are the Planet Patrol kids. They had the potential to be a Tomorrow People or Power Ranger sort of outfit, but they are kept from any real involvement in the main plot except at the very end when they apprehend Lord Doom... and even then they are mostly figures of ridicule as they end up chasing Doom's midget sidekick around some pillars. I can't help but wonder why Band & Company would include kid heroes and then not let them be the actual heroes of the film. They are completely wasted here. (Well, except for those out there who would want to use this film for a Bad Movie Night and a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" sort of riff-fest. There is a amusing/disturbing scene where the leader of the Planet Patrol detachment (Coltin Scott) seems to be undressing and then nailing rookie Planet Patrol Officer Alison Lohman (in her first film role, by the way) with his eyes. I'm sure the intent was for the character to be appraising her in a detached, superior officer kind of way, but that's not at all how the scene looks when one views it... it's a jail-bait-rape moment worthy of the Roman Polanski Memorial Award. More time should also have been spent on the why and how such young kids are in such dangerous and important jobs.

Second, there's the character of Bobby, a long-haired, bearded biker who is a brilliant, well-educated Renaissance man who dropped out of the scientific community for reasons that are never explained (or even touched upon, except by implication). He makes references to both having attended medical school and having worked on NASA's Voyager program, and he is able to convince scientists at a nuclear facility that he is one of them. Most of all, he is able to grasp the concepts of an alien weapon that needs to be assembled to fight Kraa. This is an interesting character that deserved a better vehicle, not to mention more screen time. Which he could have had, if it hadn't been for those Planet Patrol kids taking up space in the movie. (And the reverse is true as far as the Planet Patrol goes; if Bobby hadn't been in the movie, more time could have been spent developing them and their backstory. Two good ideas crushed the life out of each other through the incompetent execution of this movie.)

Finally, there is the title creature, Kraa. Commentary from Lord Doom and the Planet Patrol kids set describe him as a galactic mercenary whose specialty is laying waste to planets. It's a great set-up, and it's one that I would love to see in a movie--a Godzilla/Gamera-like monster for hire who has left a trail of devastation in his wake and now some under-gunned heroes have to find a way to stop him. The idea of KraaKraa costume. Would it really have been that much more expensive to give the creature eyes that blinked? Or at least closed when he was supposed to be unconscious after the Planet Patrol kids remotely crashed a spaceship into him? A few more dollars spent on Kraa would have helped make him more closely resemble the fearsome, inter-planetary marauder he was supposed to be. It might even have helped give him a personality, something which was completely lacking.

The film would also have benefited greatly from simple competence in directing, especially where Kraa and his rampages through miniature sets are concerned. The miniature work is well-done, and the filming of Kraa is also well-executed, but a complete lack of "reaction shots" from people supposedly fleeing and/or about to be stomped on means that there is never any sense of realism surrounding Kraa. Even the best effects shot in the film--featuring a panicked tanker truck driver crashing into a building and causing it to explode before Kraa's scaly feet--falls flat, because we are left to assume that the truck was crashed by a driver panicked by the sight of a giant monster by the side of the road. Would he really have cost that much more to even just put a cap and a fake mustache on Alison Lohman and have her sit in a truck cab and twist the wheel to and fro and scream, and then cut that scene into the miniature crash and explosion? It would have made a huge difference in the final product.

Of course, the disjointed and disconnected nature of the film is brought about by the fact that three different directors worked on the three pieces of the film I've described. Michael Deak did the monster/miniature scenes, Aaron Osbourne the material with Bobby the Genius Biker dodging government agents while trying to help an alien space cop create the means to destroy Kraa, and Dave Parker did the Planet Patrol and Lord Doom scenes. I would like to think that if any one of those directors had been involved in the entire movie, they would have realized that some pick-up shots were desperately needed here and there--and that said pick-up shots were actually very important to the overall quality of the film. But, since it seems none of them had such an overview of the project, I can only blame the producers for creating this miserable squandering of good ideas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'Drag Me to Hell' is a spectacular spook show

Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Dileep Rao, Lorna Raver, David Paymer, and Reggie Lee
Director: Sam Raimi
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When a loan officer hoping for a promotion at the bank (Lohman) forecloses on an old gypsy woman's house, she is put under a terrible curse: She has three days to find a way to reverse it, or a powerful demon will drag her bodily to Hell.

Christine (Alison Lohman) learns the hard way that ticking off old gypsy women can be bad for your health.
"Drag Me to Hell" is the sort of horor movie that most filmmakers seem incapable of making these days. It's a got a to-the-point script with a well-constructed story, it's got characters the audience can root for (despite their flaws) and, most importantly, it's got plenty of scares. It's a horror movie the likes of which we haven't seen on the big screen since... well, "Cursed" came close, but it was moreof a classic monster movie than a horror fim. This one is a throwback to a time when horror movies were actually good!

In fact, the film even acknowledges it's a reminder of a lost time for horror fillms by starting with the Universal logo from the 1970s and 1980s. And what follows is a film with the spirit of those days but in a thoroughly modern body. Whether you love the movies from back then--like me--or whether you're a kid who has only been exposed to the garbage and crappy remakes that are being passed off as horror movies today, this is a movie you'll get a kick out of.

With its well-mounted scares and finely crafted script, this is a movie that was made with care from the very beginning. It's enhanced even further by excellent performances by every featured actor, with star Alison Lohman earning every dime she was paid to be in this film.

Fans of Raimi's first big hit, "The Evil Dead", are also well-served by this film. It is, literally, the first time that Raimi returns to a movie of that kind. Like the "The Evil Dead", the film starts as a fairly standard horror flick, but then goes crazily over the top as it reaches its climax. But, with 30 years of experience under his belt, this return to the style of that first outing is far more effective than he's ever done it before. (He sort of did it with "Evil Dead 2", but that was a horror-comedy from the outset and was actually very different from both what he did in the original film and what he does here.)

If you're one of those people who habitually turn their nose up at PG-13 horror movies because their not intense enough for you, and therefore haven't seen this film yet, you need to get over your bad self, or at least check out the "unrated director's cut". This is one of the very best big studio horror releases in the past decade, and it gives me hope that maybe there is still a future for the horror film on the big screen. (But don't just take my word for it. The people who put together the countdown show "Chiller 13: The Scariest Movie Moments of the Decade" include several scenes from the film on their list. The show premieres tonight, Friday, on the Chiller cable channel. Check your local listings.)

'Matchstick Men' is a fun tale of a con man's redemption

Matchstick Men (2003)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell, Bruce Altman, and Bruce McGill
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When professional (and deeply neurotic and obsessive compulsive) con artist Roy (Cage) finds himself connecting with Angela (Lohman), the 14-year-old daughter he never knew he had, he decides to leave behind his life of crime, get a real job, and become a real father. However, when the last job with his partner (Rockwell) goes horribly wrong, Roy finds himself sacrificing far more for fatherhood than he had evern intended.

"Matchstick Men" is part con-artist caper film and part redemption story. It's also a movie that features a twist-ending that makes perfect sense, is genre appropriate, and still manages to surprise viewers. The fact it features a twist ending that actually works makes this a remarkable film in the light of the crap writers and directors have been foisting on us the past couple of decades, but the film is well-acted, beautifully filmed, and the editing techniques used to illustrate Roy's psychological episodes when he's under too much pressure is fabulously creative. The twist isn't the only good thing about the script, as the dialogue is sharp throughout and the characters well-drawn and believable.

Check this one out, if you liked films like "The Sting", or if you enjoy movies that are first-and-foremost about human relationships and that manage to deliver endings that pull off a fate for the the main characters that's holds both happy-sappy and poetic justice qualities.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

'Screaming Dead': When Misty Mundae started keeping her clothes on

Screaming Dead (2003)
Starring: Rob Monkiewicz, Rachael Robbins, Joseph Farrell, Misty Mundae, and Heidi Kristoffer
Director: Brett Piper
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A sadistic photographer (Farrell) isolates a trio of young models in a house and proceeds to subject them to abuse and psychological torture. His evil manages to awaken the ghost of the madman who built the house, who then picks up where he left off and sets about torturing the women to death slowly.

Although that summary may make "Screaming Dead" sound like yet another piece of offal floating in the stream of torture porn movies--and with Misty Mundae starring, one might think the film to be literal torture porn--but it's more of a " sexy girls in a haunted house" movie in the mode of the cheap and sleazy European horror films from the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, like the worst of those, it spends too long on the wind-up, not getting interesting until the movie is half over, and not getting to the reason most of us would be watching this film: the haunted house stuff. (The rest are going to be even more disappointed; the nudity quotient in the film is very, very low for a Misty Mundae movie and the lesbian nookie is even lower. One of the films better moments even makes playful fun of the lesbian softcore scenes that are a staple of the horror-themed sex comedies that Mundae and the producers behind "Screaming Dead" initially made their reputation on.)

The greatest flaw of the film is the unbelievable nature of its lead villain, the abusive photographer played by Joseph Farrell. A misogynistic, sexual sadist like this character might have been believable in a film made and/or set 40-50 years ago, but no matter how supposedly famous and well-respected he is as an artist, he would have been sued into the poor house or sent to prison long ago. Unless he paid his regular employees many hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money--and with the repeated insistence that his models were working for free that seems unlikely--and his models even more, someone would have put a stop to his real-life "torture porn" long before the film started. No one could get away with abusing a model in this day and age of scandal-hungry, ever-present tabloid media the way he does in the film's opening scene, where a busty young lady is strapped to a table as a spike descends to impale her. Roman Polanski's celebrity and time lets him obscure the fact that he's a pedophile rapist, but if he had behaved that way in 2003, especially if he had beaten the girl instead of "just" drugging her, he'd be as reviled as Michael Jackson. (Of course, if he disposes of the models in a permanent way when he's done, the problem is lessened, but there is no indication that he is an out-and-out murderer, just a sadistic sociopath.)

The film's hero, the real estate company employee played by Rob Monkiewicz, also comes with his own unbelievable qualities to make the plot work. A rough-around-the-edges tough-guy with a chivalrous attitude, he is present at the photo-shoot by order of his employer to make sure the location the photographer has rented isn't damaged, and that the photographer isn't doing things that will expose the real estate company to liability. Within fairly short order, he witnesses several acts on the part of the photographer that his failure to report the photographer to the authorities exposes no only himself but his employers to lawsuits of mind-boggling size, especially when he points out to anyone who will listen how dangerous and illegal locking people in their rooms or chaining them to beds is to anyone within ear-shot. It is not believable on any level that a character drawn as a man of action like this one wouldn't do something to stop the abuses he sees long before he does, even if it means calling the police. While he is set up as a shady character, I also have the impression that he wouldn't be above using either the law or some of his unsavory contacts to shut down someone he finds as disgusting as the photographer. But for the character to try this, the film would either have needed a bigger budget--as it would require more cast and possibly additional locations--or a script that had been better thought out and which got to the point faster.

These problems with the hero and main villain of the film arise from a combination of a desire on co-screenwriter and director Brett Piper is giving us characters with a little depth to them, and the fact that he spends too much time dithering why trying to draw that depth. It takes entirely too long for the real ghosts to arrive on the scene and for the characters to be trapped inside the house. If Piper had move more quickly with introducing his torture-obsessed ghost, none of the problems with the reality of the film would have been an issue, because reality would have been suspended much sooner. And the fact that the film is really clever in the way in mixes the supernatural and hi-tech once, not to mention that it gets pretty scary in its final 15-20 minutes, shows that Piper is capable of delivering the goods... when he finally puts his mind to it. I really wish the first 3/4ths, because the horror that eventually comes deserved a better lead-in.

As for the cast, cinematography, and special effects, everything here is about what you might expect from a Shock-O-Rama/Seduction Cinema film. No one is going to win any awards for their work on the film, but no one needs to hang their shame over their efforts, either.

Farrell and Monkiewicz, as the evil photographer and heroic rental agency rep respectively. Both are as excellent in their roles as can be expected given the dialogue they are called on to deliver and the flabbiness and badly structured script they are performing. Farrell in particular shines in the one truly horrific scene in the movie where Misty Mudae's character is slashed to ribbons by an invisible force as he takes pictures. That same scene is where Mundae has one of several opportunities to show that she actually has a great deal of talent for acting.

But, in the end, "Screaming Dead" neither has enough screaming, nor enough dead, to make it worth checking out. It's of interest to big fans of Misty Mundae as it marks the beginning of her ascension from softcore porn and ultra-low budget movies to more serious-minded horror flicks, as well as the dawn of Pop Cinema as a multi-faceted, modern-day exploitation film production company, but most will be underwhelmed this film. As well done and horrific as the scene of Mundae's character being violated and mutilated is, what leads up to is simply too weak to be worth bothering with.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Ten Days to Christmas!

Janet Leigh reminds everyone that you have ten days to get Christmas cards and presents to the people you love (or even me, your kind host).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

'The Moth' is not worth catching

The Moth (1934)
Starring: Sally O'Neil, Paul Page, Wilfred Lucas, Rae Dagget, Fred Kelsey, and Duncan Renaldo
Director: Fred C. Newmeyer
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Wild-child heiress Diane Wyman (O'Neil) loses her fortune when her guardian (Lucas) invokes a morality clause in her father's will following one media scandal too many. The lecherous old man helped engineered the scandal, hoping to force her completely under his power, but she runs off to New Orleans, where she naively falls in with a pair of jewel thieves (Dagget and Renaldo). The thieves pretend to be her friends, but they are just setting her up to take the fall for their latest heist and make a detective who has pursued them from New York that the disgraced socialite is actually the mysterious jewel thief known as "The Moth." Will George (Page), the handsome engineer who has become infatuated with her, manage to save Diane from the many sinister forces arrayed against her?

"The Moth" is an almost inappropriately light-hearted movie, given the fairly vile characters that are set to destroy the naive young woman who is its focal character, be it the dirty old man who is supposed to be looking out for her best interests but really just wants to possess her; or the cold-hearted thieves, who take advantage of her to cover their escape. Of course, given that it's so sloppily written movie that relies on coincidence after coincidence to keep the plot going, fails to be funny in most places where it's supposed to be, and the straight-forwardness of the plot makes the build-up of suspense nearly non-existent, it's hard to tell if its creators failed to make a drama or created one of the least funny comedies ever made.

The film is especially unfunny in the sense that the disgusting character who is Diane's guardian is supposed to be comic relief, and the screen writers and director blow both their key moments of suspense--when it looks like Diane is going to be caught with the stolen jewels, and when one of the thieves wants to turn to murder to insure his get-away--by introducing the threats and disposing of them before the audience even has time to grow concerned about them. It's rare to find a movie as brief as this one where the pacing is off, but that is the major flaw here.

Another flaw is the directing and the acting, both of which were more suitable to the silent movies where the director and much of the cast got their starts. While it's easy to see why the very pretty Sally O'Neil was a big star, it's equally easy to understand why she couldn't make a successful transition to the talkies. While she had charisma and beauty, she had an acting style more suitable for theatre or the always larger-than-life pantomimes needed to convey action and emotion in silent films. By 1937, her screen career was over, and O'Neil returned to theatre where her career had started.

Despite my criticism of her performance, O'Neil and her character of Diane Wyman are the only thing that makes this movie worth watching. She is by far the most interesting performer in the film, and even the most cynical viewer will want this likable, if none-to-bright, character to somehow recognize that the only person around who cares at all for her well-being is George, the one person she keeps pushing away and abusing.

Still, this is not a movie that's really worth seeking out. It's one of those films that's been from oblivion and once again put in front of the public by the advent of digital media and the relative ease of manufacturing DVDs, but unlike so many hidden treasures found in the Alpha Video catalogue, I doubt anyone would have missed "The Moth" had vanished forever. (Although I must congratulate the art department at Alpha Video for coming up with a cover design far more interesting than the movie; it was the cover alone that prompted me to buy the disc. It's got nothing at all to do with the movie, but it's pretty cool... almost like the days of the exploitation films where the crappier the movie, the more exciting the poster. The Roger Corman Marketing Team Spirit is alive and well in DVD Land!)

Paycheck: Both the film's title and why it exists

Paycheck (2003)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, and Colm Feore
Director: John Woo
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Industrial spy and computer engineer Michael Jennings (Affleck) agrees to work on a project so elaborate and top secret he'll have three entire years "cooked" from his brain by his partner (Giamatti) once he's done. However, instead of a big paycheck, Jennings finds assassins trying to kill him at the other end. Now, he has to recover what he's forgotten before it's too late, piecing together three years with only the minutes of clues.

I think that's a pretty accurate summary of this totally, utterly forgettable movie. I watched just three days ago, and I feel like it's been erased from my mind. I remember Affleck woefully inadequate acting talents being even more clearly on display when playing against real actors like Thurman and Giamatti (even though the latter had limited screen time). I remember a story so messy and full of holes that it resembled a block of swiss cheese being melted in the "brain cooker" device. I also remember John Woo (who once made the so-very-excellent action films "Hard Target" and "Hard Boiled") and feel a bit sad that he's reduced here to aping Hitchcock (in a way that's about as skillful as the way a chimp might mimick a person) and to desperately cramming his "signature visuals" into the film so it feels like he's almost parodying himself.

There's no doubt that everyone involved made this movie for no reason other than its title... they were looking for a paycheck, and they were hoping this messy pile would be forgotten as fast as one of Michael Jennings' special projects. It deserves to be forgotten, because its only saving grace is that it moves so fast that it's not until afterwards the audience fully realizes how awful a movie it is.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The S-U-I-C-I-D-E Song & Dance Number

If you're inclined to shout "alluha akbar!" or make excuses and justifications for death-worshiping freaks when you see stories like "Car Bomb: Christmas Jihad in Stockholm," don't watch this scene cut from "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead."

(This post was part of a Cinema Steve-wide celebration in honor of Jihadists everywhere.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Suzi Lorraine

Actress and model Suzi Lorraine has for the past decade been one of the best thing about numerous low-budget horror and sci-fi movies, whether appearing under the name of Kelli Summers in soft-core port spoofs like "Lord of the G-Strings" or "The Erotic Time Machine", or under her own name in chillers like "Torment" or "She-Demons of the Black Sun".

Born in 1978, Lorraine is one of a handful of actresses who has emerged from a New Jersey-based hub of low-budget genre film producers who has both the talent and looks to be destined for bigger and better films. A couple of years ago, she co-hosted MonsterFest on AMC, and she has parts in six movies in varying stages of production, ranging from early pre-production to just-about released. She is a talent to watch for many reasons, including the obvious ones.

Friday, December 10, 2010

'Do You Like Hitchcock?'; if your answer is 'yes',you're better off not seeing this film

Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)
Starring: Elio Germano, Ivan Morales, Elisabetta Rocchetti, and Chiara Conti
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A film student (Germano) with voyeuristic tendencies finds his world turning into a real-life mash-up of classic Hitchcock thrillers when the shrewish woman in the apartment across the street is murdered and he suspects her daughter (Rocchetti) made arrangements with another girl to "swap murders"--each of them having perfect alibis for when the person they wanted dead was killed, while they aren't suspects because they have no motive for the murders they did commit.

"Do You Like Hitchcock?" is Dario Argento, after 30 years of disavowing the label "The Italian Hitchcock," demonstrating that he is indeed NOT the Italian Hitchcock and that he is barely capable of emulating Hitchcock.

In fact, I think it's safe to say that if Dario Argento is the Italian Alfred Hitchcock, then Uwe Boll is the German Terence Fisher.

Made for Italian television as the first installment in an eight film series that paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock, "Do You Like Hitchcock?" incorporates and outright lifts elements primarily from Hitchcock thrillers "Rear Window" and "Strangers on a Train". Argento also pays homage to Argento by swiping from his own earlier films, primarily "Deep Red", but there's a bit of "Cat of Nine Tails" in the mix here as well. Unfortunately, Argento is unable to conjure up the energy that crackled through Hitchcock's movies, nor is he capable of creating that easy mix of suspense and humor (if not outright absurdity) that Hitchcock did. When he tries, all he comes up with is an embarrassing and over-long sequence where our hero tries to escape on his scooter after breaking his leg during a peeping-tom adventure gone bad. The only vaguely suspenseful bit in the film comes at the end, when, in "Rear Window" fashion, our hero watches his girl friend risk running head-long into the killer. A roof top encounter that ends with a nod to "Vertigo" is also very nicely done.

I've seen this film referred to both as a "homage" or "sly tribute" to Hitchcock. I suppose it could be considered either. The descriptors I would use are "vapid pastiche"; it's not exactly bad, but it isn't all that good. I might even go so far as to say that Argento seemed more interested in paying homage to himself than Hitchcock, as exemplified by the fact the neighborhood video store was plastered with posters for other Argento movies and the aforementioned echoes of other Argento films in this picture.

As for the technical aspects of the film, the tone is consistent throughout, even if that tone is more drab that thrilling, and the acting seems to be pretty decent. It's hard to tell, because we're dealing with not just the Italian actors but New Zealander (I think) voice actors doing the English dubbing. That crew wasn't the best I've come across, but the screen presence of the leads still shine through.

The script itself is just solid enough that it passes muster as a low-average thriller. It might even have worked a little better if extraneous side characters such as our hero's mother and new boy friend had been excised, and if the writer and director had actually managed to capture that Hitchcock feel, but it's interesting enough.

If you like Hitchcock, you can spend your time better than watching this movie. Allow me to recommend "Charade", which is the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. Other good choices would be the homages/spoofs "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" from Mario Bava and "High Anxiety" from Mel Brooks, two directors who seemed to have a far better understanding of what made Hitchcock movies work that Argento does. Or, even better, check out some of Hitchcock's great black and white movies you may not have seen, like "Strangers on a Train".