Sunday, May 29, 2011

'Divine Intervention' is a well-done first outing

Divine Intervention (2007)
Starring: Ingrid Fenn, Alyssa Jayne Hale, Kyle Erha,Patrick Pitu, Vic Clay, Kevin Cirone, Salvatore Marchese, Jonathan La Mantia
Director: Rufus Chaffee
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Holly (Fenn) and Sarah (Hale) travel to a small town for a night of partying, but they soon find themselves in the caught up in a struggle of nerves between the town bad-boy (Erha) and a third-rate thug (Cirone). Things go from bad to worse when a crazed meth-head (Clay) goes on a murder-spree motivated by a theology based on the Bible and lessons learned from the reality TV show "Survivor", and a belief he is harvesting souls for the Army of God.

"Divine Intervention" is a low-budget thriller that occupies a space somewhere between "Scream" and any one of a dozen exploitation flicks from 1960s and 1970s where innocent young people find themselves menaced by evil and crazed druggies in the isolated countryside. For most of its running time, it's a better film than both contemporary and old-time examples of this type of movie, because it moves forward at a steady pace, is free of padding--there is not a single scene of characters wandering through the woods or driving aimlessly down the road--and features actors who are familiar enough with their craft and their lines to actually portray characters instead of just run lines and keep to their blocking.

Another aspect that sets this film apart from others like it is the professionalism with which it has been produced. Real money was spent on cameras, lights, and sound equipment-no camcorder microphones here, nor any badly done day-for-night shots. The film has also clearly been carefully editing and taken through the entire post-production process, aspects many low-budget filmmakers don't pay anywhere near enough attention to. (There are still a couple of rough spots here and there--like ambient noise changing between a close-up and an over-the-shoulder shot during an conversation between two characters, and an obvious lack of discharge from a gun that gets fired into the camera--but these flaws can be found in movies made with ten times the financial and technical resources that Chaffee and crew had at their disposal, so they are not at all damning. Particularly not when one considers the state of post-production on most other low-budget films.)

"Divine Intervention" is also blessed with a superb casting. The lead actors are all decent, and the Beautiful People look of the majority of the cast makes the ragged meth-head look of Vic Clay's "Father Reynolds" character that much stronger. (In fact, Clay has a number of great moments in the film, moments which would have fallen flat if he had been a lesser actor. Look in particularly for the scene where he is trying to impart one of his Bible/"Survivor"-based lessons to his brain-fried homicidal minion.)

The film's dialogue is also well-crafted for most of its running-time. A number of characters have unique voices, something that screen-writers achieve all too rarely. In fact, the whole idea of incorporating "Survivor" into the fabric of Father Reynolds' psychosis was a great idea, as it lends both humor and creepiness to the character... and it's references that virtually everyone seeing the movie will understand and laugh at. I know this, because I've never seen a complete episode of "Survivor", I can't think of a single friend who was a fan of the show, yet "Survivor" was a large enough part of pop culture for a while there that I picked up enough about it to understand every reference that Father Reynolds' makes.

Unfortunately, for all the good things about "Divine Intervention", the film starts to fall apart as it enters its third act. Characters start behaving illogically and downright stupidly for the purpose of nonsensical melodrama, there are some VERY lame fight scenes, and the quality of the acting and the dialogue also seems to deteriorate a bit. It also doesn't help the ending that there are a couple of useless characters that bog it down--the slutty mother of another minor character and the obligatory tough-talking black guy. (The presence of the slutty mother makes no sense at all, other than perhaps Chaffee felt that every "sinner" had to be disposed of in the film. He would have been better off leaving her out of the climax, though, particularly since the way we never see her face toward the end makes me think the actress who played her earlier in the film wasn't even present.)

I think with one more draft of the script before filming started--to get rid of some of the useless characters and subplots, and to tighten up the film's ending to a large degree--Rufus Chafee could have had himself a fantastic first outing as a feature film director. Instead, because of the way the film falls apart in the third act, he's ended up withing something that's at the low end of average.

I hope that Chaffee tries his hand at another feature. Based on the high level of quality here, I suspect he's a creator who learns from his mistakes, and I think a second movie will be much, much better.

I hardly ever say this, but I think Rufus Chaffee is a talent to watch for in the future.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Nicole Kidman

Although born to Austrailian parents, and an Australian national, Nicole Kidman was actually born in Hawaii and spent her earliest years in Washington, D.C. She broke into film at the age of 16, and, after gaining much acclaim in the Australian films "Bush Christmas" and "BMX Bandits," her career swung into an upward trajectory that brought her back to the United States and Hollywood and to the status as an international movie superstar.

Kidman has appearing in chillers since her very first role--the Australian TV movie "Chase Through the Night" in 1983)--and her first film for the international market and an American studio was "Dead Calm".

Kidman has some 50 movies to her name, and close to half of those are dark thrillers, horror films, or comedies that include supernatural elements. Foremost among these are the aforementioned "Dead Calm (1989), To Die For (1995), "Practical Magic" (1998), "The Others" (2001) and "Bewitched" (2005).

Kidman has four movie projects in varying stages of production, with "Tresspass" (slated for release early this fall) being perhaps the closest thing to a horror movie among then. Kidman stars as a woman being held hostage with her husband (played by Nicolas Cage).

Princesses of Mars, Part Nine

Welcome to an All-Star Edition of Princesses of Mars. In this installment, all the illustration are from top illustrators in the comic book and fantasy illustration field.

By M.W. Kaluta
By Rudy Nebres
By Alan Davis
By Pablo Marcos
By George Barr
By Mike Hoffman

Thursday, May 26, 2011

'Hands of Steel': Terminator for Girls

Hands of Steel (aka "Atomic Cyborg" and "Arms of Steel") (1986)
Starring: Daniel Greene, Janet Agren, George Eastman, Claudio Cassinelli, Luigi Montifori, Andrew Coppola, and John Saxon
Director: Martin Doleman (aka Sergio Martino)
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

In the near future, a powerful industrialist (Saxon) co-opts a U.S. Army super-soldier program for use as his own personal assassination squad. When the perfect cybernetic super-soldier (Greene) breaks his programming and heads home to Arizona in search of his true identity, ruthless assassins are put on his trail to silence him before he thinks to turn himself into the authorities.

Someone I used to watch crummy movies with referred to "Hands of Steel" as "Terminator for Girls."

I thought it was a funny and very accurate description. The cyborg in search of emotional peace and answers to who he is is played by a very handsome male specimen, and the "lonely woman finds true love and redeems a Bad Boy" is a chick fantasy if there ever was one.

Along the way, there's some violence courtesy of said cyborg bad boy and the assassins chasing him, as well as a subplot involving semi-pro arm-wrestlers that makes "Over the Top" look like a masterpiece, with the only positive thing about it being the contests are motivated by chivalry instead of an attempt to earn the love and respect of a 13 year-old boy. I wish I could say there was much hilarity and/or excitement in watching arm-wrestling battles of Man vs. Cyborg, but no; it's even dumber here than it was in the Stallone movie. But at least the arm-wrestling is motivated by chivalry and not an attempt to earn the love and respect of the cyborg's estranged son. (I realize arm wrestling is viewed as a sport in some of the more bizarre places of the world--like caber-tossing, curling, and, no doubt, pig catching--but was it really so popular in the 1980s that it warranted cinematic treatments?)

Aside from the arm wrestling sequences, the fight and chase scenes are fairly well done, considering what is usually found in films at this level. The Battle Royale from which the above screenshot is culled--when the assassins finally catch up with our hero--is one of the movie's high points. It comes as a near-complete surprise, which I may well have spoiled by mentioning it here. Whoops.

At any rate, that fight kicks off the movie's third act which is little more than chases, mayhem, and violence again goons in black suits and motorcycle helmets (that culminates in John Saxon wielding a weapon that shoots colorful cartoon lines--oh, sorry... laser beams). It's the point in the movie where there's "no plot to get in the way of the action," except for when the "redemption of the Bad Boy" is reintroduced and brought to its natural conclusion. Do we get a happy ending where Cyborg and Girl live happily ever after? Well, I'm not going to be that bad with spoilers, but it was the one point where the film had me guessing as to what was going to come next.

This is a fun, cheesy sci-fi flick that should appeal equally to fans of "Warriors of the Wasteland", "Robocop" and "Terminator". While it's squarely in the territory of Bad Movie Night fodder, it does have good action scenes and it features decent performances by Daniel Greene and Janet Agren. I recommend pairing it with Charles Band's "Crash and Burn" for the common themes of killer cyborgs and evil corporations bent on destroying the environment just for money and the hell of it. (In fact, I continue to be astonished that neither Band nor companies like Mill Creek hasn't taken advantage of the ongoing environmentalist hysteria to repackage and/or retitle some of these B-movies with environmentalist side themes in attempts to sponge a few dollars off the True Believers in the cult of man-made global warming. It might be a little late now, though, as the mass-media seems to be moving onto other topics.)

Trivia: This was the final screen appearance of Claudio Cassinelli, an Italian actor whose face is familiar to lovers of trashy cinema. He died in a helicopter crash during the production.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Celebrating Dracula, Part Three

Here's a third and final collection of line drawing of the King of Vampires, offered in observation of the month when Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" was first published.

By Mike Hoffman

By Dick Giordano
By Mike Ploog

By Gene Colan and Dave Gutierrez

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Travel Advisory: Town not on the map? DON'T STOP THERE!

The Vampires' Night Orgy (1974)
Starring: Jack Taylor, Dianik Zurakowska, Jose Guardiola, Charo Soriano, Fernando Romero, Sarita Gil, and Helga Line
Director: Leon Klimovsky
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After the driver of their bus dies of a heart attack, a collection of domestic workers on their way to new jobs at the castle of a wealthy Eastern European recluse detour to a village off the highway in a shadow-shrouded valley. Although it is not on the map, the citizens seem friendly enough, particularly the Countess who owns the entire settlement (Line). But that's only until the sun sets, at which time the outsiders become what's for dinner.

"The Vampire's Night Orgy" is one of those movies that is entertaining and scary almost despite itself. The characters are universally bland and ill-defined;--except for the "hero" who first noticed the heroine while peeping on her as she undresses, and who continues to secretly watch her even after they've met... and who ultimately decides to save his own skin over that of a little girl who may or may not still be alive; the script is a jumble of barely explained and completely unexplained events--the town is home to vampires but it is also home to some sort of spirit that looks like a little boy spirit and that seems to be at odds with the vampires, and then there's the cop-out ending to the film; the soundtrack is one of the most inappropriate and badly done I've come across, with Musak-style easy listening tunes playing as a vampire attack happens; and, finally, the acting is sub-par, be it on the part of the original cast or the voice actors doing the dubbing.

However, the film's pacing is perfect and clever staging and editing of scenes, plus decent cinematography go a long way to make up for the crummy actors. (Out of all the performers, only Jose Guardiola and Helga Line are any good... probably because they were called on to play parts like ones they've done before where they are called upon to seem friendly yet still carry a mysterious and undefinable sinister air about them.)

Also, despite the fact that one of the story's secrets is given away in the title--there's going to be an abundance of vampires showing up at some points, and what better place than a town where the sun never shines and that isn't on the map?--the way the vampires are deployed as the film unfolds is handled very well. For someone who's watched as many vampire movies as I have, it was particularly refreshing to have a scene where a vampire woman is chasing a half naked man around the bedroom instead of the other way around. It's a little thing, but it's one of the many quirks of this film that makes it fun.

Another thing that's well-handled is the use of children in the film. Often-times, children are annoying in horror movies, either because the child actors aren't any good or because their use in the plot is predictable. While the screenwriters Gabriel Burgos and Antonio Fos must not be parents, must not have had siblings, and must have been raised by wolves with the way they portray children and parenting in this film, they did manage to create a very horrific graveyard sequence build around the mysterious ghost/demon child and the young daughter of one of the traveling domestic workers. As the scene unfolded, I grew increasingly apprehensive for the girl, because I thought I knew where it was going... even if I was equally certain that there was no way the filmmakers were going to dispatch a child in the way it looked like they were going to. And yet they did! It almost makes up for the fact that earlier in the picture, the girl witnesses a man being brutally mutilated yet says nothing to any of the adults. (I'm not going to go into details about the graveyard scene involving the little girl... it has to be experienced.)

The touches of black humor throughout the film are also adeptly done, especially those revolving around the meals served at the inn while the characters are staying there. I can't offer any details without spoiling the movie, but it'll make you think twice about eating any "local delicacy" while traveling ever again.

The strengths of "The Vampires' Night Orgy" almost make up for its weaknesses. If a little more effort had been put into giving it a decent ending, I would probably have given it a Six or Seven Rating. It's well worth checking out, especially if you're looking for a vampire movie to round out a Bad Movie Night that can be seen by young teens.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Erika Blanc

Born in 1943, Italian actress Erika Blanc's career spans four decades--with her debut taking place in 1963 and her most recent movie appearing in Italian theaters in 2010--and every virtually every existing film genre.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Blanc starred in literally dozens of Italian and German horror films, ranging in quality from Mario Bava's excellent "Kill, Baby, Kill!" to Emilio Marigilia's excrement "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave". Her output slowed a bit during the 1980s and 1990s, but she continued to be a familiar face in European horror films and thrillers. From 2002 through 2008, she was a regular cast member of the Italian detective show "Carabineri".

At 68 years old, Blanc remains a popular and respected actress in her home country of Italy. In the rest of the world, she ties with Helga Line as the most memorable redheaded Scream Queen of the 1960s and 1970s.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fear-filled Phantasms: The Art of Jeff Jones

Here is a small sampling of the chilling paintings the late Jeff Jones (1946-2011) created over his career.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

'Sinister' nails feel of a 1970s horror flick

Sinister (2011)
Starring: Donna Hamblin, Donny Versiga, Lucien Eisenach, Luc Bernier, and Isabelle Stephen
Director: Steve Sessions
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Emily (Hamblin) comes to believe she is being haunted by the ghost of her mother, she enlists the help of her brother (Versiga) and a ghost hunter (Bernier). The discover that the root of her problem is actually an enraged voodoo conjurer (Eisenach) who has placed a death curse on her. Will Emily and her brother be able to harness the power of voodoo themselves and reverse the evil magic before it's too late?

In the years since the retro-flick "Grindhouse" captured the imagination of filmmakers with an affection for low-budget thrillers and horror films from the 1970s and 1980s (if not that of the movie-going public), there has been steady stream of movies made with the intent emulating "classic" drive-in movies.

Many of these efforts have been gimmicky failures, being run-of-the-mill direct-to-video low- or no-budget films with digital "aging" effects added. Even those pictures where the filmmakers tried to capture the essence of movies from the time frame, they usually failed to get the look, the feel, or the nature of the acting right.

But with "Sinister", writer/director Steve Sessions hits every right note to bring us a modern film that would have fit just as well in the 1970s as it does today.

When the opening credits appeared on the screen, the chosen font and the music both made me think that Maxim Media--the parent company of Brain Damage Films, Pendulum Pictures, and Midnight Releasing--had found an old movie that they were re-releasing along with their usual current-day indie fare. However, it quickly became apparent that what I was watching was not an old movie, but a movie where someone had finally captured "grindhouse" atmosphere in a new picture, because the featured actors were mostly not born, or were in pre-school during the '70s.

It isn't that Sessions tried to make a period piece--the film is full of cellphones and other 21st century references--that makes the film an effective mimic, but rather he actually seems to have watched and paid attention to those old time horror flicks.

From the use of lighting to the color schemes, from the cinematography to the soundtrack music, from the nature of the special effects to the style of acting, everything about this movie has a genuine "retro" feel about it. Even the pacing is reminiscent of an old style movie, with a shocking murder to get things going and then a quiet period while the film builds toward its terrifying finale.

If you can't get enough of those "grindhouse" movies, I think you'll find "Sinister" well worth your time.

(My thanks to Maxim Media for providing me with a screener copy of this film.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Celebrating Dracula, Part Two

Here are a few more illustrations of the world's most famous vampire, in celebration of the month when Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was originally published in 1897.

By David Hoover
By Chris Samnee
By Tony Harris

By Dick Giordano
By Gene Colan

Sunday, May 15, 2011

This movie should have been interred with Evelyn

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)
Starring: Anthony Steffan and Erika Blanc
Director: Emilio Marigilia
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A nobleman (Steffen) is released from an insane asylum... only to find himself haunted by the ghost of his dead wife as he starts getting his life back together. Will he end up back in the booby-hatch, or will the secret behind the restless spirit be uncovered in time to save him?

I've seen some pretty bad movies, and "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave" ranks up (down?) there with the worst of them. First, the restless spirit is being caused by the most cliched of causes in this kind of film. Second, the character with whom we are expected to sympathize is an active, masochistic serial killer who is picking up hookers and torturing them to death in his estate. Finally, the attempts at twists in the film (even beyond the "shocking" truth behind the walking ghost of Evelyn) are pretty much all so lame and goofy when viewed in the context of the "hero's" murderous actions that one has to wonder if anyone saw the entire script during production.

The thing I find most mystifying about "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave" is that I've actually seen positive reviews of it. Now, I realize that there are few things as subjective as A&E reviews, but I can't fathom that anyone could say anything nice about this utterly awful film (other than, maybe, "Erika Blanc is easy on the eyes.")

If you know of what appeals to audiences about this film, I'd love to hear your viewpoint.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Jamie-Lynn Sigler

Best known for her role in the acclaimed television series "The Sopranos", Jamie-Lynn Sigler's acting debut was in regional theater productions in New York State at the age of 7. Her career has mostly been divided between the stage and television series, but along the way she has also made half a dozen movies, three of which are independently produced horror films.

Sigler's second film role was in the 2001 anthology picture "Campfire Tales". She was also featured in "Dark Ride"--which was part of the 2005 "After Dark Horror Fest" line-up--and her most recent excursion into the realm of fright pictures was a starring turn in "Beneath the Dark" in 2010.

Born in 1981, Sigler turns 30 this Sunday, May 15.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Celebrating Dracula, Part One

In May of 1897, Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" was first published. It went on to popularize vampires and become one of the most adapted books ever. Counting the numerous spin-offs, Dracula may well be the most written-about figure in all of pop culture.

This is the first in a series of posts presenting artist visions of the King of Vampires. This week's selection are all interpretations of Dracula as viewed through the editorial lens of Marvel Comics.

By Russ Heath
By Dick Giordano

By Gene Colan

By Bob Hall

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'Submerged' shouldn't have been allowed to rise

Submerged (2005)
Starring: Steven Seagal and Christine Adams
Director: Anthony Hickox
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Commander Cody (Seagal) and his misfit Special Forces submarine crew are released from a Navy brig so they can assault the stronghold of an international criminal who has somehow managed to assassinate a U.S. ambassador. Treachery is piled upon treachery, and Cody and his crew find themselves fighting against a foe who can turn even the firmest friend into an enemy through a flawless brainwashing technique.

There are some movies that are just plain bad, and "Submerged" is one of them. It's got a nonsensical script that is so badly paced and so flimsy in its motivations that it manages to sap even unintentional humor from the notion of a collection of action movie stock characters who conduct secret missions that rely on stealing submarines to be successfully concluded. The most remarkable thing about the movie is how pathetic the submarine sets are, given how central the submarine is to the first half of the movie (which, by the way, has virtually nothing to do with the second half). I would very much like to have the hour-and-a-half I wasted on thismovie back.

On the other hand, I should have realized that any film we're expected to take seriously by writers with so little self-respect and producers and directors so dumb that they'd let the main character be named Commander Cody couldn't possibly be any good. It's too bad really. There was a time when Seagal starred in fun cheesy movies instead of awful ones.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Featuring the craziest pre-1960s femme fatale?

Night Editor (1946)
Starring: William Gargan, Paul E. Burns, Janis Carter, Frank Wilcox, and Jeff Donnell
Director: Henry Levin
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A homicide detective (Gargan) having an affair with a thrill-seeking married wealthy woman (Carter) witnesses a murder during one of their trysts. Even though he can identify and arrest the killer (Wilcox), he can't do so without causing a scandal, destroying his family and ruining his career. Will a good cop who made a bad call do the right thing, or go further down the path of corruption?

This is the stuff good 1940s film noirs and crime dramas are made of, and this is pretty good crime drama. Part proto-police procedural, part film noir, part melodrama, this film is fun! It gets really exciting when classism enters the picture, and the psycho dame the cop is fooling around with decides to choose between "her kind" and doing the right thing when the cop's conscience really starts bothering him. It's a nice twist that comes at just the right moment to kick the film's suspense level up even higher.

While the high quality of the film--with its perfect pacing, appropriately moody lighting, superior cinematography, and a cast that gives excellent performances all around--is to be expected from a major studio like Columbia, the film offers the surprise of what is perhaps the most sociopathic/borderline psychopathic femme fatale I recall seeing in a Hollywood movie made before the 1960s. From her demand to see the body of the murder victim to the icepick action late in the film, I was surprised by just how nasty she was. She makes the crazy scheming women of "Strange Woman" and "Lady From Shanghai" look like they should be selling Girl Scout cookies. While Janis Carter made a career out of playing characters like this, this is the most twisted character I've ever seen her play, and I wonder if this extreme character could be a reason the film sank from view after its initial release.

The only serious complaint I have with "Night Editor" is that they filmmakers, aside from the cars being driven, didn't make even a halfhearted attempt to match the look of the characters to the late 1920s time-frame the bulk of it takes place in. Would it really have been that hard for a major operation like Columbia to adjust the hairstyles of the women and get proper wardrobe for the entire cast instead of having everyone in contemporary mid-1940s styles?

A smaller complaint is that the film's resolution is ultimately predictable (doubly-so if you pay close attention to the exchanges that take place in the newsroom as the story unfolds). However, getting there is so much fun that it doesn't really matter.

Fans of film noir pictures, classic mysteries, and the type of crime dramas where the hero has to work backwards to prove the guilt of a murderer he has already identified will find plenty of entertainment here. This is one of the many movies that could do with a little more recognition from us film-fans.

Trivia: "Night Editor" was a popular radio anthology series where the editor of title would relate the "unreported facts" of some news item. It later became a television series.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Everything's better with Mike Oldfield!

Okay, so maybe the title of this post is a slight exageration, but if this remix of Christina Aguilera's "Not Myself Tonight", which crosses that song with Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" that been the actual single, maybe it would have been a Top Ten hit somewhere other than Japan and South Korea.

Christina Aguilera vs. Mike Oldfield via DJs From Mars... "Not My Tubular Bells Tonight"!

Mike Oldfield's Crime of Passion

I'm not aware of this song ever being released on an album, but I remember hearing it in music stores as a kid and seeing the video and thinking it was supremely creepy. I still feel that way about it. (The singer is Barry Palmer, the psychotic guitar player is Mike Oldfield.)

As a pleasant time-wasting activity to celebrate my birthday, I decided to go looking for different versions of Oldfield's masterful song. I found this neat acoustic cover that stays true to the mood of the original (but isn't quite as creepy).

Here's a cover by an outfit named Bramble B. It's not a bad cover, but it leaves one with a feeling that there might be a way to improve upon greatness. (I also wonder if they really got the song, given what they added to it.)

Yeah... two Mike Oldfield-related posts in one day, but he's one of my favorite composers/musicians, and it's my birthday! Please forgive me while I am even more self-indulgent than usual; SOMEONE'S got to celebrate me by celebrating stuff I like! Heck, maybe I'll do a few MORE Oldfield posts today... :)

Princesses of Mars, Part Eight

Dejah Thoris and other Martian Princesses are hanging out at my house, celebrating my birthday! (Okay, so it's just my cats and I. But a guy can dream, can't he?)

By Bruce Timm
By Randy Green
By Mitch Foust
By Paul Renauld

In all seriousness, I'm getting together with friends. But Martian Princesses would be welcomed at the table if they chose to show up!

Saturday Scream Queen: Cheyenne King

Actress and dancer Cheyenne King made her film debut in the independently produced action/horror flick "Fist of the Vampire". She went onto star in three other indie horror movies, including the just-released "Wendigo: Bound by Blood", as well as the recently completed comedy "Scamalot".

King is a Native American of Ojibwe heritage and she is very active in that community.

Friday, May 6, 2011

'Bound by Blood: Wendigo' is a packed chiller

Bound By Blood: Wendigo (2011)
Starring: Brian Anthony, Cheyenne King, Leon South, and Bob Dobiesz
Director: Len Kabasinski
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

In the dead of winter, a small town sheriff (Anthony) and a doctor (King) face off against a band of ruthless assassins hunting a Federally-protected witness and the body-hopping, cannibal spirit known as Wendigo.

This is one of those movies that was much cooler in concept than execution. I absolutely love the set-up and the way the movie unfolds with three story lines--the Wendigo spirit cutting gory swath through the back country, the mysterious assassins honing in on their target, and the sheriff who you just know is in for the worst day of his life when he inevitably gets caught in the middle of several situations he can't even begin to understand. Or, rather, never gets a chance to understand, because the bullets are flying and the bodies are dropping too fast.

The biggest problem with the film is that here's simply too much going on. There are too many characters up to too many things at any given time. While Kabasinski is skilled enough as a writer and director to keep all these balls moving through the air in a steady and orderly fashion, he has to move back and forth between the sheriff and the doctor, the wendigo claiming victims, the FBI protection detail, and the hit team, with such frequency that the viewers never really get invested with one set of characters or another. The end result is not one that builds suspense but rather one that builds impatience. We don't care more for one set of characters than the other, so all we want is for the film to reach the three-way confrontation it's promising.

That's not to say this is boring movie. Kabasinski gives us plenty of action and gore as the film unfolds, and he generally keeps things moving at a fast pace. The only boring bit happens right at the beginning, in the pre-opening credits sequence. While I appreciate the need to set up the presence of the Wendigo spirit, that sequence could have been done in half the time and it would have freed up a few minutes later for some more time with the lead characters--the sheriff and the doctor portrayed by Brian Anthony and Cheyenne King respectively--or perhaps with the most interesting secondary character--the leader of the hit team portrayed by the director himself under the stage name Leon South.

This is the third film I've seen by Len Kabasinski, and it's the third one I've enjoyed. As harsh as my review of Kabasinski's "Curse of the Wolf" was, I still found it entertaining and with plenty of merit. He showed improvement as a filmmaker with his second movie, "Fist of the Vampire", fixing most of the flaws I complained about previously and showing improvement in just about every technical area. That development as a filmmaker for Kabasinski continues with this film.

With "Bound By Blood", Kabasinski continues to marry the action genre with the horror genre, but he has become far more adept in staging and filming the martial arts fight scenes. Camera placement is such now that viewers have the illusion that punches and kicks are being thrown and actually hitting home. The use of sound design to further the illusion has also improved over previous efforts. The only problem with the fight scenes is that choreography continues to feel under-rehearsed; with a little more practice time, perhaps the fights could be a little faster paced and the use of editing to conceal the fact they're not continuous could be reduced? I understand, though, that this might not be possible due to the budget constraints that Kabasinski operates under.

Kabasinski also once again deploys CGI effects with great skill through the picture, moreso than in his previous ones. Once again, it's mostly muzzle-flashes and bullet impacts, but it's done very effectively. He tripped up a bit when he decided to use CGI for a gore effect involving a character being shot in the head, but I've seen worse in movies with bigger budgets, so I can forgive him that one excess.

"Wendigo" is not a perfect film, but it's pretty good. I hope that Kabasinski eventually finds a backer who can give him enough time and money to make a movie that's closer to perfect, because I think he has the potential to create a kick-ass action/horror hybrid film.

Regardless, I'll be looking forward to his next movie with great anticipation.

"Wendigo: Bound By Blood" debuted on DVD from Midnight Releasing on May 3. My thanks to Maxim Media for providing me with a preview copy.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'From Dusk Till Dawn' is one of Tarantino & Rodriguez's best

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Starring: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Quentin Tarantino, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, and Cheech Marin
Directors: Robert Rodriguez
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Professional criminals Seth Gecko (Clooney) and Richard Gecko (Tarantino) take a family hostage (including Keitel, Lewis, and Liu) and flee to Mexico following a robbery gone bad. Here, they take temporary refuge in an isolated strip club until they can meet up with their contact. But the club harbors are dark secret, and the Gecko Brothers and their hostages must work together if they are to survive the night.

There are a rare few movies that take as sharp, surprising, and, frankly, genre-hopping plot turns as "From Dusk Till Dawn" and not lose control and explode into a fiery wreckage. Even fewer do it as effectively as is done here, as, for the most part, they have no re-watch value, because the main point of the film is the sudden change in plot direction and once you've experienced it, there's no reason to go back.

But "From Dusk Till Dawn" is so jam-packed with action and grim humor that it's worth coming back to every few years; you will either find something in it that you missed the first time around, or there is simply so much going on that you only remembered the highlights.

The film succeeds first and foremost because of its strong script. Quentin Tarantino's writing has never been as good as it is here... maybe he should try writing a few more linear screenplays every now and then so he can focus on character and dialogue instead of trying to be clever. Nothing he has written before or since has so many funny lines and really well done black humor; like some of the best moments in "Pulp Fiction", you will find yourself laughing so hard you'll tear up, even if you know you shouldn't be laughing at the gory, nasty action unfolding before you.

Secondly, the direction from Robert Rodriquez is rock solid at every stage of the film's unpredictable course from the opening to closing credits. The first half is a tense, border-line psychological thriller about violent killers on the edge and innocent victims trapped in their grasp. The acting is solid and the cinematic approach is intimate in the way scenes are filmed. We can feel the emotional and physical threats that the various characters pose to one another, and we know that whatever will unfold in the hijacked RV, it's not going to end well.

But there's no way we can predict exactly how badly and strangely things are going to end, because the first half of the movie gives no hint whatsoever what is to come...

And Rodriquez not only manages the transition from thriller to gory and over-the-top violent horror movie monster fest, but he does so with such efficiency and style that the viewers are startled and surprised by the sudden genre change, but we are not confused or put off by it. We all have a "what the hell just happened?!" moment, but Rodriguez is in such tight control of his movie that even as the story explodes into complete and utter mayhem, he never loses our attention for a moment. In fact, the shock only pulls us tighter in. And, of course, his control is bolstered by the exceptionally well-crafted script from Tarantino.

Finally, there is the acting. Every performer in this film may be portraying stereotypical characters, but they do it with great conviction and zest. Every actor in the film brought their A-game to the shoot, and every character seems fully alive on the screen. Clooney is fantastic as the handsome but dangerous hood with a (small) heart; Tarantino is great as the whiny but crazy hood; Lewis rocks as the rebellious teenager who doesn't comprehend the danger she's in; and Keitel excels as the concerned and deeply religious father who just wants to get himself and his kids out of the situation alive. (Keitel is perhaps gives the most admirable performance of all, because it is unlike almost everything else I've seen him do.}

The supporting cast is equally superb in their performances, with Salma Hayek leading the pack as the strip club's main attraction--a stripper whose act involves a boa snake and other twisted elements--as she manages to be very sexy and very menacing, at the same time on occasion. Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, and Danny Trejo stand out as a pair of outlaw bikers that join the Geckos in their desperate attempt to survive the night, while B-movie mainstays Cheech Marin and John Saxon also appear in small but memorable roles, due to their good performances.

"From Dusk Till Dawn" is a film that succeeds on every level. If you have a taste for trashy entertainment and don't mind gore, it's a film that you absolutely must see. (And if you're reading these words and haven't seen it yet, you shouldn't waste another minute. Rent or buy it NOW!)