Thursday, April 5, 2012

Fool's Views (3/19 – 4/1)



Bonjour, my friends,

I’ll warn you right at the start, this is a healthy batch of flickers, assembly for the most part in preparation for (or viewed at) the 2012 HorrorHound Weekend held in Columbus, OH, March 23-25. Knowing I had Q&A panels with Stuart Gordon, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Barbara Crampton, Tippi Hedren, Julie Adams, the cast of the 1985 Day of the Dead, as well as the aforementioned Pam Grier, I knew I had work to do. Truth be told, I didn’t get to see near as many as I planned to, but I think I did more than passable work in my role as moderator. I also got to view four of the five features screened there (Monster Brawl had to take a rain check in favor of a late night diner meal with my IMDb horror board pals), followed by an array of CPL (Chicago Public Library) rentals prior to zipping off to Oshkosh for the world premiere of Dead Weight.

Warning #2: I am writing this on the eve of the Opening Night of the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF), where I am currently shacked up with fellow fiend Gert Verbeeck and preparing to view anywhere from four to seven flicks EVERY SINGLE DAY for the next 14 days, as well as interview several of the filmmakers. It’s like the October Challenge, only on the big screen and with a lot more beer, chocolate and waffles. Thus, it was imperative that I wrap up the past two weeks’ Views and clear the slate. Shite is about to get very, very real…maybe even surreal. Hope you dig the upcoming ride as much as I expect to.

As always, feel free to leave your two cents worth – we’ll make sure you get some change back.

Enjoy!

HORROR:
Birds, The (1963)
(5th viewing) d. Hitchcock, Alfred
Following Tippi Hedren’s appearance at HHW (and discovering that my lovely femalien had never seen the former starlet’s most famous film), it was pretty much a no-brainer to program this classic, groundbreaking “nature strikes back” epic. Once again, we what separates the Master of Suspense from the rest of the clubhouse – instead of a standard programmer about flocks of killer birds, Hitch spends the first hour developing Hedren and Rod Taylor’s engaging characters, as well as the impressive supporting cast, with only a single aviary attack toward the peak of said hour. When the unrelenting feathered mayhem finally explodes, we are deeply invested in the fate of the residents of Bodega Bay, the tension accented by the extraordinary visual effects and the lack of any background musical score. Another magic trick is while we never learn what sparks our winged friends’ rebellion, this proves more ominous than frustrating, more chilling than cop-out. An undeniable high point in the annals of eco-horror.



Black Roses (1988) (1st viewing) d. Fasano, John
One of a slew of ’80s rock n’ roll/horror features released in the latter half of the decade (none of which particularly lucrative, artistically or financially speaking), but there’s enough goofy charm and insane wardrobe choices to keep kitsch-loving viewers occupied. When the titular “bad boy” band rolls into the sleepy town of Mill Basin to launch their new album, the kids rally against their stodgy elders in support of their sonic messiahs, inadvertently falling under the group’s dark spell. Before long, the little burg’s youth are turning into hairsprayed, leather-clad, sex-obsessed murder machines, offing their parents and authority figures with wild abandon. Oddly enough, the reason this fell off the “I’ll get that sometime” shelf into the player was that it represents one of Creature from the Black Lagoon star Julie (Julia) Adams’ very few other genre credits (even though she only briefly appears at the beginning as one of the teen’s moms and then disappears for the rest of the film) and I wanted to be able to ask her about it. There’s some fun monster action, horrible pop rock tunes masquerading as heavy metal, the occasional glimmer of no-name female nudity, and a smattering of cheesy gory goodness. It’s not good, per se, but it ain’t boring.



Dolls (1987) (2nd viewing) d. Gordon, Stuart
“They Walk. They Talk. They Kill.” Re-Animator whiz Stuart Gordon’s second feature shot for Full Moon (though released after From Beyond) was this dark fairy tale of murderous children’s playthings combined with the “motley crew of rain-drenched travelers taking refuge in old dark house” horror staple. While her parents (Carolyn Purdy-Jones, Ian Patrick Williams) are portrayed as over-the-top unfeeling monsters, little Carrie Lorraine provides one of the more sympathetic turns as the plucky youngster who appeals to the kindly, mysterious dollmakers (Guy Rolfe and Hillary Mason) who reside therein. Lorraine witnesses the dolls’ graphically depicted homicidal tendencies towards the other guests but of course, being a child, no one will believe her. The admirable doll effects, brought to life via a mixture of puppetry and Dave Allen’s stop-motion animation, yield some excellent scenes of suspense and mayhem, and the broad ensemble performances balance the comedy/horror scales out nicely. Not a huge financial success, but uber-producer Charles Band would revisit the theme time and again via Puppet Master, Demonic Toys, Dollman and their prolific sequels and team-ups.



Kill List (2011) (1st viewing) d. Wheatley, Ben
A wild little Brit flick, one that takes one of the more extraordinary third-act left turns in recent memory – even though the actions are more or less justified, you’ll never see it coming. Needing to pay the bills, hit man Neil Maskell comes out of his shell-shocked semi-retirement for a new assignment that proves to be a dark Pandora’s box that threatens to consume him completely. The viewer is immediately drawn into Maskell’s plight and presenting the assassin as a regular family guy with everyday problems (paying the rent, arguing with the wife, picking up their kid from school) allows us to connect with our protagonist in spite of the thick accents and frequent emotional outbursts. The doughy-faced actor is not a typical badass, which is why when his violent side explodes to the surface – which it does in several vivid blood-soaked sequences – it proves doubly shocking. While the WTF factor of the last reel may alienate some, director/co-writer Wheatley has earned our respect to that point and there’s no denying its bold narrative gutpunch. Recommended.




KRYPTIC ARMY APRIL MISSION – LET THERE BE “BLOOD”

Blood Bath (1966)
(1st viewing) d. Hill, Jack/Rothman, Stephanie
Like several other Corman quickies, the story behind this b/w flick is more interesting than the muddled one that unfolds before us. Apparently writer/director Hill was fired by exec producer Roger Corman midway through the shoot, whereupon Rothman took over. (It’s not readily apparent who shot which parts, especially since footage from a Yugoslavian film, Portrait in Terror, was also employed.) William Campbell stars as a tortured artist who believes himself to be a vampire, so much so that he runs around murdering young lasses to appease this fantasy. On the other hand, the question is whether it really is a fantasy, since we see him fang out on several occasions. On the other other hand, the question is who really cares? The whole thing only takes an hour, but I’ll be darned if I didn’t keep nodding off and having to rewind. I’m not sure if the Netflix streaming print is wonky or what, but the opening couple reels are shot in this weird jerky style that is surprisingly atmospheric at times. There’s a pretty nifty swimming pool attack, you get to see Jack Nicholson’s ex-wife Sandra Knight as the pretty young damsel in distress, Little Shop of Horrors’ Jonathan Haze, and a youngish Sid Haig (with hair). Other than that, it’s pretty slim pickings.



Blood River (2009) (1st viewing) d. Mason, Adam
I was one of the few who genuinely appreciated Mason’s 2006 two-hander Broken, as it managed to pull off the difficult task of “torture porn with a point.” I’d been curious what he’d been up to, but in looking at his filmography, I’m the one who’s been slacking, as he’s cranked out four films since then with a fifth in post-production as we speak. Again employing a small ensemble, Blood River starts off on a very promising path: a husband and wife (Ian Duncan, Tess Panzer) traveling across the southwest encounter Andrew Howard’s mysterious charismatic drifter en route. But what seems to be a simple cautionary tale about not talking to strangers evolves into something far more mystical and/or metaphysical – it’s just too bad that Mason and co-screenwriter Simon Boyes aren’t willing to be a little less obtuse in revealing just what the hell is going on. Truthfully, this probably should have been about 20 minutes shorter because it travels the same ground over and over, with characters hitting the same histrionic notes until they lose their potency, and when the big reveal is no reveal at all, the viewer can have two reactions: They can say, “oh, wow, man, I didn’t get it so it must be really deep, man…” or they can say, “Um, **** you, pal.” There’s no denying the strength of the performances (Howard is the poor man’s Michael Rooker, and that’s meant as a compliment), the terrific cinematography or the compelling nature of the first half of the film – Mason just needed to deliver more steak with all that sizzle.




HORRORHOUND COLUMBUS 2012

Collapsed, The (2011)
(1st viewing) d. McConnell, Justin
A solid low-budget apocalyptic effort about a family’s struggle following a viral outbreak, their days spent competing with other trigger-happy survivors for the dwindling necessities of life. John Fantasia gives a solid central performance as the patriarch of the quartet, and McConnell makes the most of his atmospheric wooded settings. Goes a little off course in the climactic moments, but worthwhile overall.



Death Stop Holocaust (2009) (1st viewing) d. Russell, Justin
The debut feature from writer/director Russell, whose 80s slasher homage follow-up, The Sleeper, is currently making big waves in the festival and home video markets. The Ohio auteur is proving himself an adept purveyor of style, as he perfectly captures the 80s Italian vibe when they moved from giallos to full-on spaghetti slashers. Sadly, the giddy mozzarella energy peters out about a half hour in, leaving us with a rather standard, torture-centric “gritty” indie flick that goes on much longer than it should. (The weak performances from the non-professional cast prove especially grating when we’re expected to empathize with them.) Even so, there are glimpses of promise here – Russell’s animal-mask wearing antagonists are memorable, and the sloppy gore scenes often impress. I’ll chalk this up in the “loss” column for now, but I’d keep my eye on this guy – I think we’ll be hearing good things about him down the road.




Nailbiter (2012)
(1st viewing) d. Rea, Patrick
A family of women (mother and three daughters) is forced to take refuge in a storm cellar as a wicked tornado descends; they survive the natural disaster from above, but find themselves trapped below with a mysterious, bloodthirsty something. Sadly, this terrific high-concept premise well-served by excellent production design and cinematography is undone by illogic run wild and characters that run out of juice and thesping skill about halfway through. Deserved props to co-writers Rea and Kendal Sinn for the twist on the old lycanthrope full-moon mythos, but it would have been nice for him to flesh it out a bit more. (The group I saw it with seemed to be left with a sense of, “now, what exactly happened?”)



Rage (2010) (1st viewing) d. Witherspoon, Chris
When philandering novelist Rick Crawford snatches the parking spot of a masked motorcyclist, it sparks an ever-escalating asphalt-based jousting match. Writer/director/editor/cinematographer/co-star Witherspoon whips up a pretty terrific riff on Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but sabotages himself, first by having a minor character literally reference the film out loud (come ON, Chris) and then taking the show off the road for a home invasion/rape sequence that feels needlessly cruel as well as gratuitous. Even so, I’ll be happy to see what future tricks Witherspoon has up his sleeve, as he clearly knows how to navigate the high tension ropes.



REPENT! THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH…

Dead Weight (2012)
(2nd and 3rd viewings) d. Pata, John/Bartlett, Adam
While my opinion on this Wisconsin-lensed feature can hardly be called objective (I play one of the main supporting characters), I still recommend it wholeheartedly, especially to young filmmakers feeling trapped by monetary restrictions. Pata, Bartlett and Co. have fashioned an ambitious low-budget epic that covers similar “apocalyptic survivor” terrain as Stake Land or The Road, interspersed with a Memento-like flashback narrative that propels viewers into the former life of primary protagonist Joe Belknap. More dark character study with horror flourishes than full-on fright flick, there’s still more than enough menace and bloodshed to satisfy the discerning genre fan. Coming soon to a festival site near you, or you can pick up the DVD (complete with feature-length making-of documentary 685 Miles to Wausau and tons of extras) at http://www.carryingdeadweight.com



World, the Flesh and the Devil, The (1959) (1st viewing) d. MacDougall, Ranald
Harry Belafonte stars as a mine worker who, thanks to a freak cave-in, is spared the fate of an atomic holocaust that wipes out 99.9% of the world’s population. When he finally emerges, he sets up camp in Manhattan, avoiding madness through industry, but of course things get more complicated when he discovers comely 20-year-old Inger Stevens; even more so once lascivious sailor Mel Ferrer sails into port. Unfortunately, in spite of the effective use of deserted metropolitan locations, Harold J. Marzorati’s stark black and white cinematography, Miklos Rosza’s evocative music score and the trio’s capable performances, the film (based on M.P. Sheil’s novel) lacks a much-needed dramatic urgency while the melodramatic love triangle rings particularly pulpy. (Roger Corman and screenwriter Robert Towne cribbed the basic plotline for their 1960 quickie The Last Woman on Earth at a fraction of the price.)



CIVILIAN:


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2011)
(1st viewing) d. Yates, David
The missing piece in the Potter puzzle proves to be a generally satisfying one. I’ve still not read any of the Rowling books save the first, but according to reliable sources, this is a superb adaptation of the first half of the series’ ultimate installment. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen firsthand, but as a standalone film, it does the trick. (See what I did there?)




Observe and Report (2009) (1st viewing) d. Hill, Jody
After fawning over Anna Faris in The House Bunny last week, I was eager to seek out more of the underappreciated, underused comedienne’s work. While Foot Fist Way writer/director Hill’s absurdist black comedy is more a vehicle for Seth Rogen’s bipolar mall cop, Faris has a choice supporting role as an odiously self-obsessed party girl working the department store makeup counter. Naturally, Rogen harbors a mad crush and sets out to win her heart by capturing the local raincoat-wearing flasher. Overall, this is violent, dark and twisted fare; probably why it underperformed while Paul Blart: Mall Cop made millions.



PAM GRIER FESTIVAL, PART DEUX
HORROR:

Class of 1999 (1990)
(1st viewing) d. Lester, Mark L.
In the future, kids are even worse than they were in Lester’s cult classic Class of 1984. Answer? Bust out the android high school teachers (played by John P. Ryan, Pam Grier and Darren E. Burrows) to teach those lousy punks a lesson. Even though we’re supposed to relate to the youth gone wild (led by Bradley Gregg), there’s no doubt that the pleasures come from watching the ‘bots pound, crush, blast and explode the little adolescent bodies into bloody fleshbags via some darn impressive physical f/x. Super cheesy, super fun.



Ghosts of Mars (2001) (2nd viewing) d. Carpenter, John
On a second viewing, I’m convinced that if it had been made for a couple hundred thousand dollars by a no-name director and a hungry bunch of third-string actors trying to out-schlock each other, this could have been a hugely enjoyable cheese-fest. Instead, the Artist Formerly Known as John Carpenter directs everything way too seriously at an underwater pace, delivering not one ounce of tension, humor or fear in this futuristic spin on his own Assault on Precinct 13. The most enjoyable element is Grier (looking smokin’ hot in a black leather duster) but she bites the dust after the first half hour, leaving us with the comedy team of Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Clea Duvall and a fuzzy-headed Jason Statham. Fangoria editor Chris Alexander loves this film. Then again, he also put Nicolas Cage on the cover of the January issue, so there you go.




CIVILIAN:
Coffy (1973)
(2nd viewing) d. Hill, Jack
Pam exploded onto the blaxploitation scene (after serving time in the Philippines with Roger Corman’s “women in cages” movies) as a nurse out for vengeance against the drug-running lowlifes who poisoned her little sis, as well as the black politicians selling out their brothers and sisters to the White Man with the Green. Hill, who directed Grier in Big Doll House and Big Bird Cage wrote the film with her in mind and it fits the star like any number of the snug outfits she wears throughout. You wanna start with this one.




Fort Apache the Bronx (1981) (1st viewing) d. Petrie, Daniel
Grier has a smaller role here as a homicidal, drugged-out, cop-killing hooker, but it represents her entrance into the bigger Hollywood world, being that this is a Paul Newman picture. She’s great, and the film (starring a who’s who of character actors, including Ken Wahl, Danny Aiello and Ed Asner as well as the supple charms of Rachel Ticotin) paints an effective, flawed and authentic-feeling portrait of the boys in the NYPD blue.


2012 Totals to date: 115 films, 96 1st time views, 55 horror, 11 cinema

Pam Grier movies: 9

BOOKS:
Foxy: My Life in Three Acts by Pam Grier

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