Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year End of Films in Life 2008

Every film I saw in theatres in 2008:

Aliens vs. Predator Requiem

Some friends wanted to see this. Worse than I could ever imagine.

Black Orpheus

One of my favorite films. A nice print at Amherst Cinema.

Hellboy II the Golden Army

Better than the first. I liked this in an uncomplicated way. Liked.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Oppressive CGI, lame-brained story peppered with 2012/Mayan fad hokum, phoned-in performances, over the top yet boring action scenes. No thanks.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall/ Pineapple Express

Fine and funny comedies both!

Iron Man/ The Incredible Hulk

I didn't care for either of these. There's a lot I'd like to say about this new era of Marvel Universe films, so I'll save it.

Zabriskie Point

Amherst Cinema again. Terrible acting, inane dialog, a pointless, unearned finale. Yet somehow it's still a great film.

The Dark Knight

Fantastic. Deserves the extreme hype. Mainstream to the core, yet somehow still truly dismal, nihilistic and ambiguous. A nice deconstruction of something like Iron Man, I think.

The Punisher

My buddy and I saw this opening day in an empty theater. I actually enjoyed this, it's stupid, bizarre, nasty and offensive in the finest 80s exploitation tradition. A kind of update of something like The Exterminator. A review should follow the DVD release.

The Happening

I absolutely loved this film, it's probably my pick for film of the year. I may be the only person who totally liked this movie. Me and Ebert. It's everything a mainstream film isn't supposed to be: weird, idiosyncratic, hermetic, unapologetically hammy, political, singular, perplexingly cast. If you watch the bonus footage on the DVD, it becomes apparent that Shyamalan did exactly what he wanted to do, and he's seen acting strange and purposefully unnerving his actors, conciously creating an otherwordly vibe on set. Reading reviews of this film after I saw it, I was shocked at how closely they all resembled each other. The same narrative is trotted out: Shyamalan makes three good movies and two bad ones, this time it's three strikes you're out with his third unsuccessful film. I liked The Village and Lady in the Water quite a bit. It's fine if the majority of critics disliked this film, but does everyone have to hit it from the same angle?

DVD times: Diary of the Dead, Christmas on Mars, Sukiyaki Western Django, Cloverfield, Doomsday, Tropic Thunder, X-Files: I Want to Believe, King of Kong.

I spent most of 2008 watching older films, but I would have liked to have seen the following, overlong list of films: The Wrestler, Man on Wire, Wall-E, Speed Racer, Funny Games, Drillbit Taylor, Burn after Reading, Synecdoche NY, Transsiberian, Gammorrah, Red Cliff, Rachel Getting Married, Wendy & Lucy, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Paranoid Park, Tell No One, Eden Lake, The Orphanage, Hunger, Taxi to the Dark Side, Nothing like the Holidays, The Strangers, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pleasant and Enjoyable

Back in the day I used to write short, nearly pointless reviews for films on IMDb... The Rankin-Bass Hobbit, Mafia vs. Ninja, The Brain that Wouldn't Die... some of the cult films I was digging in high school. I should delete them really. Today I was checking out my neglected IMDb profile when I noticed that I had posted a review which I have no recollection of writing. Strange, because it was posted about a year ago, so Samurai Dreams was in full effect, so it makes little sense I would write a review that wouldn't make it's way to this blog or the pages of SD. It's a little longer than a capsule, but provides little substantive information about the film, Crimezone. The film couldn't have been fresh in my mind, because I think the last time I watched Crimezone was as a junior in college, several years ago. The "my friend fell asleep watching this" part is mysterious as well, and must have been college-era. The jazzy style and complete lack of punctuation, capitalization and proper sentence structure by the end might point to inebriation, but I recall consistant clean-living from that period.

Did I let somebody write a review on my account? I think I would remember that. Most likely I did write it, and possibly after a few beers... strange all the same.

Check it out.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

The October Ordeal II 04: The Monster Club (1980)

Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club is a typical anthology horror film, unique only for its retro style. While the film horror genre had gotten quite nasty by 1980, The Monster Club reminds of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff in its style, tone and attention. In fact, its wrap-around interstitial segments and source (a single author, here a more contemporary figure than Poe or Hawthorne), are taken directly from older, classical fright films. Production house Amicus had produced several such anthology films, of which this is the last.

Price, in fact, is present here in the role as host, as Count Eramus, an ancient vampire and member of “The Monster Club”, a clandestine joint where monsters can hang out and catch some tunes (the film is based on this “monster underground” concept). The tales he tells are based on the work of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, acclaimed British writer. Confusingly, Chetwynd-Hayes is present in the film as a character, played by John Carradine. Chetwynd-Hayes meets—I presume—a character of his own creation in Eramus, who introduces himself by biting Chetwynd-Hayes on the neck. Not enough to turn or kill him, of course, just enough for a taste (“You’re my favorite author” Eramus says, and “It was the finest blood I have ever tasted”). Eramus brings Chetwynd-Hayes to a Halloween party at the club, with promise of inspiring tales. This is strange, as he’ll be telling Chetwynd-Hayes his own stories.

The scenes in the club are light and humorous, and each features a full musical performance. The music is a mix of new-wave and Thin Lizzy-style pub-rock, featuring such bands as Night, The Viewers, the Expressos and a reunited Pretty Things (one of the greatest psychedelic bands ever, here shilling a bland reggae-influenced style). In fact, music is practically oppressive in this film, present throughout. When a band isn’t performing in the interstitial bits, a UB40 song is playing. During the segments, the music of a single composer is featured, including John Williams in the first.

Each segment is in some way based on a hierarchy of creatures which Eramus outlines early in the film. For example: if a werewolf mates with a ghoul, it produces a “were-ghoul”. This idea may have seemed clever in the script, but is confusing on-screen, despite the handy chart Price keeps pointing at. The subject of the first story is a “Shadmock”, creatures which look like gaunt humans and have the ability to melt people with a deafening whistle (this odd concept is typical of the film). The well-off Shadmock we meet here is looking for love, which he finds with his house-keeper, who is working for a con-man, who plans to rob his mansion. Inevitably, he catches her in the act, and shows the audience what happens when he whistles. This segment is competent if a little dull, and ultimately the least successful of the three.

In the second section, Eramus and Chetwynd-Hayes turn to hear a man on stage tell a humorous story from his youth, in what is the most overtly comic of the three tales. The boy in the film is the son of a human woman (the gorgeous and talented Britt Ekland) and a vampire, “Count Manfred”. His family has moved from Transylvania to England, but have been followed by vamp-hunter Pickering, played by Donald Pleasance, who approaches the boy as a priest and delivers the creepiest line in the film: “I’m not a stranger, I’m a clergyman! Would you like a caramel?” Pleasance and his cronies follow the boy back to his house, in an attempt to assassinate the Count, with the stakes they carry (“Beware men who carry violin cases,” Manfred tells the young Viscount). The music in this section is fantastic, traditional Transylvanian folk music performed by John Georgiadis. This is the most likable segment in the film, and the type of story that really fits the format. Pleasance is great here, high-energy and committed to the story’s inherent camp.

Between this and the final tale is the film’s most awkward moment. A rock band called Night performs while a woman strips down to her (animated!) skeleton. “Magnificent!” and “Beautiful bones!” are a few of Eramus’ remarks. This scene feels inappropriate, as the film feels decidedly PG otherwise. This moment is more in keeping with dismal grime-fests like Night Train to Terror, another horror anthology (which also features a gimmicky premise—God and Satan telling tales on a moving train—and live musical performances). The tone otherwise is carefree and sentimental, almost melancholic in its nostalgia (palpable but vague). The animated skeletal frame reveals the budget for these wrap-arounds, and feels more movie-of-the-week than feature film in its tackiness. This criticism aside, the dark turn of this act sets the mood for the final third of this film, its heaviest and scariest.

In this tale (told partly in illustrations by John Bolton, the still-active British comic artist), a horror director is out scouting locations when he finds himself marooned in an anachronistic village of ghouls, who want to eat him. With help from Luna, a hilariously naïve “Humghoul” (“They not go in there, fall down if go in there!”), he manages to escape, (spoiler) only to be picked up by police and driven right back to the village square. The police are escorting the mysterious “Elders” to the town for—what? Some kind of inspection maybe. This is the creepiest, most depressing moment in what is otherwise an light-hearted, inoffensive horror film. This segment also features fine music, by electronic composer Alan Hawkshaw.

After this story is over, the film fits in one final set-piece joke as its conclusion. Eramus officially inducts Chetwynd-Hayes into the club, reasoning that humans have committed more atrocities than any monster. It’s hard to see any political dimension to this, as the film is—for the most part—very silly and slight, without significant depth (I haven’t read any of the source stories, so I can’t comment on their richness). This is simply the final tag in a series of goofy moments, cheesy jokes and “Gotcha!” gags. Price is the perfect presider, as he’s in enthusiastic ham mode throughout. While I enjoy Price in anything, ultimately I prefer his toned-down, less-theatrical performances in such films as Last Man on Earth and The Conqueror Worm.

After Eramus’ induction ceremony, he and Chetwynd-Hayes throw up their hands and head to the ballroom floor to dance (with fat women!) as the Pretty Things (whom the audience has been waiting for) play the film’s theme, “Welcome to the Monster Club” over the credits. While this film’s length is typical of the anthology, it could have been tidier, especially in the wraparound segments. While the three stories are pretty clearly defined and ordered-by-tone (melancholic, humorous, frightening), they are all equally as successful. Which an audience member prefers will ultimately reflect personal taste. That said, its doubtful any one person will entirely enjoy the entire film. Well, the good with the bad, I suppose. As horror anthologies go, The Monster Club isn’t essential by any means, but it is still entertaining as an unpretentious (and un-ambitious) entry in the form.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The October Ordeal II 03: Virgin Witch (1972)

(Spoilers throughout)

Although Virgin Witch (also known as “Lesbian Twins”, which I’m sure sells more DVDs) came at the height of the European horror-sleaze boom, in many ways it’s an isolated and singular film. Partly this is because of narrative—which I’ll get to later—but moreso because it seems to lack specific time and place. It feels like an Italian film, but it’s British. It’s director, Ray Austin, has otherwise worked only for television. It’s writer, Beryl Vertue, is an accomplished producer, but has only this one writing credit on her resume. It promises a swinging mod-London setting, but takes place mostly inside a single house. It looks on the surface like exploitation—which it is—but offers little in the way of eroticism, really. For these reasons, Virgin Witch is rather obscure, and while it isn’t essential, its still an above average and unique genre entry.

Virgin Witch starts off with out-of-focus stills of nude torsos, a montage of nudity to come, with the actors’ names pasted on, much like the opening of an average porno. Then—suddenly—creepy psych rock blasts and a woman is seen being burned alive, screaming, with no explanation. All of this happens in about two minutes, leading an informed genre fan to expect a brain-melt along the lines of Black Candles or any Jess Franco picture. Well, forget this strange opening, because it will never be explained or revisited. The eternal question when viewing Giallo is this: is it better to exhaust oneself attempting to keep the narrative strands in order, or is it appropriate to just give in to sound and image, and hope that by the end something makes sense? I was prepared to ask myself this same question, until I realized that Virgin Witch isn’t a Gialli slasher, it’s a British vampire film. Aside from this first section, Virgin Witch makes sense, and can easily be followed, processed and understood.

After the surreal first minutes, Virgin Witch begins in earnest, with its central characters, Christina and Betty, played by Ann and Vicki Michelle—who are twin sisters, although I didn’t pick that up until researching the film, as they are by no means identical, and never explicitly referred to as sisters in the film. Outgoing Christina and demure Betty have escaped their boring country lives to slum it in London, and they’re living with the middle-aged Johnny (Keith Buckley), a stylish guy who is really just that; it’s a mystery what he does for a living (he exists because later on the film will need a third party to intervene later). This in-media-res opening finds Christina looking for modeling work and finding it with the icy Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines), a character defined solely by the fact that she’s a businesswoman and a lesbian, usually shorthand for villain in a film like this (hold that thought). Christina is willing to go nude and Sybil needs a model on short notice, so she instantly gets the job, and is immediately on her way to an ornate mansion in the countryside, with Betty along for the ride as her chaperone.

This all happens in the first ten minutes or so. By the time Betty and Christina make it to the secluded mystery house, most characters are established, a mystery is developing, and all gears are in motion. Virgin Witch wastes no time establishing itself, making for a breezy and digestible narrative, a feature rare for the genre.

There are two major characters left to introduce, both waiting at the foreboding manor. The owner of the house—and prime-mover of action—effete charmer Gerald Amberly (Neil Hallett), and horny photographer Peter (James Chase), who seems as in-over-his-head as Christina and Betty are about to be. These two are introduced first as voyeurs, preying on the two women in that way; while Peter is an innocuous character, Gerald will soon be preying on Betty and Christina in a more real and serious way. Peter’s voyeurism is work, and more for the benefit of the audience, as his camera’s lens records Christina in progressive states of undress. Gerald is more sinister, as he watches Betty in the tub through a Norman Bates hole in the wall.

While Christina poses outside, Betty explores the interior of the mansion, coming upon an altar in a sub-basement room lined with red curtains, decorated with demonic masks, daggers and other magickal ephemera. When she’s confronted by Gerald, she’s shocked to learn that Gerald and Sybil are open about their esoteric practices, and are happy to reveal to the women that they are the two pillars of a witch’s coven. Gerald brings Christina down to see the room, and is pleased to discover that she’s into it, and wants to join the circle. In fact, this is what the coven needs exactly, a virgin to simultaneously complete a complex ritual and to join as an initiate. According to Gerald, the group practices white magick only (as opposed to the black magick of most films, I presume).

Lest the audience forget, there’s a guy named Johnny in this film, which Virgin Witch points out mid-way through with a London call-back. Johnny is hanging out with a cool Jazz singer chick in a swank club, where news somehow reaches him of Betty and Christina’s predicament. Since he has Sybil’s business card (for some reason or other), he rushes off to the mansion to see what’s up. This scene is an unnecessary one, just a bit of exposition that could have been handled with a phone call, but it’s a nice diversion which really adds a bit of levity to the film, right before one of it’s most intense moments, the first ritual, which is like a watered down version of Behind the Green Door.

During the night-time initiation, a group of new characters gather with Gerald and Sybil around Christina, the ritual’s focus. Some robed minions strip Christina, Sybil rubs oil on her nude torso, and Gerald drops robe and deflowers Christina to jazzy psych-rock akin to Angus MacLise’s score for Invasion at Thunderbolt Pagoda. She wakes up the next morning in bed with Sybil, who apparently demanded Christina sleep with her as well as Gerald. During this scene, which occurs two-thirds of the way in, one wonders where the horror was. Sure, the focus is on typical horror material, but the film isn’t scary, and doesn’t create any sort of foreboding atmosphere. More accurately, Virgin Witch would be called a drama about magicians and models, if not for some strange supernatural elements introduced in the final reel. Up ‘til this point, Virgin Witch is an atypical genre film, a laid-back, unhurried unspooling of events over a long weekend.

The supernatural element I’m referring to is Christina’s burgeoning—and unwarranted—telekinetic abilities, which develop seemingly only out of her desire to force Sybil from the coven and take her place in the circle. This is a strange development, as its abrupt and severe tone betrays the preceding tone of the film. Complaints aside, I did enjoy this final section on its own, Christina drunk with dark power, nastily betraying both Betty (by passive-aggressively forcing her into the second part of the ritual against her will) and Johnny (by applying newfound mind control techniques to bring him into the ritual as well), and by psychically assaulting Sybil, forcing her out of the circle, and (spoiler!) later killing her, turning their white magick coven into a black magick group in a single night.

This final ritual (and the climax of the film) is more intense than the first. Christina rubs oil on Betty’s breasts (fulfilling the explicit promise of the film’s alternate title, and the implicit promise of lesbianism any film of this kind seems to offer by default), and Johnny has sex with her, entering the ceremony in a black robe and Onibaba mask. This scene is the creepiest and most uncomfortable in the film. The music in this scene is even wilder than before, a mix of Comus and Jade warrior, wailing away while a full-blown orgy takes place, bringing in all the characters of the film, including Peter. (Major spoiler for rest of paragraph) Mid-coitus, Johnny snaps out of it, but instead of fleeing with Betty, he moves her to a more private spot, and continues to deflower her! I suppose because they’ve moved outside the circle they’ve decided to have sex on their own terms, simultaneously ruining the ritual. Meanwhile, Christina kills Sybil by stabbing the dirt, somehow.

This is a strange and confusing ending, its signification obscure. At the same time, it’s satisfying, because it’s a pitch-black, weird, atypical, dark and desperate off-type ending, and totally morally ambiguous, ending the film without clear heroes and villains. There may not be any major thematic point delivered; this is simply how this story ends. As to what happens next is anyone’s guess. The one reason this ending is offensive is because it betrays the earlier good-natured tone of the film; if the entire film were as strange as its conclusion, it wouldn’t be impacting, it would just be a bummer, as nasty as the grimiest English and Italian horror (Evil Eye, House with Laughing Windows, Girly, et al).

While I’m not going to seriously suggest that a film I’ve already compared to mainstream porn is feminist in nature, this is one possible long-shot interpretation: to Gerald and Sybil, Christina and Betty are another set of pretty-girl acquisitions, necessary for their power rituals and important only in that way. The women have subverted their positions in both the film and the genre to steal back control of their own destinies. By upsetting the balance of power in the coven, Christina has asserted herself in a surprising and unique way, even if her strategic tools are sex, subjugation, manipulation and murder. Keep in mind a woman wrote the screenplay, so its not surprising that power would be wrestled back by Christina at the end, who as a character also satisfies the sexist demands of the genre for the majority of the picture.

Despite major problems, Virgin Witch is unique enough to warrant attention. It’s a well paced and easy to watch film, without major breaks and confusing jump cuts, usually inherent to the genre. The actors in the film are uniformly good. The music is fantastic. The photography and idiosyncratic and atmospheric, without being as cavalier and bold as in other similar films of the era. This may even make it appropriate for non-genre fans, as it fails to make mistakes many similar pictures do. For genre fans, Virgin Witch may be somewhat disappointing, as its not as weird, profane, perverse and pornographic as Vampyros Lesbos, for example. It’s also British, which has a lot to do with why its markedly different from the Giallo films it nevertheless takes inspiration from. In translation, the genre has both lost and gained in Virgin Witch, an obscure entry, but nevertheless an interesting film.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The October Ordeal II 02: Cutting Class (1989)

(Spoilers throughout)

The low-budget psycho-killer whodunit Cutting Class can be considered part of the final wave of non-franchise 80s teen slashers. While the proceeding decade would produce films riffing on the genre and deconstructing it, Cutting Class settles comfortably into the parameters of the form. While its plot and narrative arc are rote, there are many bizarre—and unfortunate—idiosyncratic moments which make Cutting Class interesting—if not enjoyable.

First time director Rospo Pallenberg (writer of Exorcist II, and the John Boorman films Excalibur and The Emerald Forest) helms an ensemble cast of high-school students and faculty: Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch, Jr.), Paula Carson (Jill Shoelen of Popcorn, Chiller and The Stepfather) and Dwight Ingalls (Brad Pitt!) on one side, with veteran character actors in the “adult” roles, including Martin Mull as Paula’s father, and Roddy McDowall as the lecherous school Principal. Once the murders start, Cutting Class goes out of its way to provide about a dozen possible suspects, including several clear Red Herring throwaway false-leads.

Basketball hero Dwight, his girlfriend Paula, and their old friend Brian are simultaneously suspects and potential victims throughout. Brian seems the too-obvious choice, as he’s recently been released from a psychiatric hospital for causing his abusive father’s death. He’s erratic, secretive and dresses all in black. In most films, he would be the secret hero, noble yet misunderstood. (Spoiler!) Not here, as Woods is in fact the killer. Cutting Class did have me guessing throughout, but not in the kind of way where, through deduction, the mystery could be solved—it could have been anyone, really. For example, we discover that Dwight taught Brian how to cut brake lines, which is the method he used to do in his dad, and that Paula has feelings for Brian, and that her father acted as a lawyer during Brian’s trial. I never believed for a second that the pervy Principal, the creepy night janitor (quote: “I am the custodian of your fucking destiny!”) or the tough gym teacher were serious contenders. By making the young “psycho” the villain, Cutting Class merely becomes yet another film in the horror genre perpetuating negative stereotypes about those suffering from mental health conditions or those who have spent time in psychiatric facilities. Great.

Cutting Class is best remembered for featuring a “young” (26) Pitt. It isn’t difficult, however, to forget about the media superstar Brad Pitt of today when viewing this film, as he isn’t given any more screen time or space than Leitch or Shoelen. In fact, there isn’t a thing remarkable about Pitt’s performance as the homophobic, racist, slick and arrogant Dwight. Dwight is relentlessly hard on Brian, his former friend. He tells Brian he went to the hospital with “a broken mind”—as in, not a leg. In one brazenly offensive scene—played for laughs—he convinces an entire classroom full of kids to fake electrocution, mocking Brian by reminding him of the electro-shock therapy he was subjected to. Pitt’s performance is broad: he plays Dwight the jock as dopy, jiving and erratic, in what is surely an attempt to cast Dwight as a reasonable suspect, but which instead comes off as uneven and bizarre.

Shoelen’s Paula is a jumbled and confused character. On the surface she’s a squeaky-clean good-girl cheerleader and straight-A student (who’s actually withholding sex from Dwight until he brings his grades up). Yet, at the same time, she is made the object of lust for nearly every male character in the film (yes, including her father). The advances of these men and boys are obvious and sneering, yet she seems completely oblivious, which ultimately amounts to subconscious compliance here. Never have I seen the classic media “whore/virgin” binary contained so completely in a single character. This point is really the film’s most blatant and baffling stumbling block, which demands further attention here.

The universe of Cutting Class is an exploitative, mean-spirited and libidinous place, with Paula at its center. In the first scene of the film, Paula goes outside to talk to Mull in her underwear, while he loads up his truck for a hunting expedition (this “city boy goes to the country” thread runs throughout as comic relief). She seems always in the act of presenting herself as a sex object, as if the film acts as a medium connecting her directly with the wishes of masturbating 14-year old viewers. Later on, she fingers a photo of her and her father, and then makes out with Dwight—who’s wearing her dad’s suit—on her parents’ bed. Sheesh!

While Roddy McDowall is a welcome presence in a sea of bland performances (he’s clearly having fun playing a sleazy authority figure), his Mr. Dante is a truly despicable character (who is of course comic relief). He drinks booze in his office in one scene, and makes Paula bend down in front of him, exposing her panties, and suggests she try on her new cheerleading outfit right there in his office. Inexplicably, later in the film Dante is seen hanging out in the theatre, trying on ladies’ clothing and make-up. Even worse than Dante is Paula’s art teacher, who presents a scantily-clad Paula as a figure model for his students to sketch. This seems not only creepy and inappropriate, but nearly illegal as well. Dwight says to the teacher “You like boys don’t you?” to which the teacher sneers “No!” while eyeing Paula to prove it. Is the audience really supposed to think Paula is such a naïf? Or is she into it? She’s a chaste character in the script, but as directed, she becomes merely an object, as framed by the film’s unapologetic male gaze. The teacher is later placed in a giant kiln by Brian and killed.

During each of these scenes, Brian is in the background somewhere, out of sight, spying. Whether he’s “protector” or killer, this is still serious, obsessive voyeurism, which I guess is supposed to be romantic. Dwight usually isn’t far off either. Is this a typical day at school for these kids? While totally different in tone, the presentation of these characters reminds of contemporary Troma, in that not a single principle is likable. And while Shoelen is an interesting actor (with a unique gravelly off-type voice), Pitt and Leitch are dull and thin in their performances. A bit more intensity from Leitch would have helped, and a lot less of what Pitt clearly thought was intensity.

When Cutting Class finally gets around to its conclusion, it is without much satisfaction. In some ways the film never really gets started, as it never achieves any sort of appropriate tension or dramatic rhythm. Dwight and Paula are final boy and final girl, and the two manage to kill Brian in a shop-class brawl, where Brian and Dwight fight each other with various power-tools. For most of the battle, Paula merely screams. When it looks like Dwight is going to lose, she distracts Brian by taking her shirt of. She then hits him in the head with a hammer and yells “I’m sick of people playing with my emotions!” This is almost the single clear statement in the film, only if framed in the context of her position here as both a character and an actor. Whatever is gained with this declaration is promptly lost in the next scene (a final “Gotcha!” where Dwight and Paula nearly crash Dwight’s Jeep, of which Brian sabotaged earlier), when Paula tells Dwight and her father “I likes Brian… so much for feminine intuition!” Mull answers a few questions for the audience (still leaving a few plot holes), and ends the film with both a titular line and a final tag” “You kids aren’t cutting class are you?” Freeze-frame, and we’re done.

Scores of slashers work similar plots into fine films that work on any number of levels. Cutting Class however opts to highlight the negative and essentialist assumptions which are often implicit in the form. That said, the film could have used itself as a commentary, a kind of genre expose, or at least as a template for black humor and transgression. Instead, it merely wallows joylessly in it’s own grime, content. Most slashers have an established set of leads, but Cutting Class goes out of its way to present the worst aspects of these stereotypes, simultaneously congratulating its jock-hero asshole boyfriend and objectifying its naïve teenage girlfriend—for laughs. Cutting Class is a historical and genre curiosity; it is recommended only in this way.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The October Ordeal II 01: Dead Heat (1988)

(Thanks to Analog Medium for some of these images)

With the right four leads, zombie comedy Dead Heat could have been a minor cult-classic. Unfortunately, we have Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo as Roger Mortis (get it?) and Doug Bigelow, and Lindsay Frost and Clare Kirkconnell and plot-moving ingénues Randi James and Rebecca Smythers. That said, Dead Heat is still a fun, harmless B-pic that manages to successfully exist in several genres: Buddy-Comedy, Cop Actioner, Science Fiction and gross-out Zombie horror.

While writer Terry Black has a slim resume, director Mark Goldblatt has an interesting oeuvre. He’s edited many Arnold movies, from Terminator and T2 to Commando and True Lies. He edited Get Crazy, Predator 2, The Howling and tons more. Dead Heat was his first foray into directing, which he followed with the Dolph Lundgren Punisher the following year. Also, Goldblatt is credited as First A.D. to Paul Verhoeven on Robocop (also he edited Starship Troopers, Showgirls and Hollow Man).

And, Robocop clearly had an influence on this film. Dead Heat opens with an aerial skyscraper tour of L.A. against a Pouledouris-biting main title theme. The similarities continue as we join a crime already in progress: two masked hoods robbing a yuppie Jewelry store. The cops soon arrive to complete the triad, and a spectacular display of indiscriminate gunfire seems to kill everyone except the thieves, who nevertheless take plenty of bullets, baffling the cops (PCP? They wonder). The way civilians and cops alike go down reminds of the ruthless and misanthropic action cinema of the time.

The comparisons to Robocop end here, with the entrance of Piscopo and Treat as Doug and Roger, two rogue cops on “double probation,” who cruise around listening to generic new wave tunes in a drop-top. Piscopo plays himself, mugging, wearing muscle-tees and telling offensive, unfunny jokes. Treat’s character, “Roger Mortis”, is his foil, a dry, deadpan stoic. Treat Williams is a B-string lame leading-man of the Matt McCoy or Parker Stevenson variety, here doing a straight man’s version of an off-beat cop. This casting (a boring actor as a low-key guy) actually makes you want more of Piscopo, which I never thought would be possible.

The two hear about the stand-off on the Police radio, which gets Piscopo so hyped-up he squeezes his hot dog really hard, causing the ketchup to obscenely bust up out of the bun. This seems to really shock them both. They jam on over to the scene, finally disposing of the long-lived criminals with a grenade and a speeding car, which really steams the chief! But the force has bigger things to worry about, because the coroner’s office immediately recognizes the bodies as recent arrivals... as in dead guys who walked away.

While the shifty Dr. McNabb (Darren McGavin) is uncooperative, Roger and Doug turn to his assistant—and their friend—Rebecca Smythers, played by Clare Kirkconnell, who has the right look and attitude, but not the chops. Her and Treat together are really a snooze-fest. She discovers that an experimental drug called “Sulfathyasol” is pumping through their un-dead veins, which can be traced back to the monolithic “Dante Pharmaceuticals”. While Becky stays at the morgue to perform a second autopsy on the thugs, Roger and Doug head over to Dante Pharm to check it out.

There they meet PR head Randi James, who gives them the standard tour. Of the four principles, Lindsay Frost is the best actor, well-cast and game for the part (she’s been in loads of TV shows, including Lost). Doug sneaks off to break into the super-secret wing of the facility, and is immediately assaulted by a many-faced mutant biker. My Netflix DVD started to skip at this point, so I lost a few minutes of the battle. While this is going on, Roger finds himself locked in a decompression chamber, where he suffocates and dies. Doug joins up with Randi (who claims ignorance), and they promptly rig up the re-animation machine and bring Roger back to life, with little deliberation aside from Piscopo trying to emote and saying “But what about the soul?”
The two cops visit Becky, who diagnoses Roger as a walking corpse, with less than a day to live. He’s determined to use his remaining hours to bring down Dante, so Doug and zombie-Roger rush off while Randi continues doing whatever it is that she is doing. They stop off at Randi’s, and find two hilarious zombies straight out of Miami Vice, who they kill with a harpoon and an electrified hot tub.

Randi seems to recall something about a sketchy Chinese butcher Dante Pharm makes mysterious deliveries to, so the three zip over to his deli to check it out. They find Professor Toru Tanaka chopping up a chicken! This is the best scene in the film, as Doug and Roger have to fight not only Tanaka but also a roomful of reanimated deli-meat, including a giant headless cow, which Doug dispenses with a meat hook. The pre-CG special effects here are impressive, as are the prosthetics and make-up FX throughout the film. They miss out on the butcher, “Thule” (Keye Luke), who’s escaped back to Dante.

After a short stop at the library (to give Treat a chance to freak out and flail through an existential crisis), they split up to follow different leads. Roger and Randi travel to Randi’s adoptive father’s crypt (Dante Pharmaceuticals honcho Arthur P. Loudermilk, played by Vincent Price!), where they discover some useful cryptogram on a lampshade. When they get back to Randi’s, they find Doug upside-down in a fish tank dead! From here they race over to Dante for the big conclusion, as all parties converge. Loudermilk isn’t dead after-all, as we see him trying to convince a crew of oldies to invest in his regeneration tech. A nearly decomposed Roger comes in with a machine gun, and has a hilarious fight with a zombie where they shoot each other about a thousand times. Also, most of the old people go down as Thule indiscriminately shoots up the room. A brain-dead Zombie-Piscopo comes at Roger, but he snaps him out of it by quoting homophobic jokes the two had cracked earlier in the film. I’m not lying. (Spoilers coming’) They then swiftly take out McNab and Loudermilk and blow up the lab. The two walk off to the cheesy credit song, flipping Casablanca: “This could be the end of a beautiful friendship.”

Dead Heat is completely dumb, and derivative, but it’s still fun, and has fantastic special effects. While it’s a far cry from its source material, Dead Heat is loosely based on DOA, which it references twice, with the character of Bigelow and also with a scene playing on a television in Randi’s apartment. Dead Heat is also clearly inspired by An American Werewolf in London, which inspired a whole micro-genre of transforming-buddy or family member horror comedies in the 80s and 90s: Teen Wolf, She's Back, My Mom’s a Werewolf, My Boyfriend’s Back, Idle Hands, et al.

The Anchor Bay DVD I watched is loaded with extras, including twenty minutes of deleted scenes (including a lost Dick Miller cameo), promos, the script, and a commentary with Black, Goldblatt and the producers, where Black reveals that a sequel was commissioned but never filmed, which he wrote the script for (makes sense—Loudermilk’s body is never seen and Becky hints that she’s found a way to slow or reverse the decomposition process). Too bad, as the fully zombied-up duo could have been more fun leads than they are here—neither particularly shines, unfortunately. If Michael Nouri and Wings Hauser played Mortis and Bigelow, this film would have been much improved. Nevertheless, I present here a well-paced, fun, lively, gory little flick with great special effects to kick off The October Ordeal ’08.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Samurai Dreams 5 SNEAK PEEK #5

Sorry, there is no "Samurai Dreams 5 SNEAK PEEK #5".

All my reviews were posted here first.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Samurai Dreams 5 SNEAK PEEK #4

Human Highway (1982) Reviewed by Andy

Hopper only plays a small role in this one but I thought I’d mention it anyway since the movie itself is so weird and unknown. It was directed by Neil Young and Dean Stockwell, and Neil Young actually plays one of the main characters: a doofy looking gas pump operator at a roadside diner. The diner is located in the middle of nowhere (the Arizona desert maybe?) and the look and feel of it (as well as the movie as a whole) resembles something out of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Hopper gets very little airtime but he plays a psychotic cook (surprise surprise!) named Crackers.

For Neil Young and Devo fans this movie is a must-see. Yep, Devo—along with their annoyingly cute pal Buji Boy—take up a big chunk of this amusing mess by playing an irradiated disposal team at a nuclear power plant. A few songs are sung and towards the end there’s a completely random scene where Neil Young passes out and hallucinates himself and Devo doing an extended 10 minute long jam of “My my hey hey”. What the…?!! I know it sounds too good (or bad) to be true but I’m not lying. It’s also true that it will take at least a few days to get Devo’s cover of “It takes a worried man” out of your head after watching this.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Samurai Dreams 5 SNEAK PEEK #3

Spasms (1983) Reviewed by Kevin

I had a good feeling about this one—the cover had a ‘classy slasher’ vibe to it and Peter Fonda’s in it. So how bad could it be? Bad. The plot had something to do with a giant poisonous snake that is transporter to the U.S. for some reason and gets loose, I think. For some reason, one guy can see what the snake sees, but he doesn’t really do much with the ability besides bug-out his eyes and sweat. Everyone hangs out and acts boring and the snake eats people and that’s the movie.

Nearly all of the snake’s scenes are shot from the first person, presumably so the filmmakers wouldn’t wear out the effect of a 35 dollar rubber puppet that can’t do anything but open its mouth. It’s strange, but the effect where the snake’s victims swell up after they are bitten is pretty cool. Just goes to show that even in a piece of garbage like this, someone was doing good work. Oh, one more thing there wasn’t one spasm in this whole movie, let alone multiple spasms. What gives? *

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Samurai Dreams 5 SNEAK PEEK #2

Full Eclipse (1993) Reviewed by James

From Anthony Hickox, the director of the Waxwork movies, comes this hard-hitting werewolf cop HBO original movie starring Mario Van Peebles and the obnoxious Bruce Payne. Van Peebles plays your typical movie cop: he's tough as nails, takes unnecessary risks, hates authority, talks about "the job" a lot, has a rocky marriage, and feels really guilty when he gets his partner almost killed.

But then the movie’s formula starts to change when his dying partner gets injected with werewolf blood, and is instantly healed. He starts hopping around and is impossible to kill, and the movie's best scene is with him chasing a car full of thugs while jumping crazily over cars and driving a guy’s motorcycle straight into a wall! But he doesn't like being a werewolf cop, so he shoots himself in the face with a silver bullet. Our man Mario then gets invited to Bruce Payne's police officer therapy group, which is actually a squad of vigilante werewolf cops!

Most of the werewolf cops don’t get any character development at all, except for Patsy Kensit, who is the required babe who gets to sex up Mario. The worst part is definitely Bruce Payne, who is a really shitty actor. His idea of acting cool is talking really dumb alliteration, having really long, flowing locks, and strutting around like a retarded robot learning to be human. The action sequences are fun and well put together, but the make-up blows. Bruce Payne is the real werewolf, while the others are just hooked on a derivative of his blood that acts like a drug. When they show their werewolf powers, its just goofy claw hands and fang faces, while Payne turns into a lame poofy werebear at the end. *1/2

Friday, May 09, 2008

Samurai Dreams 5 SNEAK PEEK #1

In the coming days I'll try to post a review from each contributor. Here's one from Max.

Chameleon Street (1989) Reviewed by Max

If you know who Wendell B. Harris is, I salute you. According to IMDB, he’s only been in three films, the last being Road Trip. He wrote, directed and stars in Chameleon Street, one of the best true independent films I’ve ever seen. Harris plays William Douglas Street, a young black man growing up in the Midwest. He works for his father’s locksmith business, freezing his ass off in a van and listening to the Sex Pistols on a walkman. For a man with larger than average brains and smaller than average means, he knows there’s gotta be an angle of economic escape. Being a drug pusher is attractive, but ultimately unprofitable, so he attempts to blackmail a Cubs player. Unfortunately his partners in crime published the blackmail letter in the local paper and signed it William D. Street.

With a sudden rush of media attention, he tries to play his way into writing articles for Time magazine (really, he just wants to meet female celebrities). When he’s found out, he impersonates a graduate of Harvard Medical School and becomes a staff surgeon at a local hospital (he gets by on a handy medical manual which he hides in his briefcase—he even performs a hysterectomy!). Of course the consequences of duping a hospital and performing amateur medicine catch up to him with a simple background check, and he’s sent to prison, from which he escapes

All through his “careers” Street gets the same message from his wife every morning: “Make some money.” The financial and emotional burden of having to support yourself is real, and so there’s more than a little bit of sympathy for this con man’s foibles. He is of course a selfish cad who always assumes he’s smarter and more important than those around him (he’s right about 75% of the time). Street’s got a pretty good sense of humor, though, and great taste (or maybe it’s all just from Harris, because I can’t find one solid indicator of the reality of Mr. Street’s existence—which could be meant as a joke on the audience, but nonetheless would add another layer of meaning to the narrative).

Favorite moment—I dunno, it’s a toss up between the weird murder dance around a little girl’s tea set and the super-duper fashionable French/Renaissance costume ball. ****