Wednesday, April 30, 2008

d. The Butcher Brothers

Reviewed by Simon Oakland

I know what some of you are thinking. "Ugh. Another remake?"

Yes, indeedy. Another remake. And why not? They're all the rage nowadays. And as you can see, now that most all of the major horror classics have been redone in the past ten years, absolutely everything is up for grabs, no matter how banal. It's gotten so bad that virtually every "new" movie that comes out today is yet another inferior crap remake, and personally speaking they've all begun blending together in my brain. Point of fact: even though I was told time and again that I'd be reviewing APRIL FOOLS DAY, and even though I had looked at the case itself both when it was first given to me and right before I pushed "play", I still had to laugh when the movie started, for up until then I kept mistakenly referring to it in my head as PROM NIGHT!

But I guess thinking back, that was a form of denial. APRIL FOOLS DAY? Ah, crap. Growing up back in the 80s, I was a HUGE fan of slasher movies, but APRIL FOOLS DAY is the one film in the genre I've never been able to stomach. What's the point of watching a slasher movie where everyone dies off camera? And once you figure out the gimmick (and most people will figure it out pretty quickly) there's still at least an hour left for you to suffer through. Perhaps the worst part of the experience for me was getting the impression that the filmmakers honestly thought they were being creative geniuses or something. But whatever. If studios are bound and determined come hell and highwater to remake every secondary and tertiary title in the horror catalog, then they may as well do APRIL FOOLS DAY. At least it isn't one of the "classics" by any stretch of the imagination. I guess when it comes down to it that has always been my complaint about remakes: they usually stick to only the classics like PSYCHO or HALLOWEEN that can't really be improved, and 99% of the time only succeed in making them worse. So to that end I should be thankful that they did APRIL FOOLS DAY and not PHANTASM. With a property like AFD, how could they make it any worse?

Quick answer: They couldn't. This modern remake is way better. But let's keep that in perspective, shall we? Just because it's better still doesn't mean it's very good. The premise that I hated with the original is still present here, and features the typical "hot looking" hip young cast that populates most Hollywood films nowadays. AFD is strictly geared for the teenybopper jet-set: a niche group I was never a part of, even when I was the age they're marketing to. The cover boasts it as being "unrated", but let's face facts: with the possible exception of crude language there is nothing on hand that warrants a rating harsher than PG-13. More likely, seeing as how it's a direct-to-video release they never bothered to submit it to the MPAA to begin with.

Synopsis: A bunch of Barbie and Kens get together for an April Fools Day shindig and pull a prank on a skank and she snuffs it real bad. Flash forward a year and 5 of the most obnoxious people who attended the previous year's shindig are targeted for revenge and intense snuffage.

As far as plotlines go that one is pretty well worn.

Starring (among others) Scout Taylor-Compton (Laurie Strode in Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN).

However much APRIL FOOLS DAY is so not my cup of tea, I must give credit where credit is due. The movie is well made, with absolutely none of that "Shaky-cam" edited for the Attention Deficit crowd nonsense that plagues most modern horror movies. Thank you Butcher Brothers! At least it was watchable from start to finish.

Sony Pictures releases APRIL FOOLS DAY direct to video with no extras save for previews of 12 other Sony horror titles.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

THE BEAST IN SPACE (1980) d. Alfonso Brescia

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Despite being a genre that can provide a hearty serving of highly intellectual fare or possibly a mind-altering experience akin to nouvelle cuisine, science fiction can also be the truest of fluff. Films like FORBIDDEN PLANET and 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY can challenge your mind and push your soul onto new planes of existence, while films like LIFEFORCE or PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES can just be a hell of a lot of fun. Then there are films like THE BEAST IN SPACE, which takes science fiction to the very edge of its genre boundaries and mixes it with other popular trends of its time. Starring the late, great sex film icon Sirpa Lane and Spaghetti Western regular Claudio Undari (as Robert Hundar), THE BEAST IN SPACE is the creative child of Alfonso Brescia, the man who brought the world THREE FANTASTIC SUPERMEN, COSMO 2000 and many other science fiction, fantasy and action “gems”. While not a tour de force or a new direction in its class, THE BEAST IN SPACE is also not your average “space saga”.

THE BEAST IN SPACE is the story of Space Captain Larry Madison and his crew of space soldiers who are sent to the planet Lorigon to obtain a fabulous metal called Antalium. This rare element has extraordinary amounts of energy locked within its matrix, but Lorigon is an “unknown” world about which strange stories have been told. Accompanying Capt. Madison on the voyage is his lover, Lt. Sondra Richardson, who has been having disturbing dreams and waking fantasies about Lorigon and the denizens therein. Once on Lorigon, Capt. Madison’s crew struggles to maintain control of their minds and emotions as a result of the supercomputer Zocor, absolute ruler of Lorigon, protector of the Antalium and a sleaze-ball of a machine to boot. Before long, Capt. Madison’s team must battle hypnotic lusts, unending carnal delights, golden page-boy robots and a supercomputer bent on lascivious lechery before they can escape with their own “golden fleece”.

THE BEAST IN SPACE is an almost textbook example of a “good bad movie”. From the opening scenes in a cantina that looks like a mix of the disco influences of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY mixed with the vibrant sexuality of any number of the later EMMANUELLE films, to the “talky” sci-fi story segments that try to marry elements of SPACE: 1999 with sex scenes typical of the “free love” 1970s, THE BEAST IN SPACE has it all. The general visual effects are primitive by today’s standards and aren’t really all that impressive when compared to its contemporaries, but they are worth a chuckle. What is actually more enjoyable is how the story is written around the lack of costly special effects and other visual imagery is used to compensate. For example, once on the planet Lorigon, the interior and exterior scenery constantly shifts between dark, underground caverns, misty and ethereal groves and glades, and sumptuous, exotic rooms appointed to look as if they were designed for a bacchanal. Coupled with the fact that three of Capt. Madison’s crew are shapely female space lieutenants dressed in skin tight uniforms or just as often out of their uniforms and engaging in energetic intercourse with their male crew members, THE BEAST IN SPACE does its level best to keep your mind off the weak story and even weaker science fiction visual elements, and like “the shell game” tries hard to keep you looking in another direction.

When scored just on the “appearance card”, THE BEAST IN SPACE does pretty well. It is colorful and atmospheric with a blend of older psychedelic characteristics and newer 1980s techno influences. The modern and abstract synthesizer score and incidental music adds a marvelously cheesy and simultaneously dance club appeal to the visuals. It is easy to get caught up in the fact that the story is so thin that large segments of the movie are either semi-pointless dialogue, equally pointless “suspense scenes” and supremely pointless soft-core sex, but that is part of this film’s charm. THE BEAST IN SPACE is an exercise in pandering to viewers who really could care less if the science fiction is engrossing or if the action scenes are exciting. This is all about slick packaging. It really isn’t meant to be taken as serious science fiction, and anyone who goes into THE BEAST IN SPACE expecting anything more is a loon. This film is carrying a torch started years before and that would continue well into the 1980s with films like SPACEHUNTER and ATOR. Ludicrous science fiction/fantasy was just as common as high-brow SF, maybe more so and seeing it for the cotton candy entertainment it was, and appreciating it on that level makes you a wiser and more tolerant film lover.

THE BEAST IN SPACE has a very thin but still enjoyable extras menu. There is a 17 minute “interview” featurette Venantino Venantini, who plays the “Han Solo” character of the film. Part of the featurette is a look at an art exhibit where some of Venantini’s paintings were hung and where Barabara Bouchet and Franco Nero could be seen hobnobbing with other European auteurs. Venantini’s reminiscences of his acting past and his experiences in Italian and American cinema are not mind-altering, but they are engaging if you are interested in a deeper look into the life of an actor from a time that has gone by.

THE BEAST IN SPACE is not the wackiest, nor the sexiest example of Euro-exploitation cinema, but it is fun. It is the kind of film where a good round of fruit and cheese supported by a nice sampling of good red and white wines might be a fine first course before watching the film. Putting yourself in a somewhat hedonistic frame of mind with good food and drink and then flirtatious conversation with attractive members of the opposite sex would be an outstanding method of preparing the spirit for an odd type of dessert, for that is what THE BEAST IN SPACE is, a final, sugary, appealing but not very nutritious course. As anyone will tell you, there is nothing wrong with gently partaking in dessert once in a while, as long as you don’t expect too much.

Monday, April 28, 2008

d. Carlos Aured
HUMAN BEASTS (1980) d. Jacinto Molina

Reviewed by Simon Oakland

Simultaneously released to DVD March 25th, 2008, I had considered reviewing both HUMAN BEASTS and BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL separately until I had the exquisite pleasure of watching both over the past weekend. It was only then did I realize how well both films complimented each other and that they would perhaps be better served in a dual review format. These are two almost textbook examples of how you can start with one basic central premise and go on two completely different tangents. In both, Paul Naschy stars as a loner on the run who holes up in a remote mountain villa (the same house was used as the shooting location for both films, in fact) that is occupied by beautiful woman who all vie for his affections. From there, the similarities end.

With BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL (best known in the US as HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN) Paul Naschy and director Carlos Aured deliver to us the Spanish equivalent of the Italian "giallo" genre of murder-mystery made popular by Dario Argento. Naschy plays an ex-con haunted by his past who is hired by a beautiful woman with a crippled, deformed hand to be her groundskeeper. Shortly after his arrival, women with blue eyes start getting murdered and their eyes plucked out. But who is doing it? Naschy, himself? The nymphomaniacal sister? The former groundskeeper? These are only a few of the suspects on hand in this, for the most part, "by the books" entry in giallo cinema. If you are at all familiar with the genre then you should know automatically who the killer is... but I don't want to give too much away so I'll stop there. Still... BLUE EYES, while it doesn't cover any new ground, is well worth checking out (as is every other release in Deimos' Spanish Horror Collection) because what it does, it does well. The movie takes a while to get going, but when it does, the bodies begin dropping fast and furious. If you like these types of films, then you're not going to be disappointed.

If I have one negative criticism about the film it's with the score. When I watch a giallo, I expect to either hear psychedelic prog-rock in the vein of Goblin or something by or inspired by Ennio Morricone to enhance the atmosphere. But BROKEN DOLL uses what I would equate with "elevator music" for 95% of the film. The main music cue is far too peppy and uptempo for it's own good, and is used so often that it becomes unintentionally laughable. Think of a horror movie scored by Herb Alpert and you wouldn't be too far off. The only truly atmospheric music comes in when another murder is about to happen, and even then it's effect is hampered because the cue is based upon "Frére Jacques". Really, "Frére Jacques"? How scary is that?

In HUMAN BEASTS, Paul Naschy stars as a mercenary who betrays his girlfriend and the organization she represents. Mortally wounded in a gunfight, he is taken in by a doctor and his lovely daughters to recuperate and hide out from his enemies. But this is far from being your stereotypical family, and I guess I'll stop right there with the synopsis, because what I love best about HUMAN BEASTS is that I never quite knew what was going to happen next. The film starts out as an action movie and slowly transforms into... something else. I don't want to give anything away. I've seen and loved all of Deimos' Spanish Horror releases so far, but I never expected going in how much more I would love this than any of the others. This is almost the quintessential "Grindhouse" film. It really has it all: Action, violence, nudity, sex, S&M, bizarre imagery, ghosts... the works! All tightly packed into 90 minutes of pure solid sleeze. I simply cannot recommend this movie highly enough.

As with all of Deimos' Naschy releases, both BLUE EYES and HUMAN BEASTS are shown in their native Castilian language (BLUE EYES has an additional option for English), have extensive still galleries, come with the original trailers, and are completely uncut (I don't know that for sure, so I'll just have to take their word). BLUE EYES also includes an audio commentary with Paul Naschy and Carlos Aured and moderated by Angel Gomez Rivero.

HUMAN BEASTS includes as a bonus feature a short film directed by Alejandro Ballestros entitled "The Vampyre". It's roughly 20 minutes in length and shot on video. I watched about 7 minutes of this before giving it up due to severe eye strain. A few months back, fellow SFS reviewer Rick Trottier docked HALLOW GROUND several points for being terminally dark, but I don't think he's seen anything like this before. For as far as I lasted, virtually every shot was backlit with the actors in silhouette, their features almost completely disappearing into shadow. Now, that may have been an artistic choice on the part of the director, but it comes across to me as one of the most amateurish mistakes I've ever seen in my life. Especially since with video production all it takes is a simple look into the viewfinder to realize that the image is underexposed. Get out a damned lighting scoop or something already! But at least this extra didn't bump up the retail price so it's inclusion neither helps nor hurts my wholehearted recommendation for HUMAN BEASTS. Pick it up. NOW!

(Also, if you can remember to do so, please consider bypassing Naschy's wonderful intro to HUMAN BEASTS. I feel that he gives too big of a spoiler as to how the film wraps up.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

THE LOST (2005) d. Chris Sivertson

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The “dangerous bad boy” has long been a staple of American cinema. Whether the frequency of his occurrence in films stems from the fact that most towns have at least one “bad boy” hanging out on a street corner, or that men wish they could emulate his captivating appeal, or that women still are drawn to his air of “mischief”, the “bad boy” is an enduring icon. Developing a film around the “bad boy” requires walking a very fine line. The “bad boy” character must be menacing but appealing in some fashion, so that the audience identifies with the character in some manner. Too much lethality and your character becomes an unlikable psychopath, but too much humanity and the character just isn’t bad enough and is unconvincing. In THE LOST, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, the Ray Pye character, played by Marc Senter, is certainly very bad and crosses the line between intimidating and maniacal, but that isn’t what derails this film. Director, writer, producer Chris Sivertson tried to juggle too many characters and stories, and unfortunately when too many eggs are spinning through the air, one or more is going to drop.

THE LOST is the story of Ray Pye, a disturbed, violent, controlling, narcissistic and self-destructive youth, followed around by his worshipful toadies, girlfriend Jenny played by Shay Astar and Tim played by Alex Frost. Life in Ray’s small town would have been dull enough to drive anyone mad, but Ray’s insane behavior hastens his own decline, as one manipulative and meaningless act follows another. Before long, anyone crossing Ray’s path runs the risk of being dragged towards his dark vortex of misery, whether it is those who are drawn to his malevolent charisma or those who stumble blindly into his shadow.

The tragedy of THE LOST is that there were moments where this film had me in its grip and there were story and character elements that sparked my interest. The shocking opening and concluding sequences, mixed with a sprinkling of Ray’s efforts to use his repugnant allure on his female conquests, felt like an updating of the Frank Booth mythos. Just as I was transfixed by Frank’s unpredictable and fatalistic persona in BLUE VELVET, there were times when Ray and his entourage’s misadventures captured my attention. Unlike BLUE VELVET, which was so carefully crafted visually so as to feel truly timeless, this film had a plethora of jarringly anachronistic traits. Some of the older, 70s vintage cars, some of the songs like The Pied Piper, and Ray’s clothing and hair gave the film a retro feel. The clothing of girls like Katherine and Dee Dee, newer soundtrack songs, cordless phones and other modern fare cancelled the past generation aura that seemed to be where this film wanted to go. Struggling to establish a sense of time for the setting was just one of THE LOST’s many problems.

THE LOST is probably an enjoyable novel, and not having read it I am making an educated guess based on many past experiences, but that literary strength is probably why it is a weak film. Ray and his band’s story is terribly watered down by the fact that the screenplay pulls in a large number of major and minor characters’ competing stories and what emerges is an extremely fragmented and disjointed tale about an entire town struggling with dysfunction. When you have 400 pages in a book to explore the threads tying disparate peoples together, it is possible to do so. In a film, jumping from one character’s story to another, pulling in minor characters briefly to help drive interpersonal conflict and then spinning them off, not to be seen again, is jarring at best. It is likely that some of Chris Sivertson’s intention was to show the totally irrational behaviors of Ray and the senselessness of what he did to people in the town, but the plot is just too choppy to be completely enjoyable. Ray’s bouncing from one girl to another may have patterned the behavior of the person he was based on, but for much of the movie, the story just seemed to wander, then veer sharply in unclear directions only to heel over when the littlest wind took its sails on another tack.

Granted, one of the purposes of THE LOST was to show as Jack Ketchum says in his commentary, “those souls who didn’t go to war or go to college”, and as such, the idea would be to explore the flaws and frailties of those doomed to stay. In any story though, there have to be appealing characters, like spars we can hold onto, for whom we can cheer and for whom we feel empathy. There is no one like that in THE LOST. Beyond the fact that Ray is such a loathsome fiend and his cronies are sniveling cowards darkly enchanted by his reptilian charm, everyone else is damaged goods as well. Beautiful, perfidious and spoiled Katherine, played by Robin Sydney, is the perfect compliment to Ray, the Black Queen on Ray’s warped chessboard. Sally, played by Megan Henning, tries to be the coy and level-headed ingénue, but is playing just as dangerous a game in a parallel race to disaster. Screen veterans Ed Lauter and Michael Bowen play Ed Anderson and Detective Charlie Schilling, both of whom have cracks in their facades that reach to their very cores. On the surface, all of this sounds fascinating, and some of these characters would have made a great story on their own, but amassing this phalanx of wretchedness and charging it across the cinematic battlefield, the result leaves the viewer feeling bereft and despondent. I love a good depressing film or book, but the very best of both creative worlds takes you through the morass so that you come out the other side somehow better in the end. After the final, discordant, abrupt, screeching crash of an ending, there is no redemption for the characters or the viewers. Night is all.

The extras menu of THE LOST is small, somewhat interesting and a little out of the ordinary when compared to most contemporary releases. The audio commentary by Jack Ketchum and fellow writer and friend Monica O’Rourke is worthwhile. There is a 7 minute audition footage reel and a lengthier “outtakes” reel which is just as much a set of deleted scenes as it is outtakes. For anyone wanting to see more of the stunningly lovely Robin Sydney, these menu options are worth your time. The storyboard sequence for the introductory acts of THE LOST is also quite fascinating. Artists’ conceptions of what will eventually be shot are always compelling.

THE LOST is like so many other films out there today, it was a missed opportunity. Partly this could be the result of trying to adapt a novel to the Big Screen that really doesn’t fit. I have come to the conclusion that it is a rare novel that can be correctly rewritten into a screenplay and made to work as a feature film. This may have been the problem, because biting off more than you can chew is always a mistake no matter what the undertaking. Perhaps the idea was to modernize BLUE VELVET and that is why THE LOST didn’t measure up. As we have seen with so many of the remakes, treatments and retellings of the past six or seven years, it never pays to try your hand at rethinking an iconic or cult film. Maybe it was neither of these reasons and it was just difficulties with execution. Whatever the reason, THE LOST had a nice mix of screen veterans and newcomers who all worked hard to give compelling performances, some interesting exterior and interior sets, and an honest desire to tell a grisly tale. Somewhere along the line this film just didn’t get untracked and it didn’t rise to the level of its promise.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

SKIN IN THE 50s (2007) p. Alternative Cinema, LLC

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

While cinema has always had a fascination with sex and sin, it was only in the late 1970s, but especially in the 1980s, that it became widely acceptable and available. Be that as it may, exploitation films of the 1950s and 1960s show that the manner in which theatrically released sex films were treated so that they would be appealing to movie goers and suitable to the censors was creative and had a sense of amiable enthusiasm that is absent from the screen today. SKIN IN THE 50s takes a viewer back to a time when naughtiness was still naughty, but the girls you were watching and who would quicken your pulse were still as fresh-faced and attainable-seeming as the “girl next door”.

SKIN IN THE 50s is both a compilation and a retrospective 2 disc set. Disc 1 contains the 1956 black & white exploitation gem THE FLESH MERCHANT. There is also a small collection of 4 arcade loops and the ever present plethora of EI Cinema trailers. Disc 2 is a wider collection of arcade loops, burlesque loops and one explicit stag featurette. Once again there is another assortment of EI Cinema trailers. The two discs are all restored and remastered versions of film elements from the 1950s and earlier and come with a SKIN IN THE 50s liner notes booklet which helps to explain the history of the dvd contents.

The “jewel in the crown” of SKIN IN THE 50s is THE FLESH MERCHANT directed by W. Merle Connell and produced by the great Dan Sonney. THE FLESH MERCHANT is the story of 22 year old Nancy, who travels to Hollywood to live with her glamorous older sister Paula. Despite Paula’s protestations that life in Tinseltown is not all it’s cracked up to be, Nancy stays on and is soon sucked into a whirlpool of nude modeling and prostitution where Paula has been trying to keep her head above water for years. Just as the waves seem about to take the two girls to the bottom, they are rescued from the clutches of their Flesh Peddlers.

Despite being exploitation cinema through and through, THE FLESH MERCHANT is a splendid mix of many wonderful elements. On one hand, it is a classic cautionary tale complete with Paula’s passionate moralizing and Nancy’s headstrong insistence on “living the high life her way” replete with thrills and spills but concluding with an almost “Ozzie & Harriet” happy ending. With its careful focus on nude modeling for “art clubs” and “hostessing at The Colony” for Mr. Solok (i.e. prostitution/kept women of wealthy, bored businessmen), THE FLESH MERCHANT very delicately weaves sleazy threads into its tapestry. Unlike many of the exploitation films of yore, the “actresses” Joy Reynolds and Lisa Rack that play Nancy and Paula give fairly inspired “B movie” performances and do a good job of making their characters believable. While Paula is cool and leggy, it is the lovely Nancy who draws all eyes to her. Her combination of lustrous hair, bright eyes, a shining smile and a youthful, hourglass figure would make her just as much a bombshell today. Combined with the actors Norman Wright and Marko Perri who play the underworld sharks of Sokol and Perini, THE FLESH MERCHANT is filled with delightful archetypes that do not devolve into silly caricatures. Having said that, the hysterically laughable character of The Joker, a Bowery-tough with a penchant for Brooklyn-speak soliloquies gives an almost “Three Stooges” appeal to the more serious moments of the film provided by haggard characters like the aging hooker “Easy”.

The restored version of THE FLESH MERCHANT has several “nudie” arcade loops inserted into its sequence to give it a naughtier feel. While this is not the way the film originally ran when it premiered at The Rialto in New York in 1956, it lends an even more decadent feeling. The beauty of the girls in the selected loops helps to make up for the fact that Joy Reynolds is never seen in the nude. The nudie loops also help one to overlook the somewhat splicey nature of the restored version of the film. When one considers how appalling the condition of the original print must have been, what has been achieved is nothing short of a miracle. Finally, with its mix of mid-1950s Chevys, Cadillacs, Mercurys and Nashes, THE FLESH MERCHANT is just as much a car eye-candy flick as it is a girlie movie. Most lovers of 1950s cinema will not be disappointed, rather they will probably delight in this enchanting time capsule, just as I did.

The four arcade loops on Disc 1 are the source material for the nudie inserts in THE FLESH MERCHANT seen in their entirety. One is immediately struck by the loveliness of the girls and the authentic and natural freshness of their beauty. For people today who log onto the World Wide Web and see women who can’t possibly exist, the bouquet of exquisiteness is intoxicating. Disc 2 has a loop collection of 19 short features which have a wide array of film print and “model” quality, but all of which are enjoyable on some level. More than anything else, a viewer can emerge from these shorts with an astounding sense of playfulness and cheer than exude from the screen. While the “models” may not have felt that same sense of lightheartedness when “acting” in these loops, they have left us with an inestimable gift of naughty nostalgia that really isn’t that naughty anymore. It is for that reason that SKIN IN THE 50s is so much fun.

Last but certainly not least, the true exploitation connoisseur will revel in the SKIN IN THE 50s companion liner notes booklet written by the “Secret Key Collector”. I have read every one of these liner notes booklets produced by the Alternative Cinema imprints like Secret Key and Retro-Seduction. They are always a treasure trove of invaluable lore and not to be taken lightly. Without these booklets, the dvd collections would be a marvelous hoard of impressive images, but because of booklets like the one for SKIN IN THE 50s, the entire experience is a little like taking a guided tour of a lost era.

As each year passes and my advancing age leaves me feeling a little less connected to the present, I am increasingly thankful for all the dvd companies who are preserving film and television’s past. Compilations like SKIN IN THE 50s are especially important because so much of the “shadowy” side of the film industry was so thoroughly detested by “morality groups” and even frowned upon by the general public. The resulting financial struggles and narrowly avoided witch hunts left exploitation merchants with few ways to preserve their wares. Much of that film past was lost to us and more could have been lost too if it were not for people like Dan Sonney who held onto what they had and companies like Secret Key Motion Pictures who want to make a buck, but in the end are doing something even more precious.

CARVER (2008) d. Franklin Guerrero Jr.

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the first artistic experiences I can remember where I learned that “less is more” was finger painting in kindergarten. I recall being transfixed by the heart-breaking colors of blue and red on the pure white paper. Then I remember my disappointment when I added other colors and the reds and blues began to weaken as I swirled everything around. In an effort to rescue the situation, I added more color, only to get a sludgy end product that resembled black/brown. What do you get when a once novel film concept of backwoods, inbred monstrosities preying upon unsuspecting young people becomes tired, expended and incessantly copied so that you have to add in all manner of fetid filth? You get CARVER.

CARVER is the story of brothers Pete and Bryan, who meet up with their friends Zack and Rachel for some camping in the woods near The Queen’s Gambit tavern in the town of Halcyon Ridge. Pete and Bryan also meet fellow camper Kate, who has somehow lost her friend Gina. Before the camping begins, the friends agree to aid Billy Hall Carver in return for a small amount of hospitality he extended to them when they arrived in town. Before long, the campers stumble upon a nightmare of torture, blood and death from which it seems there is no escape.

It was said in Ken Burns’ CIVIL WAR documentary that “life for the average soldier was long periods of tedium punctuated by moments of extreme terror”. The CARVER storyline is more like a long initial stretch of irritating and boring stupidity, interspersed with dollops of refuse and then grafted to an escalating series of the vilest depravity one can imagine that is not in a true snuff film. The opening acts of this movie felt like they had been scripted in a singles bar as the screenwriters watched drunken and debilitated youngsters ineffectively interface with each other and their surroundings. Add to this already tottering house of cards three immeasurably irksome characters. Bryan is so whiny and cowardly that he makes Lost in Space’s Dr. Zachary Smith seem like a knight upon errantry. Bryan’s annoying nature is nothing in comparison to that of Zack and Rachel. These two swerve mindlessly between the poles of infantile and pestiferous behavior and build up such a critical mass of infuriating energy that it is surprising that a thermonuclear reaction of imbecility didn’t ensue. What screenwriters just don’t understand anymore is that making characters impossibly unpleasant does not make their demise more enjoyable. By the time the axe falls, most viewers have already checked out of the mental motel and are either ready to rip the disc out of the player or are watching the clock until the film ends. I struggled with the urge to do both. Finally, the last acts of the plot were marred by illogical and ridiculously “convenient” story devices. This did nothing to relieve this weary trudge of a tale of its predictability and banality, rather the reverse. Any film that is trying to mine the dark side of “cinema verite” needs to have a sense of reason and build its twists and turns around reality that the viewer can’t shake but also can’t see coming. Just as the “buddy cop” movie has run its course and needs to be euthanized, someone needs to take this putrescent pustule of a genre and see the motion picture dermatologist so that it can be lanced.

If the story weren’t bad enough, the imagery in this slough of sludge calls to mind quotes that Roger Ebert once made about “The Geek Show” in his book I Hated, Hated, Hated this Movie. A Geek Show is simply an effort on the part of a huckster to lift cash out of your pocket by using grisly shocks. CARVER goes even further than that. Beyond the sawn and hacked off body parts, nails, serrated knives, awls and other sharp instruments driven into flesh, slashes and bashes that produce sprays, spouts, dribbles and torrents of blood, there are even more wretched moments that lie in wait. You can see genitals popped like a ripe grapes, vomit spew down the front of someone’s shirt, feces dumped all over a character’s face and chest, urine sprinkled across the ground, a grime-encrusted toilet used the crush a man’s legs as well as bullets tearing chucks out of people’s bodies. When the narrative well is not only dry, but you’ve pushed at the pump handle so many times that only dust and sand will gush from the spigot, the only choice left is to delve as deeply into the vilest and basest instincts seeded in the murkiest corners of the primitive brain. One of the “stars” of this “film” said in an interview clip that they hope that CARVER will provide “a lot of scares”. It won’t, because none of this is scary. It is disgusting and those who made this movie don’t know the difference. What made Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE so scary was what you thought might happen or the threat of what was going to happen. The violence in that film was grisly at times, but more effective were scenes like Leatherface, roaring chainsaw in hand, chasing Sally across a darkened landscape, the audience not knowing whether she would escape or not, but feeling her terror because you identified with her. CARVER chooses to finger paint with its elbows and once the characters have been rendered thoroughly unlikable, it then proceeds to create scenes that are equally as unwatchable. I felt I had reached the lowest levels of desolation when I watched SAW III, but I was wrong. CARVER took me down to a level I had not realized existed. Maybe the lovers of the SAW and HOSTEL franchises will like this film. I guess I really don’t care.

There is an extras menu on this “unrated: grisly edition” disc and I did plumb it. The 13 minute “behind the scenes” featurette was the best part of the experience, yet even that was mishandled. The interviews with Neil Kubath, Jonathon Rockett, David G. Holland and lovely Kristyn Green, spliced with production footage was interesting and gave me a look at some of the thoughts/motivations of the actors involved. However, every time a clip from the film was edited into the sequence, any empathy I had begun to engender for the cast evaporated. There is a small section of deleted/alternate scenes that were of minor interest. There are also two commentary tracks with director Franklin Guerrero Jr. on both and producer Richard Finney accompanying the director on one track while producer Eric Williford chimes in on the other track. Normally I am always interested in the views and recollections of the cast and crew in any project, but in this case I didn’t want to hear what these men had to say.

One of my closest friends once told me that he had seen a film, “that made him a worse person”. I sincerely hope that viewing CARVER has not lead me farther down the ruinous path into the void and that somehow I can find some redemption after this transgression. Just as I learned a valuable lesson from my finger painting experience long ago, maybe I can take from this incident the awareness that this film may have sworn me off of that corrupt avenue of birthing nightmares from the deepest corners of a person's colon called “torture porn”. The problem is that when one becomes exclusive in their habits, they can miss out on opportunities. I feel that watching THE GIRL NEXT DOOR was a “worthwhile” experience because of the valuable literary themes woven into that very powerful and unsettling film. CARVER has made me re-evaluate my standards and re-assess why I am watching certain sub-genres. If I can emerge from this horrifying viewing a wiser person, it can be said that I my have found a “silver” lining in one of the darkest clouds imaginable.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

THE SISTER OF URSULA (1978) d. Enzo Milioni

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Walking through an orange grove can be an exhilarating and sensuous experience. The play of the rich, green leaves against the azure clarity of a summer sky, mixed with the delicate music of the branches soughing in salty sea breeze, blended with the heady aroma of the ripe fruit can be intoxicating. Like any moment where the focus is on the senses, the instant is purely ephemeral and cannot bring lasting change to the intellect and spirit, for it is not profound enough. Be that as it may, it is still pleasurable and if the joy is great enough, it passes into the realm of epicurean or hedonistic. THE SISTER OF URSULA is a lot like a walk through a glade filled with wildflowers or a swim with a nyad in the Blue Grotto, every sense is heightened and assailed with every scene in the film, but it is a purely sensual experience none-the-less.

THE SISTER OF URSULA is the story of Dagmar and Ursula Beyne, Austrian sisters vacationing in Italy and trying to distance themselves from a family history filled with trauma and tragedy. Even as they settle into their idyllic surroundings, terror grips the hotel where they are staying. Women are being brutally raped/murdered in a singular act of vileness and perversity. As Ursula’s psychic senses give her insights into future events, the denizens of the hotel are swept closer to the edge of a maelstrom of lust, vanity and murder.

THE SISTER OF URSULA is one of the most attractive “giallo” films from a time when beautiful horror/thrillers were pouring from Italy like juice from a ripe lemon, so to give it high praise for its lushness and glamorous charm has real weight. Shot on the Amalfi coast in the heart of Italy’s most spectacular resorts, there isn’t an interior or exterior setting that isn’t breathtaking. Set in a real hotel that, according to director Enzo Milioni, had yet to be finished, there are outside walkways, inside stairwells, chambers, patios, shingly shores and aged corridors that splendidly mix medieval Italian Gothic moodiness with trendy and avant-garde modern Mediterranean architecture and style. Wonderfully composed shots and carefully considered camera angles, great use of natural light, atmospheric lighting and shadows make this voluptuous scenery come alive and dominate the imagery in THE SISTER OF URSULA. Added to the visual cornucopia is the beauty and sex appeal of the mixed European female cast, nearly all of whom are draped in the form-fitting, daring and dramatic fashions of the day and just as often out of those same garments, displaying their lithe and sinuous curves in one erotic scene after another. From Barbara Magnolfi’s hypnotic and unsettling gaze, to Stefania D’Amario’s winsome and vulnerable sexuality and Yvonne Harlow’s langorous and laconic allure, the women of THE SISTER OF URSULA and the surroundings they are draped over like a silk scarf are a feast for the eyes.

As Enzo Milioni says in his interview, “the story of THE SISTER OF URSULA is not top quality” and his generosity of spirit is evident. The plot is a great weakness in this film and keeps it from being the thoughtful “giallo” and/or thriller that directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento had created and still were creating at that time. Not enough attention is given to developing the terror of the killer stalking the grounds and passageways of the hotel, nor is enough tension and suspense developed around the Beyne sisters’ past and their current troubled relationship. Ursula’s manic and violent outbursts come across as grating rather than perplexing and it is difficult to establish any empathy for her, or her sister Dagmar who alternately caves in to Ursula or petulantly storms out when provoked. Too much time is given to courtly but flawed hotel owner Roberto and his shrewish wife Vanessa, as well as the dissolute and self-destructive characters of Fillippo and Stella. This goulash of often immoral and highly amorous characters is often the fodder for the many erotic scenes of this film. While these scenes are well-shot and very effective in escalating the heart rate of viewers, they add little or nothing to the story, its conflict, its resolution and the “giallo” atmosphere of the movie. On top of the convoluted and self-indulgent story, some of the editing of the beautiful camera work is jarring and abrupt, keeping the true epicurean from basking in the glory of the Italian seaside towns of Positano and Ravello. In the end, those scenes are the real reason for watching THE SISTER OF URSULA. As Enzo Milioni said, “the trade for shooting at the hotel was his promise to promote it”. Possibly that is why the imagery looks so good and the story is so weak.

The extras menu is thin but rewarding. In addition to the theatrical trailer, there is a 30 minute interview with Enzo Milioni where he recounts how THE SISTER OF URSULA came into being, where it was shot, memories of the film’s reception upon is release, soulful recollections of a cast that he was clearly fond of and anecdotes about the creative “murder weapon” of this infamous film. Between Severin Films and No Shame Films, I have listened to many interviews with European cast and crew members from 1960s and 1970s Euro-horror/thriller cinema and they are often entertaining, frequently enriching and always worthwhile.

Learning to perceive what an experience is going to provide you with is a life skill that only age brings and it is so very important to acquire. As a youth, I would have probably “grooved” to the “skin and sex” of THE SISTER OF URSULA, not really noticed the faults of the plot and tossed it off as a pleasant Euro-exploitation film. With the deeper wisdom of age, I can see the aesthetic value of this film that is so very like sampling the bouquet of a rose, or a merlot or a fine perfume. I can appreciate its delicate caress, like that of a cool breeze, a comfortable chair or my wife’s hand. These fleeting joys are the zest that makes life worth living, and THE SISTER OF URSULA rests among those same ephemera. Go in expecting a Fellini and you’ll be disappointed. Take the time to appreciate its strengths and look past its weaknesses and it is like strolling through that orange grove on the Isle of Capri.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

MILLENNIUM CRISIS (2007) d. Andrew Bellware

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Creating a “pure” science fiction film (aka “hard sci-fi”) is a daunting task. Beyond the fact that only a small percentage of the viewing population find science fiction appealing, that tiny slice of the pie is a very tough sell. Most are experienced sci-fi readers and movie-goers and as such they have formed exceptionally crystallized opinions on what is quality and what isn’t. Most have read master works by Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, David Brin and other luminaries, and have watched 2001: A SPACE OYSSEY, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, STAR WARS and other influential cinema. To win over such a class of film lovers, all the elements of a sci-fi film equation have to be superbly crafted, from the story, to the acting, the sets, visual effects and even the score. Few sci-fi films ever measure up and most are consigned to an ever-increasing scrap heap of celestial garbage. MILLENNIUM CRISIS gets part of the formula right and when one considers how miniscule its budget was, the end result is modestly yet surprisingly appealing.

MILLENNIUM CRISIS is the story of Aurora and her unwitting involvement in an inter-galactic plot to ignite a war between the Terran and Andromedan star systems. Aurora is unknowingly manipulated by powerful, seductive and diverse powers bent on utilizing special “talents” she does not even know she possesses. As the plot thickens and aliens, androids and political adepts vie for her skills, Aurora is lead on a journey throughout the cosmos and deep within herself as she solves mysteries and discovers answers internally and externally.

When examining a film like MILLENNIUM CRISIS, it is essential to determine first whether the glass is half empty or half full. If you look at this flick as being like the half-empty glass, you won’t like it and will miss some of its small but worthwhile strengths. Straight to dvd companies like Shock-O-Rama have little money to spend and sometimes even fewer resources to utilize. At times, that can lead to misery epochs like DARK CHAMBER, which I could not finish, but it can also lead to unforeseen little gems like CHANTAL which I reviewed some months ago. The financial purse of MILLENNIUM CRISIS was spent on the “appearance” and “atmosphere” of the film and on that note, they got things very right. The interior set decorations are surprisingly creative and well considered. Since the interiors were small and shot tightly, their impact is startlingly convincing. Mixed with some judicious use of exterior location shooting, large scale and small scale visual computer effects using systems like Final Cut Pro and some very moody, wonderfully gaudy and ever-changing lighting schemes, the end-result does feel futuristic and is reminiscent of films like BLADE RUNNER, but more like some of its lesser cousins. The constantly shifting hues and tones, blended with soft and grainy filters and augmented with smoke/fog machine use went a long way to establishing an “otherworldly feel” that helped ameliorate the many weaknesses of MILLENNIUM CRISIS. Finally, to have this pleasantly updated “80s direct to VHS” feel modernized with a soundtrack that mixed contemporary ambient and techno scores did even more to keep this film from being a feature length version of BABYLON 5 or LEXX, both of which always felt like they lacked style and glamour.

When most of the available cash is going in the direction of the visual imagery, there are going to be glaring flaws elsewhere, and MILLENNIUM CRISIS has a few sinkholes. The story has none of the profound complexity, thought-provoking intensity and brooding reflection that science fiction must have when the plot is not dominated by “thrill a minute” action like TOTAL RECALL and its ilk. MILLENNIUM CRISIS has a simplistic “spy caper” underpinning made needlessly convoluted by adding names of species and planetary systems just to give the story some “sci-fi” authenticity. With the exception of Clare Stevenson and Ted Raimi, the cast is an admixture of actors who struggle with overdoing it and under performing. Clare Stevenson, who plays the main character Aurora, gets the introspective, vulnerable and ultramodern look and responses right, so that her character simultaneously “fits in” but also feels like “the fish out of water”. Her unexpectedly enjoyable performance does more to build conflict and add suspense than any of the plot twists and devices. It also doesn’t hurt that Miss Stevenson wears hear “new wave” red wig and her form-fitting purple suit with panache so that she is just as visually appealing as she is impressive in her presentation. Ted Raimi is a seasoned professional and is able to deliver his lines and respond to his surroundings with skill. Sadly, his character makes a late entry into the plot and by then, most of the poor acting done by the supporting and bit characters had left its mark. Add to the weak story and lackluster acting a series of intensely irritating and unnecessary flashy dissolves between character shots and some grating but thankfully rare hand-held camera work, and some of the hard won attractiveness of MILLENNIUM CRISIS was nearly negated by its lesser characteristics.

MILLENNIUM CRISIS’ extras menu is not crammed with amazing tidbits of a glorious nature but it does have a few crumbs of sweetness stuck in for good measure. A nine minute featurette called “The Stars of Millennium Crisis” and its short interviews with Ted Raimi and Clare Stevenson are quite illuminating when not overwhelmed with film clips. There is a very short EFX documentary of roughly 3 minutes that gives the viewer insight into the greatest strength of the film. A commentary track with director Andrew Bellware and producer Laura Schlachtmeyer is also pretty interesting. Of course, there are the ubiquitous trailers from EI Cinema that I can never keep from watching. As is often the case, some of those trailers are more pleasurable than the actual films.

When the makers of MILLENNIUM CRISIS set out to create their film, with precious few coins jingling in their pockets are even fewer truck beds filled with props and other movie-making essentials, they knew they had a “tough row to hoe” in front of them. They certainly did not expect to remake SOLARIS or even SILENT RUNNING for that matter. What they achieved is an atmospheric little film, if viewers are willing to look at the glass as being half full. If you sit down on some sunny day, with a good mood swirling about your head and some acceptance in your soul, you may be slightly entertained by this film. I’ve seen A LOT of very bad films and this isn’t like that. It requires a little patience and a lot of understanding as to what you are going to get out of it. Keep your expectations grounded and let your eyes be the primary sensory receptacle. Turn off the most analytical centers of your mind and treat this like the old “Ace Doubles” sci-fi books of the 1960s, a journey into pure escape mixed with a little amusement.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

SANDS OF OBLIVION (2007) d. David Flores

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Cecil B. DeMille made a career out of producing and directing epic and inspiring films that he hoped would make him and the Studio he worked for a lot of money. While he was usually prudent with his finances, he was not afraid to spend cash when it was needed. Mr. DeMille felt that cinema should be entertaining and exciting but that it should also uphold cultural values and perpetuate popular legends and myths. The screenplay for the SciFi TV movie SANDS OF OBLIVION was inspired the experiences of Cecil B. DeMille’s early career as a producer and takes a very interesting approach to the DeMille mythos. It would be fascinating to ask Mr. DeMille what he thought of a movie that was able to capture a lot of the feel of films of yesteryear and do it with a sense of fun, frolic and fantasy.

SANDS OF OBLIVION is the story of Iraq-war veteran Mark and Dr. Alice Carter, both of whom are drawn to the California desert, hoping to unearth of piece of history. For buried under the sands of time is the original set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 Silent Screen epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. As Mark and Alice’s quests are drawn together, they resurrect more than they expect and discover that something malevolent has been imprisoned beneath the sands. Stepping into a struggle of Good and Evil that has spanned thousands of years, Mark and Alice’s friends, family and former loves are sucked into a maelstrom of ancient dust and demons that threatens everyone’s lives and souls for eternity.

Television movies once knew how to blend the essence of what made the Golden Age of Cinema successful, old favorites and fresh faces among the celebrities, current trends that didn’t upset the equilibrium of the film, effective and professional production values and a well-scripted story that lead you from Point A to Point B with some twists and turns that made the ride pleasurable. SANDS OF OBLIVION is exactly like TV movies of yesteryear and that is why it is so thoroughly entertaining. The premise of the story combines one of the mightiest icons of Hollywood with ancient Egyptian supernatural forces, Secret Societies and a bloodthirsty monstrosity. While SANDS OF OBLIVION borrows from theatrical cousins like THE MUMMY and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and recalls its closer TV relations like SNOWBEAST and CRUISE INTO TERROR, you don’t feel like you are being dragged over tired, rough ground. Instead, it is the embrace of an old friend that enfolds you in its strong arms of nostalgic rapture.

Replete wiith a leading man who is good-hearted, two-fisted and square-jawed and a leading lady who is smart, stunning and vulnerable, facing off against a jealous, flawed and corrupted antagonist, these character archetypes are both comfortably familiar and as enduring as the Pyramids. The cast is a mix of cinematic legends like George Kennedy and John Aniston, screen veterans like Dan Castellaneta and Richard Kind and youthful yet seasoned professionals Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin and Victor Webster.

Added to the iconic characters and the actors who effectively brought them to life is workman-like, competent camera work and steady, effectual lighting that allows the viewer to take in the eclectic mix of inexpensive yet creative set design, tried and true California location spots from every television show and movie you can recall, and green-screen visual effects that feel so much like the old Chroma-key sets that you’ll feel wistful. On top of all this evocative cinematic charm, there is a monster that is a guy in a huge suit with puppet prosthetics that is so reminiscent of scenes from LAND OF THE LOST or THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN that you’ll want to reach for a Mello Yello and listen to your Andy Kim 45s. Add in some dune buggy chase scenes with fisticuffs and ricocheting bullets, a total lack of nudity, filthy language and cultural banality, and you’ll swear you’re watching SANDS OF OBLIVION on your grandparents old Philco, having to readjust the rabbit ears now and then to insure the best UHF reception.

There is the occasional weakness here and there, one of which threatened to bring this fun film to a screeching halt. The appearance of Mark’s gun-toting redneck friend added an element of humor at an inopportune moment when suspense was building and the plot needed to maintain its momentum. Fortunately the story took a satisfying turn, the dune buggies were put to good use and the ship slipped through the Cataracts of the Nile unimpeded. For those people raised on spectacular CGI and who know nothing else, the visual effects of this film may disappoint. After an initial adjustment, I found that they added another layer of delightful fallibility to the production value that paid even deeper homage to the TV Movies of another era.

There aren’t many TV Movies that are brought to dvd that have extras at all, but “Beyond the Dunes: Making SANDS OF OBLIVION” is a ten minute behind the scenes admixture of short interviews with the cast and crew and “making of” footage and film clips. While short, this featurette has the same appeal of the film and in a crisp, clean manner is able to give you a brief look at how this flick came into being and how it was put together.

When one considers the simplicity of SANDS OF OBLIVION and that TV Movies are always made on the cheap when it comes to every angle of the production, things could have gone horribly wrong with this project. It was as if the Great Spirit of Cecil B. DeMille smiled down On High, protecting the cast and crew with a Strong and Guiding Hand. Just as was the case in so many of Mr. DeMille’s films, by the time the denouement of SANDS OF OBLIVION is reached, evil has been defeated once again, the good guy gets the pretty girl, people are smiling, the sun is sinking towards the horizon in an unsullied sky and all seems right with our world again. Even though we know that such just isn’t the case anymore, at least for a little while, SANDS OF OBLIVION sweeps you back to that time and those feelings when you really felt like the Dream was still attainable.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

THE COOK (2008) d. Gregg Simon

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

In my youth, I learned the trade of a chef, working on all the parts of the line and acquiring all of the essential skills to acquit myself effectively in the culinary world. While this served me well, helping to finance my trip through higher education, learning how to create finely crafted cuisine adds to my understanding of the artistry of life. Just as a great meal must be a combination of high quality ingredients, exceptional execution and painstaking presentation, an enjoyable movie must have all its ducks in a row if it is to work. THE COOK, starring Mark Hengst, Makinna Ridgway and Kit Paquin is a lot like an entrée where the chef has focused only on the presentation and let the rest of the effort be reminiscent of the fare at “Kemps Pan-Scrapple Goulash Stand”. It may look good, but the end result is a stomach full of something you’d rather not have ingested.

THE COOK is the story of the Lambda Epsilon Zeta sorority house and their newly hired Hungarian cook. While most of the sisters are off to Cabo San Lucas for a long weekend, eight of the sisters stick around for some well-earned debauchery. At first, the new cook’s adjustment to his surroundings seems to be marred by his complete inability to speak English. Before long, it becomes obvious that inter-cultural exchange difficulties are the least of the girls’ problems. As the weekend progresses and more sex, drugs and rock & roll are needed to sate the sisters’ desires, hotties begin to disappear, new recipes are foisted on the unsuspecting bimbos and The Cook seems to enjoying his new digs more than he ever thought.

Just as a good food critic must deconstruct a meal to examine its strengths and weaknesses, let us look at this Bouillabaisse offering that is THE COOK. Any good bouillabaisse must start with an outstanding stock as it base. The stock of THE COOK is that it wants to be a spoof of slasher films, it even references better slasher films like FRIDAY THE 13TH, and sadly it fails miserably. Each of the characters of THE COOK is a caricature of a horror movie archetype. Beyond the fact that this has been done before and done to death, most of the characters are so grating, loathsome and poorly scripted that little to no humor is generated. Just as a good stock comes from a great mix of fish and shellfish meat and bones, vegetable tops and skins and a long process of simmering out the goodness, funny scenes come from carefully considered dialogue and effective direction of a well-designed script. While there was the odd moment where a smirk rose to my lips, most of THE COOK left me as flat as it I had eaten a bouillabaisse made from a store-bought guppy stock.

The next level of crafting a superb bouillabaisse is the quality of the seafood that is used. Everyone’s bouillabaisse is different, but the essence of success stems from outstanding fish that is fresh and right for the recipe. Just as you wouldn’t use fish you found lying on the beach or some low quality, oily bottom feeder for your masterpiece, a good movie must use talented actors and actresses, fine cameramen, strong sound engineers, excellent lighting and inspired direction. THE COOK had little of these essential building blocks. The lighting, sound and camera work felt like a cutting room edition of THE REAL WORLD and I had to repeatedly remind myself I was watching a feature film and not some piece of drek from “MTV”. While Makinna Ridgway and Kit Paquin had their moments and may have some acting potential, most of the rest off the cast careened wildly between the poles of horrible overacting and The Great Stone Face. The end result was underwhelming to say the least and left me feeling like I had eaten a bouillabaisse made with “no name” brand tuna fish bought at the “17 cans for $0.99 price”. Any chef resorting to such tactics would hide his head in shame. I wonder if any of the cast and crew of THE COOK felt that way.

Finally, the last pillar of a great bouillabaisse is its flavoring components. Absolutely indispensable for success in the bouillabaisse recipe is fabulous fennel, thyme, olive oil, garlic and especially saffron. The chef that skimps on these will have a good fish stew, but it won’t be bouillabaisse. Depending on your tastes, THE COOK has some of these spices spread liberally in its formula. There are bloody slashes, cleaved skulls, tables of viscera and slabs of carved sorority babes galore. Most of it is not atmospheric and really doesn’t add a lot of humor or chilling imagery. It is just grotesque for the sake of adding grisly guts, and felt like paprika was substituted for the saffron. There is a sizable cadre of beautiful ladies in this flick, several of them in varied states of undress, many of them in steamy scenes of lesbian lovemaking. While this certainly cranks up the count on the “sinfully salacious meter”, it also felt forced. Certainly, the hotness of the actresses, despite most of them being foul-mouthed, asinine skanks, could be considered a “saving grace” of THE COOK, but it felt like another ingredient substitution had been made and that chipotle ketchup had been added to take the place of the shallots and garlic. When you make substitutions to any recipe and settle for considerably lower quality, you won’t get a good end product, and while the aesthetic ingredients of THE COOK seem like they work, in the end, the bouillabaisse turns out more like pee soup.

While I have to give THE COOK credit for having an extras menu at all, since SO many dvds today withhold this important side dish, even here THE COOK has its issues. Just as a supremely constructed bouillabaisse should be served with a crusty, artisan French bread, a dvd should have some good extras. On THE COOK, one can sample a four and a half minute “behind the scenes” featurette that plays more like a music video than a look at the making of THE COOK. There is a two and a half minute set of audition scenes of Mark Hengst. Why? Finally there is an audio commentary with producer/writer/editor Nicholas Bonomo, actor Mark Hengst and actresses Makinna Ridgway, Kit Paquin, Nina Fehren and Brooke Lenzi. At times, this commentary has its interesting anecdotes and witty quips, but most of the time it is a gab session amongst young people who are now “hip” because they’ve made a movie. If I sat down to bouillabaisse, got a wretched tuna broth, and then hoped to cleanse the palette with an artisan bread, the extras menu of this disc would be the equivalent of a hotdog roll.

There are film experiences where a slice of life is lost forever, never to be recalled. One such experience for me was the remake of THE FOG. I will never forgive the cretins who created that foul sump of ooze, the dreadful emotions I felt as I realized what a train wreck I was going to witness and the time I lost by enduring that dung ball to its close. THE COOK was NOT that bad for I had an inkling that it wasn’t going to be a “good” bad movie and it wasn’t long before my premonition was validated. If I may close with some more culinary analogies, THE COOK is a lot like going to that roadside diner somewhere far from civilization and you know that despite your intense hunger, you’re not likely to be satisfied. After walking out of that diner with a bitter taste on your tongue and a growl in your bowels, you could look at the glass as being half empty, or you could chalk it up to another life lesson that helps you to appreciate the last “melt in your mouth” steak you sat down to enjoy. THE COOK makes me thankful for the better films I’ve seen like THE ORPHANAGE and I can look ahead with the knowledge that there will be other fine occasions, cinematic and culinary, that I will be savoring soon.