Monday, May 26, 2008

OTIS (2007) d. Tony Krantz

Reviewed by Tracy Hook

If you like black comedy than Otis will satisfy. The film is not only funny but raises several questions about human nature and how certain individuals manage their primal urges. In fact, Lord of the Flies is referenced throughout the movie.

In the beginning of the film we find a serial killer's (Otis') den. The victim, a teenage girl, has been chained and tortured for several weeks and she's not going to take it anymore. The victim attacks her "keeper" and a struggle insues. The girl dies accidentally. I'm spoiling some of this, but trust me it was an accident. We also find that Otis (the keeper) has eleborate plans for his victim. He wants to go to Prom with her. Ahhh! That's cute!

Someone didn't tell him Prom isn't that great. Decking the school gym with tissue paper is like putting a bow on a turd and calling it a teddy bear. The decoration committee wasn't fooling me! What the hell was that $30 for? You can get tissue paper at the dollar store! Prom 1992 was a total waste of money! Especially with a theme song of Metallica's "On Through the Never". The Prom Queen and King couldn't dance to that at all!

Enough about my high school horrors, back to the film. Otis needs to find a new prom date and the viewer has already assumed that it's a lovely girl named Riley. Riley is captured on her way to school. As you can guess Riley's parents are distressed when she doesn't come home and the police are called. But, the police are ridiculously unsympathetic and placing rules on the family for dealing with the madman that has their baby girl. Woo. . . I was right on board with Riley's mom. TIME TO KICK SOME PEDOPHILE ASS! Where's my powerdrill?

When the family finds the location of the serial killer they decide to take the law into their own hands. I had to be constantly reminded by my husband that this was a comedy not just a revenge film. Which I love! I like to cozy up to a big bowl of popcorn and watch down right nasty villains getting their just desserts, like in the vein of "Vigilante" and "Last House on the Left".

"Otis" on the other hand, is funny and has lots of twists and turns. Unlike those grindhouse films mentioned above it makes you think (which is hard to do with extra crunchy popcorn). It questions vigilante justice and media depictions of that gray area we call reality. (I guess I should put away my powerdrill and let the pedophiles get their salads tossed in jail.) I expected a straight revenge film, but found a well thought out story.

Special Features include: Commentary by Director Tony Krantz and Writer Erik Jendresen, Alternative ending, a featurette titled "The Twisted World of Otis", additional scene, and trailers for other Raw Feed titles.

Raw Feed

Friday, May 23, 2008


Reviewed by Rick Trottier & Mark Nelson

Delving into any collected set of films is always a treat, but when the collection is that of a living master of the horror craft, it is twice as nice. Dario Argento has worked in film for more than 40 years, but since his directorial debut with BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE in 1970, his works have evolved and his style continues to be a powerful creative force in cinema, influencing the techniques of many film makers since the 1970s. THE DARIO ARGENTO COLLECTION: 5 FILMS BY DARIO ARGENTO includes some interesting works that span a lesser known period of Mr. Argento’s canon. TENEBRE (1982) and PHENOMENA (1985) are considered to be from the latter stage of Argento’s “great years”, while THE CARD PLAYER (2004) and DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? (2005) are from Argento’s recent resurgence. That leaves TRAUMA (1993), which dates from a period when Argento’s films were less well received.

Summarizing and analyzing Dario Argento’s films in chronological order allows the truly astute scholar of The Master’s work to see its progression and path to the present. TENEBRE, starring Tony Franciosa, Mirella D’Angelo, John Saxon and Christian Borromeo, is the story of Peter Neal, a writer visiting Rome whose novels become the muse for a murderer. As suspicion mounts and doubt is cast on nearly everyone, no one is sure who the killer really is. PHENOMENA, starring Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Donald Pleasance and Patrick Bauchau, is the story of Jennifer Corvino, a boarder at a Swiss school and who exhibits a personality disorder mixed with a propensity for sleepwalking and the uncanny ability to communicate with insects telepathically. She becomes ensnared in the machinations of a serial killer, whose murders she views during her troubled bouts with sleep. Before long, Jennifer must find a way to escape from the killer’s net before she is the next victim. TRAUMA, starring Christopher Rydell, Asia Argento and Piper Laurie, is the story of a psychologically troubled girl who returns from a hospital ward only to see her parents brutally murdered. Enlisting the aid of her lover David, Aura searches for the killer, only to put herself in harm’s way and to face truths more dangerous than the killer’s weapon. THE CARD PLAYER, starring Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham and Silvio Muccino, is the story of a kidnapper/killer who challenges the Italian police to play video poker with him in an attempt to tip his hand as to where his victim is hidden. Inspector Anna Mari and Detective John Brennan must team up with computer card shark Remo to beat the killer at his own game before more innocent citizens are abducted and murdered. Finally, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK, starring Elio Germano, Chiara Conti and Elisabetta Rocchetti, is the story of Giulio, a film student obsessed with the works of Alfred Hitchcock. He probes into a murder committed in the apartment building across from his and suspects an elaborate plot involving the alluring Sasha and her equally enigmatic and hypnotic friend Federica. Before long, Guilio is dodging attempts on his own life before he can solve the crime, forcing him into a cat & mouse game with his own neck as the prize.

TENEBRE was Dario Argento’s return to the giallo format after his two film supernatural hiatus of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. Despite being a return to his “roots”, TENEBRE has many characteristics that set it apart from Dario’s earlier giallos. While it has a classic giallo storyline set to a vibrant Claudio Simonetti score and it is edited and photographed with the same care and thought given to artistic composition, TENEBRE does not have the same vivid coloring or ornate interior and exterior set design as does DEEP RED or its predecessors. What is intensified is the onus on spectacularly gory death scenes and wonderfully lurid shots of incredibly sexy Italian women, one of which is a she-male (just so you know). Some of the amplified sexuality of TENEBRE seems to almost anticipate the evolution of Argento’s modern films as he would move away from the more Puritanical style of one of his inspirations, Mario Bava, and embrace the more aggressive visual style of the 21st century. Despite being a somewhat atypical example of Dario’s giallo genre, TENEBRE is a very engaging film intellectually and emotionally, and it is sadly, often overlooked as part of the “greats” canon. The extras menu starts off THE DARIO COLLECTION very strongly with a 17 minute featurette about the film with both Argento and Daria Nicolodi. That is followed by a 5 minute interview/short documentary with Dario called “The Roving Camera Eye of Dario Argento”. Next is a 2 minute mini-featurette called “Creating the Sounds of Terror” about sound effects. There is also a 2 minute alternate end credits music mini-featurette, an audio commentary with Argento, music composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curci, the theatrical trailer and the ubiquitous and fairly standard Dario Argento text biography. TENEBRE is a good film to start with since it is the bridge between the legendary past and Dario Argento’s successful present.

PHEMOMENA is probably the strangest of the ARGENTO COLLECTION, for it combines much of the carefully composed and lavish exterior sets and landscape photography with the artistically crafted and plentiful gore of his earlier giallos like CAT ‘O NINE TAILS. However, there are bizarre yet compelling supernatural elements typical of films like INFERNO. PHEMOMENA is a film of contrasts. During the day, there are customary bright, outdoor colors juxtaposed with elegant, flamboyant rooms of schools and offices, but at night there are the moody blues and blacks of the ominous environs and the chiaroscuro of shadow-dappled leaves tossing in unsettled winds paralleling the unstable internal natures of many of the characters. A young Jennifer Connelly, raven dark hair diametrically opposed to her white garments, adds a lovely, ethereal presence which is balanced grimly by Daria Nicolodi’s stark and almost mannish menace. The extras menu of PHEMOMENA is the deepest treasure trove of goodies in this collection, spearheaded by an audio commentary with Argento, makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, music composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curci. There is a 17 minute featurette called “A Dark Fairy Tale” exploring the background and sources of PHEMOMENA, a 5 minute interview with visual effects wizard Luigi Cozzi, a 9 minute talk show interview on “The Joe Franklin Show”, 2 music videos: “Jennifer” by Claudio Simonetti and “Valley” by Bill Wyman, the theatrical trailer and a text bio of Dario Argento. Between this compelling and visually stunning film and the “boat-load” of extras, PHEMOMENA is one of the jewels in this crown.

Leaping forward into a new decade is TRAUMA, a film with much that will please any Dario fan, but with many drawbacks as well. While TRAUMA is often visually dynamic due to composition and lighting efforts, since it was filmed in the United States, it does not evidence the same grandeur and elegance that Argento’s European films do. While there are some capable actors in TRAUMA who give solid performances, the fact that most of the cast is American, wearing unimpressive, early 90s fashions and without the stateliness of that undeniable Continental glamour, the end result is a film that feels like Dario Argento but does not exude that same stylishness. Even the musical score is without dynamism and does not carry the viewer along on a tide of emotion and chills. The story has an excellent premise, but it wanders due to a great number of convolutions and the pacing is also very inconsistent. Finally, while gripping and sometimes shocking, the fantastical nature of many of the death scenes stretches the logic of this film. Unlike the supernatural “Three Mothers” epics and the somewhat science-fiction based PHEMOMEMA, most of Dario Argento’s films have their feet firmly set in believability. By making TRAUMA a contemporary tale with a sense of realistic horror, to strain the bonds of reason leads it down a less successful path. TRAUMA does have one of the deeper extras menus including a 19 minute documentary with Dario called “Love, Death and Trauma”, which may be one of the most interesting featurettes in this collection. There is an 8 minute special effects featurette called “On the Set with Tom Savini” which will delight his legion of fans. In addition, there is an audio commentary with author Alan Jones, a nearly 5 minute collection of deleted scenes, the one and only poster/stills gallery in this collection, the theatrical trailer and the Dario Argento text biography.

By the time the 21st Century dawns, we arrive at THE CARD PLAYER, which is both a departure and a return to form for Dario Argento. Some of the story and visual elements evoke BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and OPERA. Many of the exterior sets of the urban streets and the pastoral garden cemetery have that same lushness of BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, while the abductions scenes and the intensity of the “damsel in distress” vignettes are deeply reminiscent of OPERA. Keeping that in mind, the introduction of computer technology as a major plot device and setting much of the film in the stark, mechanically-dominated, techno-world of a police station creates a contrast that is both a clear strength of the film and a possible detriment to Argento purists. Be that as it may, the more briskly paced, real time story helps to make up for the fact that THE CARD PLAYER is not quite as visually stunning as classic Argento. For those who worry, there are still some moments that drip with a panoply of shadows, light and color, as well as Dario’s customary close ups on people’s reactions and specific story props of importance. For being a recent film, THE CARD PLAYER has a surprisingly deep extras menu including an audio commentary with author Alan Jones, a 13 minute documentary on the film with Dario called “Playing with Death”, and a fabulous 17 minute featurette on Claudio Simonetti called “Maestro of Fear”. There is also a 9 minute industry promo of the film, the theatrical trailer, a 5 minute “behind the scenes” montage that plays like a music video and a Dario Argento text biography.

DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK, being the newest of the ARGENTO COLLECTION, is also one of the most surprising. It combines all of Dario’s love and respect for his inspirational mentor Alfred Hitchcock, and much of the visual splendor that made Argento a legend in films like DEEP RED. The story is a nod to REAR WINDOW and without shameful thievery, it borrows many key story elements from that classic, but they are blended with Argento’s superb fascination with intricate and stylish architecture, eye-catching urban landscapes, monochromatic set pieces and engrossing close-ups on minutia or mechanisms. In addition, Argento lovingly photographs the glamorous and vibrantly sexy actresses in this sensuous film. The end result is a film that looks modern but feels like a step back to Dario’s most successful film years and clearly restores the master to his rightful pedestal among the greats. DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK has a very thin extras menu including a sixteen and a half minute “Backstage” featurette which allows the viewer to see the filming and special effects process of an Argento set. There is also a Dario Argento text bio segment. After four other extras menus that were a rich haul, this extras menu is something of a disappointment. In the end though, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK is a very enjoyable film that is a treat for the eye and a balm to the Argento-loving soul.

Most of the time, boxed sets are retrospectives of a film maker’s best works, most popular works or sometimes selections of their favorite works. THE DARIO ARGENTO COLLECTION: 5 FILMS BY DARIO ARGENTO is a look at films that do not always receive the acclaim that they may deserve, but they do provide viewers with the opportunity to bask in movies that are a little rarer. These five films are presented in their original aspect ratios and with their blazing or moody colors and rich soundtracks fully restored so that any lover of the Argento canon will be suitably impressed. In addition, all five films have received new anamorphic transfers, making them an even more exciting visual experience. THE DARIO ARGENTO COLLECTION: 5 FILMS BY DARIO ARGENTO can proudly take its place on your dvd shelf next to your first rate versions of DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA, BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and CAT ‘O NINE TAILS where it rightly belongs, improving any collector’s canon of the Argento library in a truly delightful and appropriate manner.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

GRIZZLY PARK (2008) d. Tom Skull

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The concept of Man vs. Nature has long been a fathomless source for novels, films and art and despite the inexorable expansion of technology, the image of humankind battling the forces of the wilderness continues to be potent. Perhaps, as the grasp of science becomes tighter upon man and his dependence on gadgetry becomes greater, our ability to deal with animals in the wild, one on one, becomes that much more pathetic. Since man has little natural weaponry at his disposal when you take away his toys and put him out in the forest, it is likely that the idea of defending oneself against lions and tigers and bears, Oh My, continues to be such a deep well from which to draw. There has been a resurgence of “maneater” type films over the last few years, most of them aping the horror sub-genre that proliferated in the 1960s and 70s and most not really being up to the task. GRIZZLY PARK works hard to be a quality addition to that long and illustrious line of films and has a degree of success in the process.

GRIZZLY PARK is the story of eight youthful miscreants who receive public service assignments for their misdemeanor crimes. Sent out to a remote California park in mid-autumn, they are to pick up trash, camp, hike, and soul search for a week under the guidance of the Department of Corrections and the Park Service. Unrepentant attitudes, disrespectful actions and personal disaffection steadily grow in the youngsters even as they struggle against the resistless tide of challenges that nature begins to throw at them. Before long, mischievous malefactors are running for their lives as the minions of Mother Earth teach them a lesson in reverence.

Like most independent film efforts, there is usually a lack of funds that dictates the levels of achievement a movie can attain when it comes to the story, the camera work, the acting, the music and the final outcome. Like its much older predecessor, THE FOREST (1981), GRIZZLY PARK may not have started with much cash, but some good choices help to make this an effective if not outstanding film. One of the best elements of GRIZZLY PARK is the outdoor photography, which could have been used in any National Geographic or Animal Planet feature. Filmed on location in Tennessee and Virginia state parks, the autumnally tinted hues of the wistfully rugged landscape, shot with care and an overarching respect for nature, are simply incredible. Even if you don’t like horror films, an overpowering pull to walk the scarlet-carpeted glades of the Appalachians in October will overwhelm any viewer after a few vistas slide across the screen. There is no shakey-cam stupidity at any time in this film and the few scenes that are set at night are well lit and easy to comprehend. In today’s world of miserable music video-inspired film drek, the directors of photography and the camera men of GRIZZLY PARK must be lauded profusely. It was a pleasure to sit down and watch a movie that really looked good.

The story of GRIZZLY PARK is not as strong as the photography and it does have its problems, but it does have its strengths too. The general premise of taking a group of self-absorbed, spoiled, uncaring, 18-24 year old pricks out in the forest on work-detail and letting them see and deal with something bigger, better, older and wiser than themselves is always and will always be marvelous. It reminded me strongly of the moment in ROOTS when Maya Angelou’s character castigates Levar Burton by saying, “Do you know that you do not KNOW everything, can not DO everything and that Allah is still greater than yourself?” These human turds get their own variety of that speech delivered by skunks, wolves, bears and camp fires as each part in the drama unfolds. Taking a page from THE BREAKFAST CLUB, as the journey deeper into the forest continues, we reach inside the kids and see why they are there and whether they are learning anything from their challenge. Unfortunately, this is where the story has its faults. The entire point of THE BREAKFAST CLUB was to explore the inner workings of the teens and to get them to interact. In GRIZZLY PARK, the stories of the troublemakers must split time with the story of the twin terrors of a slasher on the loose and the killer grizzly stalking the trails. Add to that already overloaded plate, the reality of trying to tell the story of eight pains-in-the-asses and a forest service ranger who really has the starring role and you’ve got a landscape painting with a few too many trees and not enough water and sky. In one of the interview segments in the extras menu, one of the cast members refers to the characters as being deep. If only that were really the case, GRIZZLY PARK might have been an even better film. Sadly, in a 90 minute film with so many different tales to tell, none of the characters were deep enough, nor was their interplay complex enough to really develop conflict as intense as it needed to be during the dramatic points of the story.

What does work in this story, and I’m not sure how this turned out so, is that the first third of the film depends on a mix of the slasher elements and blends it with the introduction to the scoundrels. As the trek gets underway, gentle undertones of humor are woven in even as the pace of the story remains patient and only selected dollops of action are interspersed with the beautiful landscape imagery. Over the last third of the film, the pace of the film intensifies very rapidly even as the focus shifts to more of a gory horror comedy with a character twist. Somehow, this works, for I was not bored by the gentle pace of the first two-thirds of the film and I got some really good laughs out of the demise of the jerks in the end. One of the unanticipated traits of the screenplay was that some of the death scenes were surprisingly restrained, while others were intensely graphic, and this was randomly mixed in the last acts. The twists at the end, while not terribly well hidden were enjoyable none-the-less and since they were well tied to foreshadowing in the first third of the film, they created a degree of symmetry. One quality of human nature that never seems to alter is our need for order in our lives and our tales.

Much like THE FOREST (1981), GRIZZLY PARK is also dependent on a mix of mostly very inexperienced and untried actors for its success. As with any independent film where the cast is primarily rookies, there is some woodenness at times and some overacting too, but the efforts are sincere and some of the gaffs and resultant groans from the audience may be as much the fault of an inexperienced director. Despite the fact that I still don’t like vile characters being created for the sole purpose of knocking them down like ducks in a shooting gallery, in this case it was somewhat successful. Possibly, this is was because Ranger Bob (Glenn Morshower) and Bebe (Emily Foxler) weren’t unlikable pustules. Their pleasantly simple but sweet characters are like life preservers that one can hold onto as the waves of unpleasantness wash over the viewers from all the other misery-machines. Mr. Morshower is the one veteran in a starring role and he plays the part of the board stiff and ruler straight park ranger to perfection. Rance Howard makes a very brief appearance, but it is nice to see a familiar face there as well. Emily Foxler steals the show with her impressive performance as the bubble-headed and beautifully busty Bebe. Between her earnestness, her doe eyes and innocent giggles, and her alluring figure decked out in all manner of attention-grabbing garments, Miss Foxler teams with Glenn Morshower to give the best performances of the film. Shedrack Anderson (Ty) and Jelynn Rodriguez (KiKi) also put in unexpectedly good efforts as thoroughly distasteful characters, and had the story just focused on them, Bebe and possibly one other youngster, perhaps the end product wouldn’t have felt so diluted.

GRIZZLY PARK has a surprising extras menu that includes three short interview/behind the scenes segments, “What is Grizzly Park”, “Filming a Real Bear” and “You Reap What You Sow”. The first featurette looks at the film premise, the second examines the use of real animals in the filming and the third analyzes the underlying theme. While each of these featurettes is under three minutes, any interviews with the cast and crew are always a satisfying excursion. In all three, you get to hear their thoughts, feelings and experiences and see moments on the set and during the filming. There is a very short behind the scenes clip called “Brody Stand In”, where one of the few scenes with a man in a bear suit in provided. Most of the rest of the grizzly scenes were shot with Brody, a live, 1300 pound ursine handled by Jeff Watson, who also played “Butch”. There is an audio commentary with director/writer Tom Skull and producer Belle Avery. Finally there is the film trailer and a set of Allumination Filmworks preview trailers. Like Allumination’s offering, THE OTHER SIDE, that I previously reviewed, part of my good will towards GRIZZLY PARK is seeing the effort put forth to include a few worthwhile extras. It is never a bad idea and always engenders a little warmth.

GRIZZLY PARK is not a laugh ride, neither is it a thrill-a-minute, nor is it a blood tide that washes everything away in torrents of crimson. It is a film that tries very hard to succeed with some excellent photography, a story that has the right idea and a mostly young cast of “up and comers” who give it the “old college try”. It would be interesting to see what a few more years of experience, a little more money just as wisely spent and some stronger screenwriting efforts could kindle. When I can say that I don’t hate a film and can find some praiseworthy components, that is almost remarkable. Just as the scalawags in GRIZZLY PARK get their “just desserts”, I hope that the film makers of this enjoyable little flick get the chance to do something like this again and take it to another level of quality.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Reviewed by Rick Trottier

During the early and mid-1970s, American culture began to move away from many of the innocent and guileless mores of the 1950s and the optimistic and lofty ideals of the 1960s in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Literature, art and film sometimes paralleled that shift and even blazed new societal trails as Americans disassociated themselves with the culture of their parents and grandparents to strike out on new paths of pleasure and passion. Retro-Seduction Cinema’s release of Joseph Sarno’s CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE is another brilliantly preserved historical gem that is a trip down another branch of memory lane for those who wish to revisit the time when the “Me Generation” took center stage and tried to rewrite the rules of a country that had once been the province of the Puritans.

CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE is the story of Carol, her husband Eddie, their neighbors Anna and Pete and Carol’s mother Jennifer. Carol lives in an open, swinging marriage in which she shares life and love with Eddie, Anna and Pete. Her youthful, vibrant sexuality is at war with some still unconquered older values that resurface when her striking and amorous but widowed mother comes to visit. Before long, Eddie, Anna and Pete are all desirous of Jennifer’s incomparable sensuality, and Carol feels the pull, even as she struggles with feelings of inadequacy in comparison to her mother. Jennifer struggles with overwhelming feelings of passion and longing, even as she reexamines her views on monogamy and age-appropriate relationships. By the end, no one is the same person they were before Jennifer’s arrival, but everyone understands and accepts their role in their complex association.

CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE is a fascinating exploitation film that blurs the line between an avant-garde sexcapade and porno chic, which by the mid-70s was exploding in popularity. It is an introspective story that somehow successfully grafts the moodiness of Carol and Jennifer and the melancholy soundtrack with lively and sensuous sex/love scenes between the characters. Rebecca Brooke who plays Carol and Jennifer Welles who plays Jennifer develop a rich emotional chemistry that is one part mother-daughter love and respect, one part generational angst and gender-role struggle and one part incestual attraction. Even the figures of the two actresses are symbolic of the times they represent. Carol is tall, trim and willowy, with a trendy haircut and bright but reflective eyes that sparkle with the present. Jennifer has a womanly figure reminiscent of the pinups of the 1950s, lustrous long blonde hair and dark eyes as deep as the sea. Their multifaceted relationship with each other and even more intricate bonds to vivacious and comical Anna and the randy and ludicrously aroused Pete and Eddie establish levels of sexual tension and suburban anxiety that make this seemingly simple story and simpler screenplay surprisingly profound.

Beyond the fascinating character interplay, there is a tapestry of visual imagery that is both evocative and contemplative. When indoors, the apartment rooms and their mod furnishings are representative of the growing affluence of the American suburbs, but there is also a starkness to many of the interior sets as well, conjuring some of the emptiness that the hip and hedonistic 70s lifestyle induced. The kitchens and the women in the kitchens were lavishly sprinkled with classic icons of American family life like aprons, apple pie, Gold Medal flour and overflowing grocery bags. When contrasted with the sometimes graphic sex scenes and explicit nudity, the obvious symbolism of the sea-change in sex in relationships is unmistakably potent. When the story shifts outside into the New York City parks and forested trails and walkways, Carol and Anna’s aimless ambles and their chats are marked by closeness dappled with unease. One can’t help but be struck by the winsome feelings and strains of sorrow, especially when accompanied by Jack Justis’ acoustical guitar ballads that are so very reminiscent of James Taylor or the more soulful songs of the Rolling Stones. Despite being a low budget exploitation flick, there are also some artfully composed shots of the actresses, especially Rebecca Brooke’s emotive face and Jennifer Welles’ unrivaled figure, and the end result is a film that goes a long way toward capturing the essence of the mid-1970s, as America reaped the bitter harvest of a cultural and political revolution that had somehow gone horribly wrong and sought escape in pleasure and passion to drown the grief of lost dreams.

CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE has a wonderfully diverse set of extras. Normally, most 2-disc sets offer more visual entertainment, but disc 2 of this set is a CD collection of the music that the late Jack Justis did for Joseph Sarno’s films. On the dvd, in addition to the restored film, there is a 17 minute interview with Joseph Sarno that is simply splendid. As has been my experience when listening to or reading interviews with exploitation pioneers, they all turn out to be interesting, likable chaps. Who knows if they were that way on the set, but Mr. Sarno certainly has kind words and fond memories of his co-workers and experiences. There is a small selection of 3 deleted scenes which are actually the most graphic sex scenes, probably snipped to tighten the film’s pace and possibly to please censors, since this was not “pornography”. There is the usual Retro-Seduction trailer vault that, like a good lava lamp, helps to create the right mood. Capping this superb experience is the liner note booklet by the erudite Michael Bowen and replete with some lovely, never-before-seen photography of the comely Rebecca Brooke by Ed Seeman. I have yet to be disappointed by the Retro-Seduction booklets, which are always more worthwhile than any historical monograph unearthed from a college library.

By itself, CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE is a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience that whisks you back to a time that you may or may not have been able to experience first hand, but you’ll feel like you were there. When taken as part of the Retro-Seduction library, which has marvelous examples of 1950s and 1960s exploitation cinema, some of which I’ve previously reviewed, the experience is even richer, for an astute student can see the evolution of American society unfold right before your eyes. The patient and thoughtful film lover can ride the ebb and flow of American ideals as they changed in a country that wrestled with a Puritan past that once abhorred sex, to a country that has become somewhat obsessed with it. CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE is another outstanding addition to the exploitation film historian’s library for the reason that it isn’t escape that is up on the small screen, but instead what we were truly thinking back then, but wouldn’t admit.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE (2008) d. Paolo Barzman

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It always seems that every few years, someone feels the urge to remake one of the classic thrillers of yesteryear. Most commonly, it is FRANKENSTEIN or DRACULA that see remakes, but just about all of the old horror classics have been retold, retooled or retread. DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is a tale that has seen more than half a dozen visitations on the Big Screen and even more in video form, made for television movies or even TV show adaptations. It is a compelling tale about the war within between the light and dark side of our souls. While Robert Louis Stevenson’s story may never really get old, the manner in which film makers present the tale is beginning to tire no matter how hard they try to update the tale, blend it with modern sensibilities and fashions or decorate it with current technology and trappings. The 2008 version of the Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde yarn, starring Dougray Scott has some redeeming characteristics, but in the end it does not really take the myth in a new direction nor add another chapter to the canon.

DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is the tale of eminent physician Dr. Henry Jekyll, whose excursions into experimental biology have loosed a malevolent force on the city of Boston by the name of Edward Hyde. Dr. Jekyll soon becomes aware of evidence that suggests that he and Mr. Hyde may be the same person. Dr. Jekyll enlists the aid of an old friend, Gabe Utterson played by screen veteran Tom Skerritt, and Utterson calls in a favor from a young lawyer, Claire Wheaton, played by Krista Bridges. Miss Wheaton begins a nightmarish journey into the darkest corners of the soul to uncover the truth about the murders committed by Mr. Hyde, and whether Dr. Jekyll is truly innocent or guilty.

DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is a made-for-TV film to be broadcast on ION on May 17, but after brief reflection, you would never think it was a TV Movie. Its greatest strength is its slick, attractive appearance, very creative lighting schemes and engaging camera work. During the day, scenes shift from handsome city vistas made to look like Boston, mixed with actual exterior scenes shot in Boston, all of which are well composed and brightly lit. The night time exterior and interior scenes are even more compelling, often monochromatically lit with red, blue, green, violet or even silver gels. Add to that already exotic imagery, scenes that are carefully shaded and shadowed so as to mix moodiness with the afore-mentioned eerie colors and the atmospheric stage is set. There are some wonderfully chosen interior sets like a dramatic spiral staircase and some exterior alleys that drip with a sense of menace, all of which make DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE visually stunning at times. While this film is no KILL BABY, KILL or SUSPIRIA, there are times when it feels like the spirit of Mario Bava has been invoked or a nod is made to Dario Argento.

The other strength of this film is Dougray Scott. Playing any duel role is very difficult, and while Mr. Scott has a tendency to deliver somewhat understated performances, he works very hard to craft characters that are convincing. Mr. Scott’s Dr. Jekyll begins as stoic but tormented, and patiently descends into a maelstrom of emotional agony ending at suicidal resolve. Conversely, Scott’s Mr. Hyde is a blend of insouciant lethality and suavely sadistic indifference. While both portrayals are done with the hand holding down the throttle and Mr. Scott never quite explodes from the chains he carefully wraps around his performances, his are the best efforts in the film.

Despite these considerable strengths, most of DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE left me wondering when the film was really going to get rolling. It is likely that there are two reasons for this discrepancy between the DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE that worked and that which didn’t. The movie starts off as a subtle mix of medical thriller with horror undertones and stays that way for a while. After some time, the story genre shifts to a crime drama with the potential for romantic/horror traces. Over the last one-third of the film, it became a courtroom/legal drama and then it tried to slip that noose with a surprise horror ending. Not quite knowing what kind of story it wants to be is always a problem for any film, and this is no exception. In addition, the film starts off in the middle of Dr. Jekyll’s problems, is a bit disjointed as it tries to run in a non-linear vein, but by the end, the film goes back to a linear pattern and takes on some problems with predictability. Some of this is no doubt due to the well-traveled ground of a classic tale, but some of the predictability stems from a screenplay that just had its problems. Without a story that really fired my passions, I felt unengaged at best and sometimes even a little bored.

On top of story struggles, the other character portrayals were uninspired and terribly nondescript. Tom Skerritt mumbles his way through his part. While never a ball of fire ala Steve Railsback, whose performances are always enough to lift a person from a prone position, Mr. Skerritt seemed minimally interested in the character he was playing. Krista Bridges’ character of Claire Wheaton felt trivial at the start, shifted to unsympathetic, stayed fairly bland for the balance of the film and it was only in the denouement, as if she felt like she had better come out of the gate at last that some energy seemed to animate her face and spirit. Then there is Mrs. Poole played by Danette MacKay. Her character was probably intended to be dark, icy and ominous, but just like Beth Grant’s portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher in THE HOUSE OF USHER, the effect was the be mechanical at best, at worst she was no more lively than a marble column. At times, the silent and menacing character can be a valuable film commodity, but you have to cast someone who can radiate a sense of threat through their eyes and their movements. Danette MacKay just adds another layer of woodenness to a cast that already acted like they spent too much time in a lumber room.

Finally, it is not often that I find a score/soundtrack that does not fit a film, but this one was a quandary. For one, much of the early part of the score sounded much like it had been written for an introspective science fiction film, for it had a nouveau, ambient quality that felt as modern as the cell phones and medical equipment in DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE looked. It is very likely that this modernist musical accompaniment was meant to assist in the updating of this old tale to contemporary times. It didn’t work; rather it was distracting because it felt like it should have been part of SPACE 1999 or some other talky, reflective SF story. Only when the narrative shifted to the courtroom did the score settle into a style that fit the dramatic nature of those scenes. As an experiment, I firmly believe that Dr. Jekyll would have approved of the bold attempt, but as we’ve seen so many times before, Dr. Jekyll’s experiments did not turn out too well, and the musical mutiny in DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE fails too.

The extras menu on DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is extremely thin but it has sixteen minute interview with Dougray Scott called “A Man of Many Faces”. It is certainly an interesting interview with a thoughtful man who cares about his craft and has a surprisingly interesting list of film credits. Dougray Scott is not a household name and many people probably remember him as the man who could have been Wolverine in X-MEN. His interview for DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE clearly shows him to be an intelligent and fair spoken actor.

TV Movies do not usually impress anyone with their visuals, but can often have starring performances by experienced character actors that are smile-inducing and the stories are often tight, clean and straight-forward. DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE is exactly the opposite. If you are looking for a film that will delight the eyes, this has what you want. Just don’t expect too much from the story and most of the cast because that is not where the focus went. It’s too bad actually. You don’t get many films that look this good today and had the rest of the production been up to the task, this could have been a real winner.

WRESTLEMANIAC (2006) d. Jesse Baget

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When making a movie, pandering to your audience is not always a bad idea. If a film maker knows the tastes of the viewers, giving them what they want makes sense. The science fiction film maker is most likely to be guaranteed a degree of success if he includes starships, interstellar battles, ray guns and creepy aliens. The directors and producers of a romantic comedy will get the girls and couples in the seats if they make sure the film moves from one dreamy location to another, mixed with charming interior shots and lots of close-ups of starry-eyed lovers looking at each other. When Jesse Baget, the writer, producer and director of WRESTLEMANIAC put his project together, he wisely utilized some seemingly surefire ideas. However, when all you do is paint by the numbers and don’t consider the other elements of your movie, it won’t be quite the success you hoped for.

WRESTLEMANIAC (aka EL MASCARADO MASSACRE) is the story of a group of “associates” led by Alfonse and Steve, who are driving through the Mexican desert looking for a location to shoot some amateur porn. Joining their escapade are the luscious Dallas and Debbie, the stoner Jimbo and perpetually drunk Daisy. As it becomes obvious that the porn team has lost its way, a brief stop at an apparently abandoned gas station for a “nature break” leads to the group to hear the story of the ghost town Sange de Dios from a broken-down hermit. As the group tries to find its way back to the freeway, Steve tells them the story of why Sangre de Dios is not truly a ghost town and the legendary wrestler who was sent into exile there. Ignoring the warnings of the hermit, Alfonse and Steve take their group into the ghost town, where it seems that all the terrifying elements of the legend of “El Mascarado” are true.

One would think that building a story around a killer wrestler, setting it in a creepy Mexican ghost town and putting two supremely hot, scantily clad beauties in harm’s way would be a slam dunk formula for a film aimed at people who would find such fare enjoyable. In some cases, the formula does work. As a youngster growing up watching Bruno Sammartino and Chief Jay Strongbow on UHF Saturday morning wrestling, the lure of a wrestling horror film is unmistakable. The setting of “Sangre de Dios” does look old, abandoned, unpleasant and somehow unholy. The characters of Dallas and Debbie, played by Leyla Milani (aka Leyla Razzari) and Margaret Scarborough, are some absolutely wonderful eye candy. Even the inclusion of the venerable Irwin Keyes as “The Stranger” helps to add an air of legitimacy to this film. There are some very fun moments of wrestling humor, lore and even some “squared-circle” action. The camera men unquestionably knew what they had at their dispense when it came to the ladies and they were certainly shot lovingly and even lecherously, which isn’t a bad thing. There is even an eclectic soundtrack/score that mixes Mexicali strains, Rock & Roll and some classic-sounding horror incidental music. If it sounds like this film works for you, it very well might. There is no doubt that Jesse Baget started off with an Ace or two in his hand. When it came around for his turn to draw, he picked up a few worthless cards and ended up with a very mixed hand.

WRESTLEMANIAC has several problems with it, most notably the character of Alfonse, played by Adam Huss. Alfonse is such an irritating, moronic, worthless piece of dung that he rivals Dana Carvery’s character of “the Turtle Man” in MASTER OF DISGUISE as the most infuriating character of the last ten years. If it was Adam Huss’s choice to play the character that way so that he would be such a prick that his demise would be enjoyable, then Adam Huss is an underrated actor with great potential. Be that as it may, creating an asinine character just to be the fodder for destruction at the hands of a slayer STILL doesn’t work. While I must admit that watching the Alfonse character get hurled around the derelict church was very satisfying and I could have watched another five minutes of such brutality, it doesn’t make the film better or the story stronger. By the time Alfonse’s greasy aura has been erased from the film, the damage was done.

While the camera work in this film was better than I had hoped for, fully expecting a plague of “shaky-cam” locusts to descend, the direction of the night time lighting left a lot to be desired. While it was daytime, everything looked pretty good and there were some night time scenes that were effectively shot and lit, particularly the stalking scenes of Dallas by El Mascarado in the bus and the old diner. When you’ve got beauties like Miss Milani and Miss Scarborough jiggling down scabrous hallways, you want to be able to see those delightful curves and coppery skin lit effectively. What made the Alfonse-hurling scenes enjoyable was I COULD SEE THEM. That wasn’t always the case for the rest of the night time segments. In fact, there was a scene when Steve and Debbie ran into what would later be seen as El Mascarado’s sanctum, but upon entering the fully darkened chamber Debbie says “I can’t see anything”. I wanted to grasp her hand and whisper supportively, “That’s alright, neither can I.” As I have said before, someone needs to establish a seminar where all film makers are taught the difference between establishing moodiness using shadow and just making things too dark.

The extras menu of WRESTLEMANIAC is thin and not terribly illuminating. There is a five and a half minute featurette called “Wrestling the Maniac: Behind the Scenes of Wrestlemaniac”. Since it is set to heavy metal and has precious few comments by the crew and casts, it plays like a music video and is about as educational. There were a few “behind the scenes” clips/shots that were entertaining. There is an audio commentary with producer/writer/director Jesse Baget, director of photography Tabbert Fiiler and actor Adam Huss and a selection of trailers. While this seems like a lean set of goodies, and it is, I am not sure that more would have been better unless there was a massive photo gallery of glamour shots of the actresses included. The strength of this dvd, if strength it can be called, is in its prurient appeal of violence and skin.

WRESTLEMANIAC is certainly not the worst horror film I have ever watched, neither is it the goriest, nor the sleaziest or the silliest. It has a somewhat original premise, plays what few cards it has fairly effectively and as a result, it may very well appeal to a slice of the viewing population. That is probably what Mr. Baget had in mind and if that is what he was after, it may be said that he succeeded. In the end, there weren’t enough laughs to call it a “horror-comedy” and there weren’t enough scares to call it a “suspenseful” film. It used some of the tried and true conventions of the genre and was a film I didn’t hate. I suppose that could be construed as “high marks” in today’s world of mediocrity and misery.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

THE FOREST (1981) d. Don Jones

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

We are always trying to get everything to fit into nice, neat little categories so that generalizations can be applied. That way, anything we discuss or analyze is easier to understand. Whether it is an historian, film critic, cultural trend analyst or sportscaster, it is easier to define an idea if it fits clear parameters. Sometimes though, generalizing is counterproductive and it is better to see that misfits or hybrids are what they are. For example, people are always trying to say, “The 60s were this,” or “The 70s were that”, and in one feel swoop a decade is generalized. Here is an example of how troublesome that approach is. After closer scrutiny, one can see that 1970 and 1971 were just as tumultuous and psychedelic years as 1968 and 1969, but it is easier to call all of the 1970s, “the 70s”. The transitional years of 1978-1981 were a lot like that too, and whenever a creative endeavor is born during an intermediary phase like those years, it will inherit elements of both “eras”, making it something that is harder to oversimplify. THE FOREST, written, directed and produced by Don Jones, goes even farther than being a film made during that blurred change of decades, its fascinating patchwork of genres, music, ideals and artistic styles help make it an “American Chop-Suey” so quirky and eclectic that it is very easy to look past the weaknesses and enjoy this very interesting “cult” film.

THE FOREST is the story of Steve and Charlie and their wives Teddi and Sharon, who decide to rendezvous at a favorite camping spot after some backpacking, as both a getaway from the pressures of the daily grind and their troubled marriages. Little does the foursome know, there are strange and terrible things waiting for them in the forest and before they realize it, they’ve stepped into a brutal fight for their lives. Each camper is pushed to their limits and some fall low in the test, but one of the four receives assistance from the most unlikely source imaginable before they take a final turn on the wheel of life.

In one of his interview segments, Don Jones talks about how little money he had to make this film, and while there are moments in THE FOREST where his financial constraints show, if that is all you see, you’re missing “the forest for the trees”. First and foremost, one of Mr. Jones’ best decisions was to alleviate set costs and shoot his film outside in Sequoia National Park. The advantages of his choice are many, not the least of which is that THE FOREST is as lovely and glorious an outdoor film as anything shot by The Sierra Club. Like any genre, horror films get stuck in ruts from which there is sometimes no escape and settings are one of the worst. If it isn’t set in a spooky house, it is a cemetery, or a factory, or a hospital/asylum and while all of these have been used superbly, staying with the tried and true can be dull. Most of THE FOREST is shot in the day time, creating a vivid contrast between the azure sky, the sparkling water, the verdant leaves, the vermillion blood and the gleam of a steel blade. When it is night, there is often the rich glow of firelight to bathe the shadows and the rocks with fitful flickers of flames. The sylvan beauty of the exterior location of THE FOREST lends it a distinctly 70s feel, especially when the luxuriant outdoor imagery is occasionally set to quasi-orchestral scores.

Don Jones also talks about wanting to do things “a little different” with his story and as a result, he pens a screenplay that combines ideas from mainstream television, ghost stories, slasher films, cannibal tales and revenge dramas. The end product is an unpredictable, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally jarring but indescribably enjoyable film that is no PSYCHO, but is A LOT better than the balance of the horror films from that time. Starting off with a classic and well shot “slasher prologue” juxtaposed with a “battle of the sexes” introductory premise that would have fit right into any of the later Brady Bunch episodes sounds a little incompatible, but it is part of the decade-melding charm. From there, the blending of iconic storylines continues as backpacking trip, emotional drama and slasher film continue to mix metaphors from the 70s and the 80s. The real left turn comes when the horror hermit of THE FOREST has his story become one tied to cannibalism, ghosts of the departed and revenge for the wrongs perpetrated against him. If this sounds like an impossible task to intermingle all of these story ideas and genres together, it probably was, but that is also what makes any “end of the decade” era special too as trends and styles shift and change. While the setting gives the film a decidedly 70s feel and the story is an inconceivable amalgamation of the 70s and 80s, it is the music that is incorruptibly 1980s.

Beyond of a few scenes where somewhat older “orchestral” selections were added, most of the incidental music is an eclectic mix of synthesizer tracks designed to add specific emotional punctuations and develop mood. Added in for even more dramatic flare were four sound track songs by Richard Hieronymus that are so very typical of the AOR (album oriented rock) that would dominate the 80s as the decade progressed. When watching THE FOREST, it takes a few minutes to realize that the music is very much “ahead of the curve” and that while it probably didn’t initiate the trends to come, so much of the music of THE FOREST was an example of the kind of soundtrack people would be whistling after watching favorite TV shows of the 1980s or blockbuster films of that decade. After watching SO MANY films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, I was just as powerfully effected by the atypical score of THE FOREST as I was its peculiar admixture of story elements.

The one great weakness of the film was that except for Gary Kent (as Michael Brody) who played “John”, all of the other “actors" and “actresses” of THE FOREST were absolute rookies or non-professionals. Their lack of experience and/or talent was evident throughout the movie, but there are two saving graces to their unimpressive performances. One grace is that it is very obvious how hard the players tried to do a good job and their honesty and sincerity is palpable. In addition, since they were not “professionals” and didn’t change the dialogue to fit their “interpretations”, the cultural identity of the screenplay remains intact. Steve and Charlie’s characters start out as archetypal sexist, male chauvinists, dating them clearly to the 1970s, but as the film progresses and their “emotional sides” are drawn forth in their concerns for their wives and each other, as Steve’s tears gush forth and Steve’s red headband is tied around his brow with puissant flair, the men’s iconography shifts unsubtly into the 80s. Even the women are not immune to the decade-bending power of the screenplay as they are alternately the “put up of shut up” feminists, the helpless and frightened women at their core and the caring but lethal toughies when needed; all archetypes of both the 70s and the 80s. Even though Don Jones lamented his lack of cash, by not being able to hire seasoned thespians, he avoided their influence on his creative brainchild and as a result, THE FOREST remains a testament to the amazing metamorphosis that was the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s.

The extras menu of THE FOREST seems like a fairly thin set of offerings until you dig beneath the surface and just like the film, there is more than meets the eye. Two commentary tracks can be enjoyed, and they are worth your time. The cast and crew and interview segment is short, poorly shot and with inconsistent sound, but it is also very interesting. There is a “real” stills gallery of photographs taken on set and behind the scenes. Considering that most of the actors of THE FOREST worked very little or never again, these are valuable bits of history. The Code Red stable of trailers is also a hell of a lot of fun, being a jumble of delightfully sleazy horror and exploitation trailers from the 70s and 80s. After meandering through the extras on THE FOREST, you come out of that experience with an even deeper appreciation for the film and the times.

To attain cult status as a film, you have to have something that sets you apart. Most of the time, it is trend-setting camera work, or a mind-blowing story, or landmark acting, or some trait that leaves an indelible impression. THE FOREST is that glorious type of oddity that doesn’t quite suit the molds, round holes or generalizations that critics and historians want everything to fit. That is what makes it special; it can’t be accommodated in all those nice little round holes. What is does fit is pleasantly into a whole run of genre-types and into two very different decades. As a result, THE FOREST is both a fun horror film and a look back at a time when America was changing faster than we ever knew.