Monday, June 30, 2008
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
To some people, the 1980s was a time of colorful creativity and exciting energy. To others, it was one of the more vulgar and obsequious decades that ever existed. I guess it depends on how old you were and what you were doing at the time and which part of the decade you’re referring to if you wish to be critical. To film makers and producers, the 80s probably seemed a little like the Old West and the Roaring 20s all rolled into one. With the advent of the vhs market, some wiggle room in the film industry and a little bit of economic vitality after the recession in the early days of the decade, independent horror projects abounded in a manner the like of which we are only just starting to see happen again in this age of the internet and dvd/hdtv/blue ray. DOOM ASYLUM was born at the end of the “go-go 80s” just as the economy was about to take a serious tumble in the fall of 1987 and just as the independent film front frontier was closing at the dawn of the 1990s. Whether you like DOOM ASYLUM or not will depend on your feelings for the late 80s, whether you like low-budget independent horror films and whether you can see what this film was trying to achieve and the torch it was trying to pass along at a time when most torches were being dropped and sputtering out.
DOOM ASYLUM is the story of Mike and Kiki, Dennis, Jane and Darnell, who are off joyriding and decide to stop at an abandoned Insane Asylum for a lark. Lurking inside the asylum is “The Coroner” a disfigured maniac who was once the lawyer and lover of Kiki’s deceased mother. At the same time the five teens decide to haunt the halls of the asylum, a quasi-punk band named Tina and the Tots is filling the corridors with their discordant strains. What first appears to the be strife between the kids and the girly band turns out to be a fight for their lives as “The Coroner” is soon stalking each young person and killing them with the “tools of his trade”.
This is a bad movie, and it might serve you better to watch the interview segment in the extras menu first, because once you know how this film was made and why, you may have a bit more kindness in your heart. I first saw this on vhs in the early 1990s and thought it to be very low-brow entertainment, but entertainment none-the-less. Made for less than $100,000 and with the express purpose of showing loads of gore and some nudity too, DOOM ASYLUM is a direct descendant of films like BLOOD FEAST, brought to the world by Dave Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis. It is an updated form of the exploitation cinema of the 1960s and 1970s and it can’t be anything else but a “bad movie”. What is different about my experience this time around is I was watching the “uncut” version. It seems that when DOOM ASYLUM was licensed for release, a fair chunk of the original hit the cutting room floor. Code Red’s release of DOOM ASYLUM may be one of the only times this film was ever seen in its entirety.
DOOM ASYLUM has just as many strengths as it does weaknesses. Yes, the “story” is very thin, hackneyed, choppy as hell and stuffed with filler in the form of many black & white Tod Slaughter film clips meant to pad out the run time and add some extra comedic appeal. If you like old black & white thriller serials, you will probably like the inserted Tod Slaughter filler and appreciate it for what it is, despite the fact that the roughly 1-2 minute long clips brusquely hijack the forward momentum of the “story” and make what was already a painfully punishing plot a little more plodding. Be that as it may, the real story is just as much slapstick comedy as it is a horror film. Each character is a caricature in extremis and their lines are carefully chosen to be as absurd and ludicrous as possible. For those who prefer their humor to be more subtle and “tough in cheek”, this brand of “hilarity” may be grating, but there are a few laughs along the way, especially when “hunky” Mike gets pounded by Tina and pummeled by Kiki. Whether it was planned or coincidence, “The Coroner’s” laugh sounds so much like the hiss of Muttley, the sidekick of Snidely Whiplash that I couldn’t resist my own chuckle every now and then.
From the visual standpoint, there are some things to like about DOOM ASYLUM too. Despite being shot in a fairly amateurish fashion by men with little money in their pockets and not a lot more experience, setting this film in an actual abandoned insane asylum with real crumbling walls, peeling paint and scabrous artifacts delivers an authenticity few films can ever achieve. While the producers were not able to really deliver on the amount of nudity they would have liked to have provided, you do get to see Patty Mullen (star of FRANKENHOOKER and ex-Penthouse Pet) jiggle her delightful gifts about in a tiny red bikini and equally scarlet high heels for almost the entire film. A very young Kristin Davis (Melrose Place and Sex and the City) is paraded about in as nearly a revealing blue one-piece. That leaves Ruth Collins (a B-Movie starlet with a long list of gems like PRIME EVIL and LURKERS) to strut her stuff in a skimpy, see-though mini-skirt, thigh-high boots and a torpedo bustier to be the only actress who actually shows some skin, which she does briefly but impressively. For those who want gore, all manner of sadistic killings are visited upon the victims, from drills, to saws, to tongs and acid, but it is all done with a smile. There is none of the misery-inducing realism of modern “torture porn”, and for that let us be glad. All of the “special effects” are pretty minimal quality, but there is an innocence and charm to the “high school art class” feel of the effects efforts, knowing how little cash and commodities the crew had to work with.
My only overarching criticism is the sound on DOOM ASYLUM. In some cases, music substitutions seem to have been made. In other cases, it feels like foley effects were also added and/or sound mix changes were made so that there are all manner of very distracting and grating audio elements that have been inserted. While my memory of watching DOOM ASYLUM around 1990 is very hazy, I don’t seem to recall any of those audio effects, and I’m sure I would have considering that my hearing was considerably stronger then. If I am hearing things I don’t recall and don’t like now, that isn’t a good sign.
While DOOM ASYLUM isn’t jammed packed with a wide variety of extras, what it does have is VERY worthwhile. There is a very enjoyable audio commentary with director Richard Friedman and production manager Bill Tasgal. Friedman and Tasgal are heard from again, along with executive producer Alex Kogan Jr. in a wonderful interview segment that helps lay bare the past of this film and its place in the 80s independent horror movie market. There is also a large and diverse Code Red trailers vault with all manner of goodness to be had. I watched the trailers first, loving that sort of thing as I do, and it probably put me into a more tolerant mood. I would suggest watching the trailers, and then watch the interview, followed by the feature itself. If you like to know something about the why and the how first, it will serve you well to go into DOOM ASYLUM girded with as much of the armor of truth as you can.
DOOM ASYLUM isn’t a good film, but it was made by people with a vision, small though it may have been, and it is now a part of film history, obscure as it may be. When I look back on the late 80s, it is with very mixed emotions. I thoroughly enjoyed the alternative music scene, for it kept me from having to projectile vomit every five minutes due to the popularity of the “hair bands”. The “Miami Vice” style of fashions that swept me away in the mid 80s were giving way to some of the “dance party and rap party” fashions that I loathed. I devoured low budget horror in the late 80s as a younger man who really didn’t know any better and although bolting bad fare can sour one’s stomach, I braved all manner of indigestion during those years and look at where it got me! Still, my trip down “amnesia lane” was meaningful. I got to slip back to a time that my addled brain may call “better” but I know otherwise. It offered me a chance to make comparisons with low budget films of then and now and reinforce for me that films then were done with a wink and a smile and are infinitely superior to the mean spirited filth we have to endure today. Finally, if we don’t preserve our past, even flawed examples like DOOM ASYLUM, who will? Being able to see the lovely Patty Mullen in all her colorful and curvaceous charm again was worth a few groans.
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
When you open a box of Fruit Loops and pour out a bowl, you expect a consistent product. After each succeeding instance when you finish that last spoonful, the Fruit Loops lover is thankful for the manufacturer’s adherence to its formula and thus the consumer’s ability to predict the outcome of their experience. In most cases people want to feel secure in their ability to predict their involvement with a tried and true formula. However, being predictable and formulaic is not always a good thing. In the creative world of literature and film, predictability and dependence on a formula can be tiresome and seem beastly dull. For a motion picture like HYBRID, which has its roots as a TV movie, being formulaic and predictable is both a blessing and a curse.
HYBRID is the story of Aaron played by Corey Monteith, a security guard at a water treatment plant, whose bravery in trying to save a co-worker costs him his eyesight. Enter Dr. Hewlitt, played by Justine Bateman, who is a brilliant but overly ambitious research scientist for Olaris Labs. Dr. Hewlitt is able to save Aaron’s sight by replacing his eyes with those of a wolf. Enter Lydia, played by Tinsel Korey, a fiery young Assiniboine woman who found an injured wolf and worked to save its life, only to see it donated to Olaris Labs. Her efforts to find out why the wolf was so inhumanly sacrificed causes her path to cross with Aaron, whose organ transplant has gone horribly wrong. Dr. Hewlitt tries to help Aaron, but she finds that events are spinning out of control as the clout that put up the money for her research want Aaron for their own nefarious purposes. A race ensues to save Aaron from unscrupulous persons and from his newly grafted nature and it is only those who truly understand the powers at work inside Aaron’s soul who can truly help.
From the minute this film began with its images of wolf packs, to the scenes of the research labs at Olaris, to the views of Aaron’s job overseeing safety/security at the plant, the future direction of this film, the plot twists it was going to use and the way the characters were going to be employed and developed was absolutely transparent. When the armed forces and the Assiniboine peoples were added, the story did not become more complex and challenging, rather it became even more evident where it would go and how it would end, especially as I kept in mind its TV movie background. There was even an unneeded romance inserted into the narrative, something that Hollywood likes to add to increase the formulaic nature of its films, but often does not contribute any more drama, just as this addition did nothing to intensify the conflict or improve characterization. There wasn’t a moment in HYBRID where it wasn’t entirely unsurprising and thoroughly enslaved to a formula going back to the earliest days of cinema. HYBRID was not boring, unpleasant or worthless, it was just predictable and formulaic and depending on your tastes and expectations, that may or may not be a bad thing. I had no problem with the story being centered upon a contrast between Native American beliefs and avaricious military aims, nor did I have a problem with Aaron’s character being an unwitting and eventually poignant pawn in the machinations of others. Both are worthwhile focal points and I am always going to feel a sense of kinship with a character that has a French-Native American background fighting for what’s right against soulless monsters using others in their power-hungry games. Going back to a well that has unacceptable tasting water isn’t a stupid thing to do just because you do it over and over again. It just won’t be terribly original and eye-opening and that is exactly the nature of HYBRID.
On the positive side, like so many of the Sci-Fi or RHI-TV films I have watched and/or reviewed, HYBRID looked good. It was fairly well shot in that it was well lit, properly framed and when it utilized hand-held cameras, that method was thoughtfully employed and was not done with “artistic license” or “creative flair” like an unwatchable Paul Greengrass film would be. While there were stretches of the film that felt like “filler” was added to pad out its run time to feature length, most of HYBRID’s “filler” was inserted to build a sense of mystery and mythos. I applaud that effort because the predictably politically-correct nature of the narrative depended on a sense of Native American mystery and without it, HYBRID would have felt terrifically hokey. Corey Monteith gives a very sincere performance in a very challenging role. Playing a man whose mind is slowly being transformed into a mix of man and wolf would be very difficult to keep from being miserably cheesy, but somehow Mr. Monteith pulls it off. In addition, Tinsel Korey works hard to be an angry, fiery yet sympathetic character and does it while cutting an impressive figure of exotic sex appeal. While neither Mr. Monteith or Miss Korey are seasoned and supremely gifted actors, their earnest efforts and genuine chemistry keep HYBRID from being a mess even if it is predictable and formulaic.
HYBRID has its weaknesses beyond being a simplistic roadmap. In any TV movie, cash is going to be tight and the purse strings need to be handled with care. Except for casting Justine Bateman in the role of Dr. Hewlitt, most of the rest of the cast are unknowns, and there is a reason for that, it doesn’t cost that much. Except for the performances of the lead roles, the acting in HYBRID is pretty weak. I’ve certainly seen worse, and I didn’t feel like laughing, but I did wince every now and then. Added to the insufficient acting quality was a screenplay that was swamped with overly simple and even awkward dialogue. All through the 1970s, TV movies were a staple during the broadcast day and I watched as many of them as I could. The two things that often separated a good TV movie from a mediocre or bad one was surprisingly solid writing and even more surprisingly strong performances throughout the cast. When the acting and the writing of a TV movie aren’t up to snuff, it comes across as feeling “cheap” as opposed to just being “inexpensive”, kind of like when you bought that “no name” candy bar instead of paying the extra dime and getting the Milky Way. A final strike against HYBRID was its film score that usually had ideally placed incidental music to highlight the difference in mood between the “natural and native ways” and the “mechanistic and immoral methods”. Joined to this score was an oft-used rap song called Look by Sketch Williams that just didn’t fit this film. While I am not a fan of rap, if the story centers on urban youth or deals with rap culture, adding such music makes sense. When the themes of this film are those that depend upon the juxtaposition of Native American culture and the military-industrial complex, a rap song doesn’t make sense, feels like it is a marketing ploy to attract young people or at least pander to them and in the end it dilutes the product and weakens its outcome.
Another weakness of this dvd is that there is a total lack of an extras menu. There is an auto-play medley of Maneater Series trailers before the general menu and then the viewer has the option of “play movie” or “scene selections” and that is ALL! Nothing screams cheap more than a bare bones disc. After watching a recent horror film dealing Samoan culture, part of the goodwill that was engendered in me by that experience was learning more about the cast, crew, rationale, means & ways and reflections upon the movie-making process and how the cultural elements of the film were interwoven. Like Genius Products’ other film dealing with Native American culture, EYE OF THE BEAST, to make a film in the modern era borrowing ideas from the legends and myths of the Native People and not giving something back feels like exploitation in the worst sense of the word as it applies to cinema. In addition, letting young cast and crew members talk about their experiences gives them another platform on which to build their careers, or at least it seems that way. In any case, giving the buyer a little something in the extras menu makes them feel like their money has been well spent. In this miserable economy, producers and distributors should keep that in mind as the dvd market becomes even tighter and more competitive.
HYBRID was not a bad film, it was just unspectacular and it felt like a walk through the park that I’ve taken one too many times. I don’t need every one of my movie experiences to be so thoroughly unpredictable and unique that my soul sings every time I slip a disc into my dvd player, but I want the time to feel like it was well spent. HYBRID wasn’t a soul-sucking experience that left me angry and soiled, it wasn’t even boring where I struggled to stay awake or watched the clock like a hawk, it was like grape soda. I like grape soda, but once you’ve had one, you’ve had them all. There just doesn’t seem like there is a way to make grape soda any different from the age-old recipe. HYBRID felt like a lot of other films I’ve seen and I just couldn’t shake the feeling “been there, done that”. I hate that trite and overused phrase, but it seems to fit HYBRID like a glove. Sorry, I can’t seem to stop using these formulaic phrases that just keep spilling out of me like water. Well, I guess there’s no use crying over spilled milk.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Was there ever a movie monster as compelling as the werewolf? There are so many things to like about lycanthropes and for that reason, time and again they continue to be the hairy heart of horror films. They can tear through a village causing just as much bloody mayhem as a vampire. Like vampires, they have super strength and seem to have the life eternal. While neither is indestructible, they are both pretty damn hard to kill too. Unlike vampires, they can return to their original persona and blend in with decent society for the respite between full moons. Like vampires, there seems to be a suaveness and charm to the hirsute and ever-so-hip wolfman. Unlike vampires, once they’ve sated their bloodlust and the full moon wanes, they can curl up by the fire with a good book or sit by a mere sipping a fine wine. Vampires have to crawl back to their dank cellars and lock themselves inside their musty coffins, perpetuating a mildewy stench that must be impossible to dispel. Carlos Aured’s CURSE OF THE DEVIL is one of the more enjoyable additions to the Werewolf film canon, and with Spain’s urbane Paul Naschy playing the lead role, you know you’re in for a good time.
CURSE OF THE DEVIL is the story of Waldemar Daninsky, the Polish aristocrat who unknowingly stumbles into an age-old curse placed upon his family during the Middle Ages by the Bathorys, whom his ancestor destroyed during the Inquisitions that swept across Europe. Waldemar takes into his castle a young woman found by the roadside and in need of assistance. Little does he know that she is a cleverly concealed trap by which the Curse of the Wolf will be inflicted upon him. After her blood and a wolf skull’s fangs infect him with lycanthropy, Waldemar is cursed to stalk the night in search of blood and flesh to sate his hungers. It is only the love of a young woman named Kinga Wilowa that offers Waldemar any hope of saving his soul and the villagers from further bloody rampages.
If you are looking for an intensely technological examination of the strengths of the new BCI release over the older Anchor Bay disc, you won’t find it here. I will leave that to better versed technophiles like George Reis, who can do a far superior job of analyzing very precise elements of the new dvd. Please read his review of this film and WEREWOLF SHADOW, which I previously reviewed. I would rather turn my lyrical talents towards praising this fine old gem and why I had such a good recent experience.
CURSE OF THE DEVIL has a fairly straightforward story built around a plot structure that Paul Naschy used time and again in his movies. The film starts with scenes from the ancestry of Mr. Naschy’s character, only to jump into the present or the recent past where the main storyline commences. In the case of CURSE, we shift from the height of Medieval times to the 19th Century. After that, with one non-linear plot device exception, the rest of the narrative is fairly standard as Naschy’s character goes through the stages of having the curse inflicted upon him, not understanding his curse, denying the curse, despairing over the curse, facing up to the curse and then meeting his doom. Along the way, he makes friends, finds love, deals with lust, betrays and/or slays friends and finds his fate. Naschy’s penning of the screenplay was not terribly original. What makes this film a lot of fun are all the visual elements that make the story come alive.
Having seen many Paul Naschy films and several of his werewolf performances, this is one of the most engaging. While his chemistry with Kinga, played by Fabiola Falcon, is not as dynamic as say that of Gaby Fuchs in WEREWOLF SHADOW, Naschy’s performance as the werewolf himself was superb. Between the excellent makeup and the infernal majesty of Paul Naschy, the undeniable aura of power and pandemonium that exudes from his wolfman is mesmeric. In addition, we SEE the werewolf often in this story and he slashes his way through the town of Sibelunka with style. Whether it’s leaping from tree tops, running along the castle parapets, soaring over banisters or stalking through the forest undergrowth, CURSE’S werewolf is a constant presence and an indubitable force. As for Naschy’s co-star, while not having beauty of Helga Line in HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, Fabiola Falcon has a stateliness and purity that radiates from her in such a way as to be a perfect contrast to the benighted Waldemar Daninsky. The rest of the cast give strong supporting performances as either superstition-wracked peasants, Doubting Thomases soon to be slain or fodder for the fangs of the Furry One.
CURSE OF THE DEVIL also looks and sounds good. Set in a spectacular castle surrounded by an idyllic countryside, this film really feels like it takes place in the Carpathians and wasn’t just shot somewhere off the beaten path in Naschy’s native Spain. Special attention was given to interior set props, costuming and camera angles so that every scene is lavish and lovely. When the camera turns to exteriors, whether it is day or night, mood is the focus and the atmosphere is palpable. There are sparkling streams and winsome waterfalls juxtaposed with sylvan glades when the mood needs to be tranquil. When malevolence is required, full moons glare down over formidable castle walls or they illuminate shadowy woods filled with hidden purpose and menace. Add to that a simple but well chosen orchestral score that feels like it was played by a 19th Century ensemble, and there is more than enough to make up for the somewhat predictable storyline.
What also adds to the impact of this film is that you can chose between the English dubbed track and the Castilian audio track. For me, there is never any choice and my enjoyment of this film was immeasurably increased by being able to hear Mr. Naschy’s native language fall upon my ears. While there are times when the Castilian audio track is a little crackly or the sound mix is inconsistent, I’ll take that over English dubbing any day. While Anchor Bay’s original release of CURSE was very well done, they used an English dubbed track that is one of the worst I have ever heard and there is no question those voices ripped pleasure from my soul faster than the hummingbird’s wings could beat. This time, no such larceny took place.
As with WEREWOLF SHADOW, the extras menu is a little thinner than one would hope for, but then again, how many Paul Naschy interviews can there be? In addition to the two audio tracks, there are two trailers, one in Castilian and one in English. There is a sizable stills gallery which has a mix of color and black and white publicity stills, behind the scenes stills, screen grabs and a few examples of poster art. As always, there is the outstanding liner notes booklet by Mirek Lipinski. If you overlook these notes, a fair percentage of your appreciation of this dvd will be lost.
As long as I live, I hope film makers will continue to mine the rich vein that is the werewolf story. While I am intrigued that a new film about The Wolfman starring Benicio Del Toro will soon hit theaters, I would prefer that it is not mainstream Hollywood that provides us with updated fare. Maybe Guillermo Del Toro will make a new werewolf film, or possibly Daniel Myrick. Since werewolves are debonair, effete and charismatic, I would prefer to see people who can bring those same qualities to werewolf films, just as Paul Naschy did throughout most of the 1970s. If you haven’t seen CURSE OF THE DEVIL, treat yourself. If you have seen it, what are you waiting for? See it again as I did, revel in the animal magnetism of The Master, then go out and howl at the moon until your neighbor throws a boot at you.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
As I get older, I realize that many things that once brought me delight have begun to pale. Food has lost its zip and sometimes tastes like ashes in my mouth. Modern television seems dull and tired at best, more often it is crass and boorish, driving me into the arms of the classic shows that I still love, but even they are losing their zest. Most music doesn’t hold the draw for me that it once did, and it is only occasionally that a band can really make my blood sing. Sometimes not even a morning out on my boat or even a walk through an arboretum is able to soothe my soul like was once the case. I suspect that it is a phase of aging I am passing through and I hope that there is an end to this tunnel down which I must grope. One bright spot in the long dark is unearthing something old that feels new again, and one recent discovery I have made would be WEREWOLF SHADOW (aka THE WEREWOLF vs. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN), which I have seen in many forms and guises over the years. All of my past experiences have been enjoyable, for Leon Klimovsky’s film is a classic of the Euro-Horror genre, but all of those viewings were marred by murky, oppressively dark or overexposed and/or damaged transfers, bad sound and terrible dubbing. It was only when Anchor Bay delivered quality remasterings of this film a few years ago that Americans really got a chance to see WEREWOLF SHADOW in a proper format. Now, BCI Eclipse/Deimos dvd have brought out the WEREWOLF SHADOW the way it has always meant to be seen with enhanced visual components and an audio track that is appropriate to its original language.
WEREWOLF SHADOW is the story of Waldemar Daninsky, a cursed aristocrat who carries the Mark of The Werewolf. In an attempt to evade the bloodlust of his curse, Daninsky hides in an old manor deep in the remote French countryside. It is there that he is discovered by two beautiful young women, Elvira and Genevieve, who are researching the history of Black Magic and are specifically looking for the resting place of Countess Wandessa, a 15th Century Witch and Vampire. With Daninsky’s assistance, the women unwittingly awaken Wandessa at exactly the moment when she can summon the power of Satan on the Night of Walpurgis. As one evil contests another and unselfish love is intertwined with lust and desire, blood flows like vintage wine and souls become the prize in a battle like no other, between werewolf and vampire.
If you are looking for a deeply technical exploration of the advantages of the new BCI release over the older Anchor Bay disc, you won’t find it here. I will leave that to better versed technophiles like George Reis, who can do a better job of analyzing very specific characteristics of the new dvd. Please read his review of this film and CURSE OF THE DEVIL, which I will be reviewing soon. I would rather turn my lyrical talents towards praising this fine old gem and why I had such a good recent experience.
Leon Klimovsky knew how to make a film and WEREWOLF SHADOW is arguably one of his best. It is atmospheric, filled with misty country sides, dark corridors, shadowy woods, beautiful actresses and exotic scenery. Add to that, werewolves and vampires tearing open the throats of simple villagers, black rites and sinister sorcery aimed at Satanic Supremacy and you’ve got a masterful mix of malevolence. To see all this clearly, with sharp contrasts between light and shadow and bright colors fully restored makes the experience even more pleasant. What makes BCI’s WEREWOLF SHADOW an ascendant apex of enjoyment is hearing the original Castilian language track augmented with English subtitles. Some people prefer a film to be dubbed, and while I usually say, “To each his own”, in this case I just can’t see the appeal. Like all of the Romance Languages, Spanish is simply lovely to listen to and to have that sonorous speech blended with the outstanding imagery in scene after scene makes this a truly transcendent horror experience. For those who want to revel in a muddy, dubbed and unpleasant viewing, the U.S. version of THE WEREWOLF vs. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN is available as part of the extras menu, but why bother? Expend a little effort reading the subtitles and let the sites and sounds of this masterwork flow over you in resplendent rivers of hue and resonance.
Speaking of the extras menu, while WEREWOLF SHADOW is not crammed to the gills with goodies galore, it does have its charming little tidbits. In addition to the afore mentioned alternate U.S. cut of the film, there is the theatrical trailer and a sizable stills gallery which is a mix of poster art, behind the scenes photography, publicity stills and screen grabs. Most enjoyable of all continues to be the liner notes by Mirek Lipinski. I have read each and every one of his liner notes from BCI Spanish horror films that have crossed my path, and they are always well written, engaging and worthwhile. I have learned much from his writings and no longer feel the want of knowledge that I may not have been able to so easily access. It is hoped that Mirek Lipinski’s writings will continue to grace the inside of future Euro-Horror releases. They make the entire experience far more erudite.
It has been rumored that no more of these Spanish Horror Special Editions will be forthcoming from BCI Eclipse/Deimos dvd. If that is the case, it is a tragedy. For those of us who remember the miserable condition in which these films were presented on VHS and in their first editions on dvd, no one wants to return to those days or see badly authored bootlegs show up on line or in stores. While watching this version of WEREWOLF SHADOW, for a brief spell, the sites and sounds were as fresh and intoxicating as when I first looked on such things as a youngster going the movie theater. I want that kind of experience to continue. I want to be able to pop an older film like WEREWOLF SHADOW or HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB or NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS into my dvd player and have it all seem unsullied and clean again. I know I can never go back to simpler times in my life, but I long for it none-the-less. The essence of most film experiences especially that of horror, is escape. Not only do I seek escape mentally, I seek for my earthbound soul to bet set free and travel to times and places where anything seemed possible and the future was bright with promise. Seeing WEREWOLF SHADOW, in essence for the first time, allowed me a brief respite from the slough of despond. It is hoped that other people will feel similar emotions so that BCI Eclipse/Deimos dvd will continue to bring forth other brimming cups from the Fountain of Youth.
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
How and when did “softcore” films really begin? That is probably an unanswerable question. Most likely, “softcore” grew out of the sex-ploitation films of the 1960s. However, there is just as much evidence that they emerged out of the porno-chic film trend of the mid-1970s. Whatever their origin, by the late 1970s the “softcore” film “revolution” was in high gear, bringing loads of bare skin and simulated sex first to theaters in an acceptable form, then flooding the nascent video market with easily obtainable sleaze. Today, it is hard to believe that there is still such a thing as “softcore” film, but it is still out there. However, today’s “softcore” is done on the cheap, with very little sense of style and with none of the flair of the past efforts. Originally titled CARIBBEAN PAPAYA or Papaya dei Caraibi, Severin Films’ release of PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS is an example of classic “softcore” film-making from a vanished era. While PAPAYA may not be able to make up its mind what story it wanted to tell or even how to tell it, it is “softcore” through and through and worth a look for those who want to see how it was done once upon a time.
PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS is the story of a reporter named Sara (Sirpa Lane), who meets up with a friend named Vincent (Maurice Polie) at a Caribbean resort. Vincent is a nuclear scientist building a reactor in an idyllic local town despite the protest of the villagers. Before long, Sarah and Vincent become involved with a hypnotic beauty named “Papaya” and her friends Luis and Ramon. Both Sara and Vincent find it impossible to resist the allure of “Papaya” and using her matchless and intoxicating charm, she embroils the two outsiders in the machinations of the villagers and their efforts to rid the island of the nuclear power plant.
When PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS begins with its liberal dose of pristine tropical beaches, nudity and violence, you think you are going to get a classic exploitation film. As the “story” continues to unfold, Sirpa Lane’s naked body is unsubtly splashed across the screen even a thinly spun “spy caper” yarn is mixed like margaritas. Dreamlike native rites and exotic locales awkwardly blended with very modern disco and funk musical scores are used to heighten the “drama” as Sara and Vincent follow leads and lures through West Indies streets and dwellings searching for answers. Passion and politics combine to create a deadly cocktail that neither can resist. Throughout this journey, the viewers’ eyes are bombarded with tropical colors and sensual music that would have fit right into any dance club of the era, as well as skin galore, all combined in such a way to distract you from the fact that the “story” still doesn’t know where it wants to go. Is it an anti-nuclear power drama? Maybe PAPAYA is a sexy musical/political caper? Possibly PAPAYA just wants to be a wacky sex-capade but can’t because of the serious undertones. In the end, PAPAYA is all of these things and in its last acts, it even tries to be moralizing so that rationale for Sara’s “defection” can be explained. If you try to make serious sense out this film, you are wasting your time, just as Joe D’Amato wasted his time building in suspenseful elements and a sober theme. That is not why people went to see this film or rented it on VHS 30 years ago or why people would buy the DVD now. This film is all about delighting the senses.
Whether it has been a good or a bad film, Severin Films has done an admirable job of resurrecting forgotten relics like PAPAYA and has made them look and sound great. From the opening scenes on a sun-drenched beach to the closing cliffs on a hot summer’s day, PAPAYA is colorful and sensuous. Filmed on location in the Dominican Republic and shot care so as to look authentic, lush and lascivious, PAPAYA is not about thinking, it is about feeling. Whether it is the sweat beading on the actress’s skin from the tropical heat or the salty spray entwined in their lovely locks, we are meant to be there with them, enjoying fresh sea breezes through the gauzy mosquito netting or inhaling the aroma of jungle orchids lain on sacrificial stones. Throughout this sultry adventure, there are two constants: the often nude figures of Sirpa Lane and “Melissa” aka Melissa Chimenti who plays “Papaya” and funky music that is even laid over the strains of local bands and parades. The music and the skin are what give this film its truly “softcore” essence. Since there are long stretches where the story tries to reassert itself and an escalation of “drama” occurs, a viewer may feel brief dislocation and forget that this is a sex film for a few minutes. Never fear, it won’t be long before one of the two beauties disrobes and the slow, sonorous strains of disco swell up and you’re back in the realm of “softcore” again. Great care was given to the look, sound and feel of PAPAYA, something that is often totally lacking from modern “softcore” films. It is for that reason and that reason only that PAPAYA is worth a look. There are much better films with more compelling stories and finer camera work. As a look back at “softcore” of yore, PAPAYA is VANESSA and other erotic cinema. It is a look at a time when film makers wanted their sex wrapped in an exotic packaging to make it more appealing and acceptable to the public. Nobody cares about the packaging today, it is simply “bring on the boobs”.
Watching PAPAYA is not a revelatory experience, it is more like drinking a daiquiri, once you’ve had one, you’ve got a good idea what they are all like. However, if the bartender puts a little more care into your daiquiri, it’s delivered by a fresh-faced beauty with a bright smile and a sparkle in her eye and you’re sitting in a tavern with some atmosphere, a pleasant experience can be had. Go into PAPAYA with the feeling that you’re going to get a nice mixed drink and nothing more, and a good time can be had.
To my great surprise, PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS has a bare bones extras menu. With the exception of the theatrical trailer, there is nothing else to be had. My other experiences with Severin Films discs has been either extras menus that surprisingly deep or at least rewarding, but here there is an empty cupboard. Possibly this is the result of many of the cast and crew of this film either disappearing into the mists of time, or in the case of Sirpa Lane and Joe D’Amato, passed on to another plane of existence. Since PAPAYA was a somewhat unknown sex film, it is likely that no “behind the scenes” footage or time capsule work was done. The onus was on shooting the scenes, editing the film, distributing it and then hopefully making some cash. For whatever the reason, it is a shame that nothing could be presented. Seeing inside the mind of the cast and crew on any exploitation film is always a treat and when that isn’t possible, it little more of first account history is lost and the past recedes further into myth and legend.
I feel a sense of sheer incredulity when people talk of the 1970s as being a long time ago, and here it is 30 years since the making of PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS (aka CARIBBEAN PAPAYA). Preserving this film as an example of “softcore” from another time is one reason I am glad that Severin Films made the effort. Getting a chance to gently glory in exotic sites and sounds is another. I really wasn’t swept away by the sexuality of PAPAYA, my tastes tend to run to the even more quaint “nudie cutie” films of the early 1960s, but there is no denying its pre-“nip/tuck” appeal. Don a garish polyester print shirt, knock back a “seabreeze” (a cape-codder with grapefruit juice for those who have forgotten) or two and then put on some boogie shoes because that is the destination where and when PAPAYA will take you.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Like them or not, tattoos are a form of art that have steadily become more compelling and intricate over time. Whether they are created using ancient tools and techniques or with the newest technology and inks, tattoos are often like some of the great surrealistic paintings, the more you look at them the more there is to see. Like a Dali or a Pollock, there is a profundity to tattoo art that challenges the eye to find deeper imagery and see the connections between form, function and concept. THE TATTOOIST is a lot like the skin art that this film depicts. At first glance it seems fairly innocuous, but after a degree of contemplation, there is a little more than meets the eye and some very worthwhile elements to this “horror” film.
THE TATTOOIST is the story of Jake Sawyer, a young man with a troubled past who drifts from one exotic locale to another, plying his art on the bodies of those who believe his charlatan’s tale that tattoos can bring healing. In Singapore, Jake steals an authentic Samoan tattooing tool, with which he has an accident. Unwittingly, Jake has loosed an angry and vengeful spirit through his avarice and recklessness, and this spirit begins preying upon Jake’s customers once he arrives in New Zealand, searching for the Samoan family from which he stole the cursed tool. As more gruesome deaths occur, Jake knows that time is running out for those who have received his designs, and if he cannot find the answers, people will die who he really cares for.
THE TATTOIST begins as a fairly straightforward tale of “unknowing clod stumbles upon haunted item and unleashes a curse” and had it stayed that way, this film would have been unremarkable at best. Even worse, I worried for a while that the main thrust of the film was going to be “only the gifted white man-outsider can save the aboriginals from themselves”, which is SUCH a tired and disgusting western story device, but it didn’t go that way either. All of the characters are flawed in one manner or another and those flaws are forced to the surface in a screenplay where no one can run from their past mistakes. This forces cooperation and trust and makes Jake’s presence an agreeable addition and not a prejudiced mistake. After a very patient rising action in which Jake’s story is nicely interwoven with real Samoan cultural myths and legends and juxtaposed with real New Zealand locales and actors, the plot begins to combine ghost story and detective tale components with some not so subtle but effective romance elements with some very enjoyable twists involving secrets, lies, shame and revenge. What emerges is a narrative that gathers momentum over the last half of the picture and while not totally surprising is at least rewarding as a cultural myth and human drama. Some of the best qualities of this film are its authentic portrayal of ancient and modern Samoan customs, art and traditions. While this downplays some of the horror aspects of the plot, it uplifts the dramatic nature of the film, and end result is a somewhat more complex movie that gives westerners another South Pacific theatrical experience distantly akin to recent films like WHALE RIDER or THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN. Since it reaches beyond its genre and becomes just as valuable as a cultural tale, THE TATTOOIST becomes a bit more significant film.
In addition to the surprisingly worthy narrative, the direction and acting of THE TATTOOIST merit examination too. Most of the performances are understated but competent, and in a film like this where the onus is on the customs and the curse, that is a benefit. I expected the youthful looking and handsome Jason Behr to be little more than female eye-candy and give a wooden performance, but he slid into his role well. One of the great surprises of the film was the character of Sina, played by Mia Blake. Her cool, languorous glamour and kind-hearted eyes and smile were a nice complement to Jake’s western “bad boy” look and appeal. On the visual side, Peter Burger’s direction was more than competent and bordered on strong. Burger’s careful and well considered use of light and shadow, his patient use of slow pans and longer holds on scenes allows the viewer to see what is happening and sense the growth of atmosphere. While the scenes involving “the ghost” of this film are usually dark and rapidly edited sequences of shots where “the ghost” can’t easily be observed until late in the film, that is not only acceptable, but part of the plan. This spirit is supposed to be something seen only out of the corner of one’s eye or in the subtle angle of a pane of glass. It is only after the mystery is solved and the menace is unmasked that we see clearly what has been haunting Jake’s footsteps.
THE TATTOIST is not without its weaknesses. As I stated earlier, the initial stages of the rising action were patient. Some might find them slow, but they will miss the point of the cultural references if they tune out. I am not a fan of rap music or rap culture and it may very well be that both have penetrated deep into daily New Zealand life, but the addition of both elements, especially to one of the climactic scenes did not win any points with me. The “magic kid” with the “essential knowledge” needed to defeat the evil is also a worn out plot device. That he was part of the rap component of the narrative also struck a nerve in the wrong way. Finally, whether it was the sound mixing of the rap music with the New Zealand accents, some of the dialogue was difficult to understand and I had to engage the subtitle function to be sure what was said. If I can understand the richly varied accent from 70s episodes of DR. WHO and ARE YOU BEING SERVED, I suspect that sound mixing may have been the culprit.
What helped to make up for these lacks was the wonderful collection of extras on this disc. There is a decent audio commentary track with director Peter Burger and actor Jason Behr. There are also three deleted scenes, all roughly one to two minutes in length. There is also a huge vault of Sony trailers. The real jewel is the “featurettes” folder where you can enjoy an 11 ½ minute “The Tattooist: Behind the Scenes” feature which is a mix of interviews with cast and crew augmented with film clips that gives you some background on the film’s creation and production. Next is a 2 ½ minute feature called “Behind the Tattoo Designs” showing the makeup process of creating and applying the film’s tattoos. After that is a fascinating 2 ½ minute interview with director Peter Burger called “Colors of The Tattooist”, which helped to validate my suspicion as to why certain colors where used in a certain manner throughout the film. Having watched that featurette, I sincerely hope that Peter Burger knows something of the great director Mario Bava, for there was no one who used color like he did. Following the “color” feature is a 3 ½ minute feature called “Real Life Samoan Tattoo” in which a Samoan islander is interviewed and filmed during his tribal tattooing sessions. Last, there is the 2 minute piece “Becoming a Chief” which had already been touched on in the initial “Behind the Scenes” feature and seemed fairly redundant. In the end, this set of compelling extras lifted my respect for THE TATTOOIST appreciably and left me with a growing esteem for the film maker and crew.
While not a ground-breaking horror film, THE TATTOOIST is worth your time. Taking a horror film to New Zealand and mixing the story with Samoan myths, legends, customs and cultural icons is a new direction and for that let us be glad. So many films in the horror genre are unspectacular, unappealing, unattractive and indigestible. When something comes along that has some valuable characteristics wrapped up in the usually bland packaging, it is a pleasant surprise. I can only hope that Peter Burger is going to be an “up and coming” force in the film world and will lend his talents to other worthy projects that will enrich the horror canon. We certainly could use more people like that.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
The opening scene of SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES begins with, “I am Simon and I live in a storm drain”. From that moment onward, you know you are in for an atypical experience. Then, when you look at the dvd case and see that this film was released in 1971 during the zenith of the counterculture movement and the mod-expressionistic years, you know that your viewing experience will be more than atypical or just a trip back to a less inhibited and more freethinking time, it will be slightly mind-bending. That was the essence of the those years of film-making between 1967 and 1973, whether it was science fiction films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or horror-dramas like MEPHISTO WALTZ or social commentary like THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, the message was wrapped in a packaging like nothing we’ve seen since. In the end, that more interesting wrapping is of benefit to SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, once the viewer realizes that they really aren’t watching a horror film.
SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES is the story of Simon Sinestrari, a contemporary mage floating aimlessly from home to home, but purposefully picking his way from wealthy parties to occult gatherings in search of a living and the furtherance of his quest for supernatural ascendancy. In his travels, Simon meets a young drifter named Turk who becomes somewhat of an acolyte and who introduces Simon to wealthy and dissolute Hercules, the lord of hedonistic parties. It is at one of his soirees that Simon meets Linda, the spaced-out, pill-popping daughter of the District Attorney. Just as Simon is preparing for some momentous occult machinations, he becomes embroiled in a city-wide drug conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of authority. As magic becomes entwined with governmental power, even the most carefully considered divinations can go horribly awry for all those drawn into Simon’s web.
It doesn’t take long before any serious horror lover realizes that SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES is something else, but that is quite alright. Between its authentic 1970s settings and fashions, its focus on the metropolitan, affluent society’s fascination with counterculture and arcane occult power and the very subtly interwoven elements of humor, SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES is more of an urban fantasy liberally laced with sorcery trappings and the dynamic power of sexual energy. From the bright colors of the magical robes to the even brighter hues of the hallucinogenic special effects, this film is more about how it looks than what it says. With its beautifully restored transfer that magnifies the sharpness, brightness and color, that makes the experience that much more enjoyable. Much like people who were often advised when entering into a mind-warping chemical trip, “just go with it and see where it takes you”, the visual imagery and atmosphere of SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES just takes you on a pleasant and tangential ride.
Add to the eye-candy the performance of Andrew Prine and the very eclectic casting of Turk, Hercules and Linda, and the somewhat loose story that doesn’t seem to have a unifying conflict or theme is far more palatable. Andrew Prine was probably born to play this role. While he has had much more high profile roles in films and TV series like GETTYSBURG, V & V: THE FINAL BATTLE, and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, Mr. Prine had all the weapons necessary to make Simon his character eternally. Between his dark and forbidding stare and his commanding and erudite tones, he was believable as a devoted practitioner of the magical arts. Mixed with that dark side of his performance is a subtle humor in the delivery of his lines, but even more laugh-inducing were the expressions of his face that softened Simon and the entire story. Between his shaggy face and hair, his lean build carrying all manner of occult and garishly fashionable 70s garb, Mr. Prine truly became “the Today Witch”. As he interfaced with Turk (George Paulsin), who looked and sounded like some kind of an Ken-elf doll, the ostentatious and somehow unpleasant Hercules (Gerald York) and the lovely but vacuous Linda (Brenda Scott), the chemistry of these interchanges more than makes up for a story that isn’t all that compelling, certainly as a “horror” film but really more as a counterculture occult flick. There are much better “hippy” films, but few mix the ingredients in the witch’s cauldron with more flair than SIMON.
The extras menu of SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES is truly like opening the vault of sorceress. It may not be crammed with heaped treasures like that of a prince, but what is inside is very worthwhile. There is a 17 minute interview with Andrew Prine called “Simon Says”. Between that interview and the one minute easter egg where Mr. Prine talks about Simon’s magical threads, one can’t help but revel in his southern gentlemanly recollections and enjoy the yarns of an actor who has done a little of everything. His kind-hearted comments about colleagues and fond recollections of the early 1970s are especially charming. There is a 12 minute “Making White Magic” featurette with director Bruce Kessler that is also just as interesting. While Mr. Kessler’s anecdotes are also pleasing, his memories of shooting and production will delight technophiles. Considering that Mr. Kessler directed my favorite MONKEES episode, “Monkees at the Circus”, a treasured TV Movie from the 70s, CRUISE INTO TERROR and several episodes of the 80s better remembered action shows like THE A TEAM and RIPTIDE, talking to a guy with an impressive pedigree like that is a must! There is an attractively designed radio spot and what appears to be a TV spot trailer, both voiced-over by a guy with one of the most recognizable set of pipes there was from those days. Dark Sky Films almost always puts together a fine batch of goodies on their discs, but this one had some real gems.
SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES was not the finest movie-watching experience I’ve ever had, nor was it the most memorable, but it engaged my senses, made me smile, dug up a few reminiscences from the darker corners of my mind and left me feeling like I’d spent more than 2 hours in a meaningful manner. Thanks to a an eccentric but well-crafted performance by Mr. Andrew Prine, some solidly creative directing a film making by Bruce Kessler and a story that may not really make a lot of sense but winds past some interesting sights along the way, I can say that I’d be happy to pass this disc along to friends so that they too can trip the light semi-fantastic with Simon Sinestrari, Turk and Linda.
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
No matter how striking and flashy the special effects, or how talented and beautiful the actors and actresses, the story of any film is its backbone. You can have exotic or surreal filming locations and/or lavish costumes and an emotive musical score, but without a compelling tale that can be comprehended and internalized by the viewers, a movie is going to be somewhat or totally unsatisfying. Most films use a linear storyline, which progresses in a simplistic fashion but may have some unforeseen twists and turns along the way like PSYCHO or PLANET OF THE APES. Non-linear stories are a risky but sometimes very satisfying adventure, for they are complex, challenging and force the viewer to examine the film in new ways, as did THE VANISHING POINT or MEMENTO. Whether it is a standard storyline or one told in flashbacks or reverse sequence, in the end, the writer wants the viewers to arrive at a certain point and not get lost along the way. THE WIG is a film that has a very complex narrative told in a sometimes obscure but occasionally gripping manner that may not appeal to everyone, but in the end has some very worthwhile components.
THE WIG is the tale of two sisters, the older Jihyun and the younger Soo-hyun. Soo-Hyun is a terminal cancer patient languishing in the hospital, when it is decided to release her so that she can take pleasure in what remains of her life. Jihyun buys a wig for her bald sister so that some of her return to normalcy can be affected. It is not long before bizarre incidents begin and cracks in the sisterly bonds increase as Soo-hyun’s personality and even her appearance begins to change. As more unsettling events occur, Jihyun suspects that there is something sinister about the wig and tries to find out the truth before everyone who comes in contact with her sister ends up dead.
On the surface, it would seem that the tale of THE WIG is fairly simple and that the obvious premise would lead to a cohesive narrative, but that is not the case. One of the strangely compelling qualities of this film is the lack of dialogue. At times, it almost feels like a silent film since there are so many scenes where actions speak louder than words. The verbal interplay is fairly sparse over the first 60% of the movie and more time is spent developing the imagery, the mood and emotional landscape of the film. Interspersed with these softly modulated dramatic swells are small, inconsistent stabs of fear that are injected into the story. In the first two-thirds of the film, these frightening moments are less common and do not occur at regular intervals. As a result, some viewers might consider the pacing of THE WIG to be slow, but I found it to be patient, albeit almost to a fault. At no time did I find myself disliking the film, I was just unsure as to where it was headed as the path progressed. The ultimate direction of the film was obvious, but the screenplay writers clearly wanted the road to be as circuitous as possible, for the rising action is disjointed, the characters are disconnected emotionally, there are flashbacks, flash forwards, intensely destabilizing loops and twists that bring forth totally unexpected developments that cause the story no end of stress to its cohesiveness. In the end, the pace of the tale intensifies greatly over the last one-quarter of the film and you are brought to the point where you thought you’d be with a few shocks to the system along the way. While the end result may not have been totally satisfying, it did engage the emotions and the intellect.
What THE WIG does have is deeply engrossing imagery that is powerful, ominous, gloomy and unsettling. The camera work is very measured and patient, so that while the story may be convoluted, the imagery is created in such a way that you are given plenty of time to contemplate what you are seeing and what it means. When scenes are very dark and somewhat ambiguous, it is part of the purpose of blended story and atmosphere and is not simply vague-looking for darkness sake. Whether it is an emotionally deprived interior of the sisters’ house or a beach scene loaded with nostalgic wistfulness, a dance club that is somehow creepier than a slaughterhouse or the stark, antiseptic environs of a hospital, every set and scene is photographed with care. In addition to the unsettling imagery, THE WIG is filled with intense, but understated performances that magnify the truly dramatic moments when emotion gushes forth from the overburdened souls of these damaged and cursed people. In one scene, after a seemingly arbitrary tragedy occurs, Jihyun’s character, played by Seon Yu, is observed lying on a sofa with tears pouring down her alabaster face in the direction of her pure white turtleneck sweater, framed by her raven hair. When contrasted with a later scene when she is screeching like an injured banshee over the inert body of her sister in the hospital, the drama on the “feel-o-meter” goes rocketing upward in an unsettling fashion just as it should in any horror film. Min-seo Chae’s performance as Soo-hyun is quite impressive as she sways between the poles of being pathetic, winsome, manic and malevolent and each extreme is created with a calculated effort that makes Soo-hyun both accessible and repellent. Through the good offices of the photography team, the director and the actors, the weaknesses in THE WIG’s overly complex story are ameliorated to some degree.
As has been the case with several of CJ Entertainment’s Korean-made dvd offerings, there is a surprisingly deep extras menu to be enjoyed. There is a “Making of THE WIG” documentary, followed by two featurettes. One featurette explores the special effects efforts of THE WIG, while the other is a “behind the scenes” look at the creation of the film. While the general premise of these features is not all that imaginative, and most westerners will be unfamiliar with the cast and crew, a look at the production and creative teams of any film project are always a worthwhile journey. In addition, having the opportunity to compare and contrast Asian film-making techniques and life on the set with that of “the Hollywood experience” is always fascinating. Kudos has to be passed along to CJ Entertainment for their efforts at developing “grocer goodwill” with the western lovers of Asian horror cinema.
While I wish that THE WIG had been a little better paced and told in a slightly less choppy fashion, this was a thought-provoking film that left me contemplative and forced me to explore and examine its merits. That is always a good sign with me. If I immediately dismiss a film or worse yet rip it from the player unfinished, clearly the bar was set too low and the outcome was a filthy piece of sludge. Such was not the case with THE WIG. I liked what I saw, was moved in a visceral manner by the imagery and the performances and understood the final message of the screenwriters. I don’t think every narrative should be linear or simplistic, but I came out of THE WIG concerned that too many westerners may be unready or unwilling to apply the self-control necessary to savor the strengths of this subtle stew. Let’s hope that won’t be the case.
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Let us start this deeply intellectual review of DRAINIAC by expanding or refining our vocabularies.
Concept (noun) 1. A broad abstract idea or a guiding general principle affecting perception and behavior.
Execution (noun) 1. The style or manner in which something is carried out or accomplished.
It is essential to begin with such information, because it is the dichotomy between the essences of these two words that is at the root of understanding the phenomena that is DRAINIAC. The truly successful and iconic film is able to blend both concept and execution so it is both compelling in nature from the start and a satisfying experience by the end. DRAINIAC, first released in 2000 but digitally remastered in a widescreen format in 2008 has a very enticing concept, but its execution is far from satisfying or successful.
DRAINIAC is the story of Julie Ashbrook, her tragic and dysfunctional family and her friends Lisa, Jake and Tanya. Julie is the teenage daughter and domestic work unit of her cruel and lunk-headed father, who compels Julie to help him resuscitate old houses that he hopes to sell for profit after they’ve been “fixed up”. In addition to suffering under an uncaring father and plagued by memories of her mother’s death, Julie is haunted by grotesque dreams of slithering, inhuman monsters. Julie’s dreams seem to be coming true when she is forced to scrub down a wreck of a house that not only looks bad, it smells bad and sounds bad. Even after her friends come to keep Julie company, things go from bad to worse as a twisted townie causes trouble, and terrifying tentacles begin to sprout forth from the plumbing. Before long, the teens are battling for their life against an unholy malevolence bent on slaking its unending thirst with their blood.
On the surface, DRAINIAC would appear to have some things going for it. The concept of something sinister lurking in the pipes is always fertile ground for some good scares, despite the fact it has been used before. Making the entity in the pipes a demon from the abyss isn’t a bad thought either, for the concept of people trapped inside a haunted house and fleeing the Powers of The Infernal Master is another fruitful field worth harvesting, even though the thresher has gone over that ground too. While some recoil at the gruesome nature of rampaging tentacle-beasts snacking on simpering stoops and sluts, I will always raise my hand eagerly when someone asks for a volunteer to watch such fare. Perhaps that is why I am a fan of Stuart Gordon’s work. He brings the tentacles on in force. So you’ve got slime-slicked pipes, a many-armed monstrosity animated by the forces of the Underworld and there are teens, three of them girls, two of them attractive, and one who gets naked, what more could you want from a movie? How about effective execution? Without that, DRAINIAC turns out to be a disappointment to say the least.
What makes it disappointing? First of all, when the “actors” who “starred” in DRAINIAC did this film, they were rookies. While Georgia Hatzis (Julie) and Alexandra Boylan (Lisa) have gone on to do other projects and have probably gained some experience and honed their talents, most of this cast were not actors then, are not actors now and if they are, their lack of expertise in 2000 showed. Not only is there is a distinct lack of acting talent, the cast is unable to build any chemistry. While there is probably some fault that can be spread around to the producers who couldn’t afford “real actors”, in the end the craft of an actor is to deliver lines and to affect actions that help to effectively develop an engaging story. The cast of DRAINIAC is unable to do this. What is worse, most of the characters are totally unappealing and there is no opportunity for the viewing audience to identify with them. While they are not hateful scumbags like those of the torture porn film CARVER, you just don’t care about them, at best, or at worst they are unlikable. Even the comedic arrival of the character “Plummer” played by Phillip Barbour is not enough to stem the tide of disdain and the poor acting keeps the good concept from being fully realized.
In addition, DRAINIAC’s story is pretty weak. Just because you have an interesting idea for a story doesn’t mean it is deep enough or compelling enough to create a feature-length film. The myths that have grown up around this film since its original release and the whispers through grapevine say that its initial run time was somewhere around 50 minutes and that “padding” was needed. Anyone who has ever seen ROCK & ROLL NIGHTMARE understands that no amount of padding saved that cinematic anchor from its slide to the murky bottom of the film pond. DRAINIAC has too many pointless moments of character interplay that feel like dialogue for the sake of dialogue. There are scenes of cars moving along roads for a few too many seconds or Julie jogging through prettily colored autumn lanes, but the loveliness isn’t used as juxtaposition with the ugliness of the haunted house or the demonic drain creature. Many of the séance scenes and the struggles with the monster at the end went on far too long and lost any and all dramatic intensity they may have had. A horror film must have scary moments. There are some fine gory scenes at times with just enough blood, slime, turgid water, filthy pipes and dripping tentacles to catch someone’s attention, but that attention is not able to be maintained. Much like the long lost and unlamented turd THE ASTRAL FACTOR, a good seed idea for a story must be carefully fleshed out with complex twists and turns, character development, and drama. A few good action scenes do not a fine film make.
Finally, credit must be given where it is deserved. This is a competently shot film. I did not say it was “superbly shot”, just competent, and it utilizes an interesting mix of special effects combining some low budget but effective CGI, puppets and/or stop-motion animation reminiscent of Ray Harrihausen, exotic make up and tried and true props, but even these strengths did not produce any impressive atmosphere. Being a native New Englander, I was thrilled to see that DRAINIAC had been shot in New Hampshire, but despite being filmed in Pelham and Derry, NH it just wasn’t a moody or atmospheric film. Sometimes, if the look of a film is impressive enough, it can overcome story or acting weaknesses. For example, just ask Dario Argento about INFERNO. Dario had loads of cash on hand to make INFERNO look amazing, and Brett Piper didn’t. In the opening credits, he gives producer/friend Paul Costley credit by referring to the production as Not-So-Costley Productions. A film doesn’t have to be expensive to be good, but it has to at least look like a lot of energy and thought has been expended. DRAINIAC doesn’t quite feel that way and in the end it is too bad. I really wanted to like this flick.
One great surprise was the somewhat thin extras menu. In most cases, dvds released through the imprints of the PopCinema universe like Shock-O-Rama are usually crammed with goodies. With the exception of an interesting audio commentary with Brett Piper, Greg Conley and Michael Raso, and the excellent liner notes booklet by Greg Conley, there is a massive trailer vault and that is it. For a supposedly serious re-release of this film, I would expect there to be a little more. Interviews with the cast might have been nice and/or a documentary of the film’s production. While the booklet does cover this subject matter and I do like to read, most people watching a dvd are video-philes and would probably prefer to view the extras.
DRAINIAC is not a terrible film and I did not feel like the life had been sucked out of me as I have on so many occasions when watching other fare. It had a good concept and due to extremely restricted finances, Brett Piper had to be inventive with what was available at the time and what became available in the years after its release and before its remastering. People who like modern B-movies will probably enjoy DRAINIAC. I realize that I am prejudiced and a relic of the past, but I prefer my B-movies to be products of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. For some reason, past the point of about 1982, my criticisms of films are harsher and possibly not totally objective. Be that as it may, all film critics have their prejudices and none of us are objective. We all have an axe to grind. I did not take an axe to DRAINIAC, rather I hit it a few times with an old rusty frying pan. I enjoyed elements of the film and wished whole-heartedly that it was better. Great B-movies are an acquired taste, and I am willing to give Mr. Piper another try with some of his other films done for PopCinema.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
What is it about stories that have been told dozens of times that makes them both engaging and unpleasant? Are they like that horrendous car accident that you can’t turn away from because the scene is both sensational and unsettling? For some reason, there are a few old cautionary tales that have become almost like modern fables and in spite of being mined to death in novel or film form, they just don’t ever seem to fade away. THE SITTER (aka WHILE THE CHILDREN SLEEP) is a tale nearly as old as the hills and one would think would be well past the point of being put out to pasture and yet it still has some life left in it somehow.
THE SITTER is the story of the affluent and seemingly happy Eastman family. Carter played by William R. Moses and Meghan played by Gail O’Grady are parents to young Casey and Max. The children are in need of a full-time sitter now that Meghan has gone back to the high-powered world of the executive office and Carter’s law practice is in transition. Enter Abby Reed, a smiling young woman who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Abby takes the position as the Eastman’s sitter and soon becomes indispensable to the parents and outrageously popular with the children. Before long, Abby is turning many heads in the Eastman’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday” neighborhood, but it is not long before Abby’s agenda turns out to be something more devious than adding bucks to her purse or spending time with the kiddies. Abby has plans for the Eastman family, most notably Carter and she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
If I had a nickel for every yarn spun from the old thread of “charming little Lolita takes over a household through smiles and crafty manipulation, to insinuate herself into the role of the new Missus”, I’d be able to retire from teaching. Despite being beastly predictable and calling on a host of tried and true shock tactics using carefully crafted angles and specifically utilized incidental music, this film works. Possibly it is because there is something visceral about inviting a seemingly innocent and caring person into the supposedly safe environs of “the home”, only to discover that the invited is either deranged or the devil incarnate. Maybe it speaks highly of the directors, screenwriters and producers that they can continue to draw from this well where so many have slaked their thirst, and yet the water isn’t wholly stale, nor is the well dry. Be that as it may, unless you are a very young viewer, or one who watched nothing but Nickelodeon, graduated to MTV and then decided to give Lifetime Channel or Hallmark Channel movies a try, nothing about THE SITTER should be surprising. We’ve seen it so many times before. From the constantly used plots of Soap Operas like “One Life to Live” to films like POISON IVY and THE CRUSH, the plot of THE SITTER can be sniffed out within the first fifteen minutes and every “twist” or “turn” from that point can be seen coming a mile away. Maybe director Russell Mulcahy and writer Stephen Niver decided to go the route of the Greek Tragedy and invoke the spirits of Aeschylus and Euripides, because that is exactly what THE SITTER is like, you know what the outcome is going to be, but in the end you don’t really care, you are just along for the ride.
Despite my efforts to dismiss and dislike THE SITTER, it had two traits that forced me to offer respect and a small degree of admiration. It was very capably shot and after a somewhat murky start to the story, the pace became steady and patient, but without unnecessary fat or haste. In a world where too many directors feel the need to create nausea-inducing scenes via the insipid “shaky-cam” virus, Russell Mulcahy is able to mix establishing shots, character scenes and close-ups, wide shots, jump cuts and some more creative efforts like Abby’s descent into overt madness, into a film that looks good and where you can see and contemplate all that is occurring. There is not a moment where I can’t comprehend what is happening because it is too dark or because the camera has been strapped the back of a rabid armadillo which is being stampeded across the set. While THE SITTER is not Richard Donner’s photography in SUPERMAN, it doesn’t have to be. All it needs to be is efficient, like a TV movie should. Just as efficient was the screen play. At the beginning, there was a short time when I felt like we were losing focus and drifting off into an exploration of the seamy nature of the suburbs and that THE SITTER would survey the dissolute nature of those who have more than they need. To its credit, THE SITTER got down to business, created conflict, intensified drama, developed characters and sprinkled in some shocks. In this “unrated” version that is likely to be somewhat censored when it debuts on ION TV, some of the killings and violence would probably satisfy the desires of slasher-loving movie buffs. One of the killings was a tried and true favorite of thousands of past flicks, but one was wonderfully creative, graphic and grisly, but believable. By the time that particular butchering had run its course in the first third of the film, I may have wanted to dislike THE SITTER, but I couldn’t lie to myself like that. I had to give credit where credit was due.
Another surprising quality of THE SITTER is that the performances fit the script and the actors were very well cast. Venerable William R. Moses plays the gentle and good natured father figure and object of Abby’s desire. Those who remember the 90s “Perry Mason” TV series or MYSTIC PIZZA will remember Mr. Moses playing a similar persona in a much younger package. While he may not have the range of other actors, he is very capable of giving a solid performance that can anchor the role to the story stream, and that is exactly what William Moses does. Gail O’Grady plays the cold but glamorous suburban mom superbly and like William Moses, she may not be Ingrid Bergman, but she was an ideal choice for the role of Meghan, maybe too much so. Possibly it may be my advancing age, but I found Ms. O’Grady far more attractive and eye-catching Mariana Klaveno who plays Abby, and whose coltish build and lanky limbs left me less than impressed. All through the early stages of the film, the actors playing the neighbors and friends of the Eastman family kept gawking and drooling over Abby’s “hotness”, but I found her to be far less comely than Ms. O’Grady. Maybe that explains the reticence of Carter Eastman’s character when it came to a dalliance with Abby. Like me, he is an older man and found his attractive wife far more appealing than some young cutie. What Mariana Klaveno does have is an ace up her sleeve with her acting. Her portrayal of the manipulative, mercurial and murderous Abby was dead on, from the sinister looks, to the syrupy smiles and the seductive poses. After a slightly awkward entrance in the introduction, Abby slid as slickly as a knife into the body of the story and before long she was just as impossible to ignore or deny. The rest of the cast was steady and stable, like Stacy Haiduk and Jon Lindstrom, both competent and veteran character actors who add their strengths to a cast that gives a skilled and occasionally impressive set of performances.
One place where THE SITTER falls down like a five year old running over the playground is in the extras category. There are three “auto-play” trailers at the start of the disc, and then you default to the main menu which has “play” and “scene select” and that’s it! For shame! With people like William R. Moses, Gail O’Grady and Stacy Haiduk, you have professionals who’ve been around the block and probably have some tales of Hollywood. Hell, Stacy Haiduk starred on the long lost but not forgotten “Superboy” TV show. How can you not talk to her? Finally, Russell Mulcahy directed HIGHLANDER, RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION and the miserable but fabulously cast BLUE ICE. This man has worked with some big stars and on some big projects. If you can put a Dougray Scott interview on DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE, at least put some kind of interview with the cast and/or crew on this dvd. As I have said MANY times before, adding even a few scraps to any dvd extras menu will increase the good will of buyers and reviewers.
If you are over 35 years of age and are looking for an avant-garde, uniquely inspirational or mind-bending horror experience, THE SITTER is probably not for you. It isn’t salacious and it isn’t bathed in blood either. It is a tale as old as civilization, for I am certain that Sumerian artisans engraving their clay tablets struggled with murderous and manipulative Lolitas during the rise of the Fertile Crescent. This film may not have the glamor of “The Saturday Night Movie of The Week”, but it plays like the “The Monday Night Movie Special”, knowing it was going to take a ratings beating from “Monday Night Football”, but also knowing that there was a niche market lurking out there in those paneled living rooms and shag carpeted dens. Treat THE SITTER like the aunt you’ve seen a million times but still like for some reason, and you will probably have some fun.
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Great film makers like Akira Kurosawa and Zhang Yimou brought grandiose and extravagant Asian fantasy epics to western theaters and acquainted Americans with the grace and splendor of Oriental history, culture, mysticism and storytelling. While there have been many talented directorial masters from the Far East that have given the world many memorable films, for the most part epic Asian cinema has been the province of the Chinese and the Japanese. However, just as they have been steadily spreading their wares and ideas throughout the consumer market, Korea has been making its mark in film, especially as of late. With the successful releases of the mystery/thriller OLDBOY and the monster movie THE HOST, Korean films have been making a splash and the newest entry into the dvd market is the film THE RESTLESS, which is very reminiscent of Young-jun Kim’s SHADOWLESS SWORD or Siu-Tung Ching’s THE EAST IS RED.
Set in 924 A.D., THE RESTLESS (aka Joong-cheon) is the story of a demon-slayer, Yi Gwak, whose comrades are slain during an uprising and who must quietly comb the countryside aiding villagers against the spreading influence of demon scourges. Betrayed by a village he assisted, Yi Gwak is murdered and his soul journeys to Middle Heaven where he meets a spirit named So-hwa, the very image of his beloved Yon-hwa, who was burned as a witch while he watched helplessly. So-hwa and the other White Reapers are fruitlessly trying to defend Middle Heaven against Dark Forces led by Ban-Chu, who was once Yi Gwak’s commander and who is now leading the attempt to capture So-hwa and the power she holds. Yi-Gwak must battle demons of the past and present to rescue So-hwa and Middle Heaven, while at the same time searching for peace for his own soul.
THE RESTLESS is a surprising film for many reasons, not the least of which is that it isn’t the experience that some might expect it to be. After coming out of the gate with action and battle scenes, the story of THE RESTLESS patiently and beautifully settles into an exploration of the hearts and souls of its characters. It becomes a complex tale of loss and redemption, love and betrayal, honor and corruption, power and profundity as well as strength, inside and outside. While it is told in a linear fashion like that of a great river, there are numerous flashbacks leading us back upstream and many tributaries leading into other waters. The end result is a rich tapestry of characters and their interrelationships, carefully stitched to an even richer cosmology. The intricate nature of the mythical and mystical elements make THE RESTLESS a powerful and compelling story of the roots of existence whether you are human, divine or demonic. Like many great Asian epics, westerners may not be familiar with some of the mytho-poetic nature of the people, places and things that are flashing across the screen, but patience and reflection will be of value, as well as an open mind. This story is more drama than martial arts film, but the fantasy elements lift the viewer above the typical historical tragedy. THE RESTLESS is a film that has many layers and can be appreciated in many ways.
Some of the visual elements of THE RESTLESS are stunning. Much like many of the Shaw Brothers’ epics of the 1960s and 1970s, the costumes are lavish and eye-catching. There is a mix of interior sets and computer generated background graphics to give this film grandeur akin to but not as lofty as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. However, the splendor of the backgrounds and the sets amplifies the fantasy elements in a manner that makes them gratifying and enticing, and not alien or unapproachable. Just as in SHADOWLESS SWORD, the emphasis is on the story and the drama of the characters, but every spectacular scene engages the viewer’s emotions on another level and helps to make the experience more profound. The casting of the main characters is also first rate. Woo-sung Jung plays the haunted and obsessed yet deadly Yi Gwak in an understated yet intensely imposing manner. Jun-ho Heo is the soulless yet commanding Ban-Chu and creates a character that is the perfect contrast to So-hwa. The ethereal and spellbinding yet winsome Tae-hee Kim is simply astonishing in the dual role of So-hwa/Yon-hwa. Her emotional range is beautifully juxtaposed with her other main characters. All of these actors and their supporting cast give precise performances and mixed with the fabulous costuming and just as impressive make up effects, there is little about this film that is lacking. Even the score is gentle and effortlessly interwoven with the imagery to produce a powerfully integrated impact.
One detracting characteristic of THE RESTLESS is the manner in which the fight scenes are shot. While they are exciting and emotionally intense and the actors and special effects crew clearly know how to put a fight sequence together, as is too often the case, the scenes are shot too close and edited to rapidly. Zhang Yimou’s HERO is still one of the great standards by which all Kung-Fu can be measured because you can see what is going on and appreciate the artistry closely related to dance, that is choreographed and then captured on film so that all may bask in its magnificence. Sadly, that is not always the case with THE RESTLESS. The dramatic sequences are well composed and the establishing shots are all quite moving, but the fight scenes suffer from an almost “western” shooting and editing techniques that limits this fine film’s great potential. It is doubtful that the photographers shot those scenes needing to “cover up” the lack of athletic talent of the actors. More likely, it was simply the miserable wave of the film-making present infiltrating what use to be the Asian Ivory Tower of Beautiful Fight Photography. If such is the case, what a shame.
The extras menu of THE RESTLESS is surprisingly deep, and has several rewarding gems. There is a “Making of THE RESTLESS” documentary that is worth viewing. There is a pair of featurettes called “Reincarnation for 49 Days” and “Production Design”. When one considers the profound nature of some of the story elements of THE RESTLESS, an extras menu with this kind of compelling information is a perfect complement to this contemplative film.
THE RESTLESS is the kind of film that makes you a slightly better person after having watched it. While it is not a transfiguring artistic or spiritual experience, it engages the mind, the eyes and the heart on more than simply a superficial level. There aren’t many films today that can boast such an achievement. It is to be hoped that the makers of this film will have enough success with THE RESTLESS that they are able to delve even more deeply into the creative well and produce other fine examples of exciting dramatic, mythical and fantastical cinema that will be even more skillfully shot, so that we in The West can be enjoyment-enhanced movie-lovers for their efforts.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Reviewed by Scarewolf
Anyone who bothers to check out our show, Saturday Fright Special, realizes by now how much I, your humble host Scarewolf, absolutely, positively, VENOMOUSLY abhor vampires. Those slimy, stench-clad, snaggle-toothed, sorry undead excuses for walking fertilizer have been the bane of my existence since as long as I've been a lycanthrope (and that has been an AWFULLY long time). I remember the days of yore way, way, way, way, waaaaayyyy back, (back when I was just a young dog-faced boy of a pup). I'd be gallivanting around the edge of the forest and along the roadways practicing the latest dance steps and searching for roadkill to stir into Mother's award winning Grisly Stew* when out of nowhere an ungodly cackling horde of undead dross would begin pelting me with rocks and flinging feces and...
Oh wait... Now I remember. Those weren't scumbag nosferatu at all, those were bastard children waiting for the schoolbus. Oh well. Sorry about that. Same difference anyways as far as I can see for the two have a lot in common.
First off: They both suck.
Is there ANY monster in cinema history more horrifying than Evil Children?: THE OMEN, THE BROOD, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, PROBLEM CHILD... The list goes on. Now, I love horror movies and can sit through most anything, but I'll let you in on a little secret: There's just something about children that freaks me out! Each and every killer kid flick is almost surefire guaranteed to leave me gibbering like a mad dog behind the sofa by the time the night is finished. They are, without doubt, the only thing I hate more than vampires! (Except for vampire children, maybe... Oh Christ, I wish I hadn't said that!) Anyhoo, I think I've strayed from the topic long enough. It's time to get down to business and tell you how I felt about the movie DEVIL TIMES FIVE, newly reissued by Code Red DVD.
I didn't like it.
Well, what did you expect? It had children in it. What did I just tell you? Are you deaf? DO YOU NEED ME TO TYPE LOUDER? I. DON'T. LIKE. CHILDREN! And DEVIL TIMES FIVE has them in abundance. Five of them, in fact (Thus the title).
Let's see: What was it about? It was about 85 minutes too long, that's what! But seriously, DEVIL TIMES FIVE is about 5 lunatic children who escape from the mental hospital when the bus that's transporting them crashes. They then take refuge in a nearby ski lodge occupied by a rich businessman and his employees on a working vacation. Initially they think the kids are sweet and innocent (BIG mistake. Kids are NEVER innocent!) but soon they become suspicious when people begin waking up dead.
I gotta say, this movie has some good deaths in it. You've got your beheadings, your hangings, impalements, burnings, and more, so if that's all you're looking for I think you'll walk away satisfied. The movie drags a bit at times but the documentary included in the special features explains the reasons behind the padding. The director was let go mid production with only half the film shot. As a result the film had to be extensively rewritten and reworked. Honestly, I didn't notice any of that too much, I was too busy telling myself it was "only a movie" and that children don't really exist.
DEVIL TIMES FIVE comes with a lot of outstanding special features, most of which I thought were better than the film itself. Best and most entertaining of them all were the delightfully sleazy trailers for other Code Red releases (DON'T GO IN THE WOODS, LOVE ME DEADLY, SCHOOL GIRLS IN CHAINS, SWEET SIXTEEN, BEYOND THE DOOR, THE SECRETS OF SWEET SIXTEEN). Really looking forward to checking those out! Also included: the aforementioned documentary featuring interviews with Tierre Turner, Joan McCall, Dawn Lyn, producer Michael Blowitz and co-director David Sheldon. Audio commentary by Joan McCall, Mickey Blowitz, Dawn Lyn, and David Sheldon moderated by film historian Darren Gross.
*To acquire the delicious recipe for Mother Scarewolf's Grisly Stew, please put a self-addressed stamped envelope, 5 Fruit Brute box tops and $1 into a burlap sack and promptly chuck it into the river. Expect 4-6 years for delivery.