Thursday, July 31, 2008

BABY BLUES (2008) d. Amardeep Kaleka & Lars Jacobsen

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The list of “what terrifies us” is as long as the Mississippi River and everyone has their special favorite, from swarms of ravenous bees, to maniacal clowns, to a long dark fall off a cliff to the rotting fingers of leprosy. While supernatural events and superhuman creatures can be shocking and morbidly fascinating, some of the most frightening imagery is derived from that with which we are most familiar. If it feels safe and is recognizable, but can be twisted to become uncomfortable and alarming, the horror takes root in the deepest corners of our being and reaches down so far that the cracks in our armor are split wide open, leaving the viewer feeling bereft of aid and vulnerable. Few places hold more solace and sustain the soul than the family hearth, with its images of togetherness and caring, but when that is no longer safe, there are few other places where we can turn for shelter. BABY BLUES, starring Colleen Porch, Ridge Canipe and Joel Bryant, is a film that cuts to the core of the American Family and its values and does so with sharp instruments designed to spill blood aplenty.

BABY BLUES is the story of the Williams family, living life in a farming community in the Deep South and engaging in the everyday tasks of chores, work, meals and prayer. Jimmy is the oldest of four children, the youngest of which is a newborn. His father is a trucker and his mother minds the house. Jimmy’s mother is a God-fearing Christian overwhelmed by postpartum depression, her parental duties and an absentee husband who she fears could be straying. As her depression deepens, her angst over her retreating youth increases and the demands of the household hang like a millstone around her neck, Mrs. Williams' mind snaps and her rage becomes focused on her helpless children. Jimmy does all he can to protect them against their mother, but the despair and Scripture-fueled fury of a mother scorned cannot be turned aside.

From the opening scenes so filled with images of the agrarian South and Heartland Americana, it is obvious that BABY BLUES is going to be a teeth-clenching and viscera-chilling experience and I was not disappointed. The first acts are filled with colorful, cheerful and comforting images of farm fields, a fruitful family and fresh-faced kids behaving like any children would. The suspense is intensified ever so slightly and only hints of what is coming are dropped every now and then, although like a Greek tragedy, it is obvious what is going to happen, you just don’t know precisely when and exactly how. Before long, the beautiful icons are mixed with the baleful and all hope of help is swept away in a surge of one violent, brutal act after another. All through the ferocity and blood lust, scenes of people and places that might have been of help in staving off disaster are juxtaposed with a continued onslaught against innocence, as Mrs. Williams (Colleen Porch) lays waste to all that was her family, and Jimmy (Ridge Canipe) is forced to bear witness to and fight against a resistless tide of savagery. There is no doubt that BABY BLUES is very difficult to watch and it is a challenge to praise any film that cuts so close to home, but the pacing, photography and direction of this film is all very strong. There are some beautiful establishing shots of scenes that are consistently contrasted with unsettling and gripping character shots and action sequences. This complex blend of imagery develops a palpable aura of menace and escalating drama and misery. No character ever takes on proportions outside the realm of human abilities, nor is their anything occult or unbelievable about BABY BLUES. This film evokes the terror of “what could really happen” in your region, your town or right next door. All of the characters are sourced from the people you see on the street or at church each week, so it is easy to identify with them, feel for them and bleed with them.

All through this powerful film, there is Colleen Porch who plays the mother. Her performance is exactly what is needed to develop that impression that grows to certainty that Mrs. Williams has lost all sense of reason. From her haunting eyes, attractive but unsettling good looks and quiet but grim early persona, Ms. Porch’s portrayal of Jimmy’s mother descends through a spiral of insanity that runs a gamut of emotions consistently careening back and forth across a landscape of familiar and frightening psychological aspects. Ridge Canipe gives a stalwart performance as the dutiful son forced to call on reserves of strength and courage in a fight for survival. Joel Bryant is every ounce the caring and torn but blissfully unaware father whose need to provide for his family causes him to desert them just when his presence could have mattered the most. Youngsters Kali Majors and Holden Thomas Majors give steady performances as Jimmy’s younger siblings Cathy and Sammy, but it is Colleen Porch who dominates this ghastly portrait of the American Family horribly gone wrong. With her bedraggled raven locks, tear and blood-streaked face and soulful but forbidding stare, her malevolent presence cannot be shaken off, even as we hope and pray at the outset that something can be done for this unfortunate woman. By the end, she is no longer a figure of pity but a ruined and damaged spirit whose frailties have wrought such dreadful carnage.

As a result of only having a “screener copy” for my viewing purposes, I was not able to watch and review any bonus features on the upcoming BABY BLUES dvd release. In the press release, there is mentioned to be a “Behind the Scenes” documentary and the theatrical trailer in the extras segment. With any luck, I will be able to procure a copy of BABY BLUES and watch the featurette. I imagine that any behind the scenes look at this project will be illuminating to say the least. One of my favorite parts of my review of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR was the bonus features and my chance to see the creative and intellectual process behind that controversial film. While BABY BLUES is not as graphic, nor does it tackle as taboo a subject as THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, it evokes a similar sense of dread, distress and disgust, and seeing into the minds of the cast and crew of movies of that type is always fascinating.

BABY BLUES is probably not for everyone because of its uncompromising look at the grisly end product of psychosis. It is not a shock-fest bloodbath typical of exploitation cinema and it is not a slasher film like FRIDAY THE 13th. It incorporates the best of both worlds and combines those elements with the vigorous efforts of young directors making an independent film. BABY BLUES taps into the darkest corners of the soul like a good exploitation film would do and marries it to the relentless intensity of a first rate slasher film, but from there the earnestness and seriousness of independent horror cinema is grafted onto the project and the result is a film that will deliver an emotional blow to the spiritual solar plexus. Experiencing motion pictures like BABY BLUES is never easy, for the “ripped from the headlines” feel is uncomfortably realistic and therefore it seeks for the heart, grasps it in an icy grip and squeezes with all the strength of Darkness. In a film where there is little sensationalism and the story is dependent on a bleak look at the barren places of the inside no one wants to admit to, BABY BLUES makes one that much more thankful for a bright blaze in the fireplace and the warm hand of a loved-one on a somber day.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

LIPS OF BLOOD (1975) d. Jean Rollin

Reviewed by Tracy Hook

LIPS OF BLOOD is a true fantasy vampire film. The director Jean Rollin takes us into a world of ancient castles, of family secrets and of nightmares. With this in mind, it's interesting to note that the story is set in modern times, that is 1975 when the film was made.

The story centers around a young man man named Frederic who has a horrible case of amnesia: he cannot remember his childhood ever since his father died. His amnesia starts to lift when he attends a party with his mother and notices an advertisement that features a desolate landscape of ruins and an overcast sky. The picture sets off a series of lifechanging events, when childhood memories come flooding back to him. He remembers playing amoung the ruins in the photograph and encountering a young girl who takes him in and lets him rest inside the ruins. Frederic remembers the love he felt for this girl, how she held him throughout the night and, of course, her beauty. The feelings that Frederic feels drives him onto a quest to find the place where the photo was taken.

Frederic is running through the streets of Paris through the greater part of this film which gets a little tedious. But that's alright, because he unknowingly awakens several buxom bloodthirsty babes in the process. The female vampires are not after Frederic we find out, but are helping him. We, the viewers, see how these vampire girls can really get the job done too, and with a minimal amount of clothing while doing it.

Heterosexual men will love this film, there's plenty of vampiric full frontal female nudity. The story is very masculine, but not misogynistic. (See Jean Rollin's feminine film The Living Dead Girl for his more feminine side). At the beginning we see Frederic caring for his aging mother. He actually seems like a "mama's boy" as he does her every bidding. His mother even drives away a pretty young thing who's talking to Frederic at the party. She interferes any chance she gets on Frederic's mission to find the ruins and find the girl he fell in love with as a boy. She even has the men in white coats take him away at one point.

Towards the end I started to worry about Frederic when his mother orders him to kill the girl and bring her the head (sounds Biblical doesn't it?). But I won't spoil the ending for you. The film takes on the issue of breaking away from mother and getting out into the world (you know... meeting girls and actually getting your own place!). It seems Frederic has lived a sheltered life due to his memory loss. (I think it's implied that he resides with his mother). He's faced with the choice of suckling at mother's teet or cohorting with vampire ladies wearing sheer curtains as their only clothes. When you watch this movie, and I do recommend you watch it, you will see the choice that Frederic makes.

The look of the film is absolutely stunning in some scenes. The large castle in the film is lit with blue lights. The viewer can see every brick in the turrets. Bright colors are used especially during vampire attack scenes. I've had the pleasure of seeing other Rollin films like THE DEMONIACS, THE LIVING DEAD GIRL and REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE. Rollin loves color almost as much as he likes nude women in his films. (Almost!) It seems the more clolorful the film the more violent it is. THE DEMONIACS is full of bright reds, dark blacks, and bright blues and is also full of blood and lust. LIPS OF BLOOD is slightly less colorful and less violent. The film has no gore and some blood. Be sure to watch it with your mother. It's put out by Redemption which is "Mom" approved.

Salvation Films

Monday, July 28, 2008

THE HIVE (2007) d. Peter Manus

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Man’s fear of what he can’t control and can’t understand has fueled many fine books and movies for a long time. We can’t control the weather and we can’t understand the deepest complexities of Creation, but neither of those forces holds the kind of primal terror as hordes of insects. Possibly this dread of bugs goes back to humankind’s earliest days when we battled with all of Earth’s creatures for dominion of the planet. Whether it’s bees, locusts, cockroaches or spiders (not an insect but they’ll do for now), and whether they are big and solitary or small and abundant, arthropods are an imposing species due to their durability, ingenuity and unpredictability, all of which makes them a foe worthy of respect and dismay. It is likely that no insect species inspires more horror than ants for their sheer strength in numbers and the “intelligence” that they display. There have been some fine “ant” movies over the years, most notably the giant creature-feature classic THEM (1954), but since that time many other fine examples of ant fare have come forth like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). THE HIVE, starring Tom Wopat, Kal Weber and Elizabeth Healey is another Man vs. The Ants film following in the path of and borrowing from its predecessors, and having a degree of success in doing so.

THE HIVE is the story of a Pacific Island called Ban Tao (suspiciously similar to an Indonesian or Malaysian archipelago) and a terrifying ant infestation that threatens life on the atoll. A high-tech pest control squad called “Thorax”, led by Dr. “Len” Lennart (Kal Weber), is called in to rid the island of these voracious vermin. It doesn’t take long for the team to realize they are pitted against a foe too numerous and cunning to be easily bested. Len sends out his squad leaders Bill (Tom Wopat) and Cortez (Mark Ramsay) to spearhead a new attack, but even that can’t blunt the arthropod assault for long. It is only after the arrival of Dr. Claire Dobois (Elizabeth Healey) and her teamwork with Len and his assistant Debs (Jessica Reavis) that they discover these ants are highly sophisticated, capable of communication and that they have demands. Unorthodox methods are mixed with traditional science and careful diplomacy to find a solution to the “ant problem” before all is lost.

THE HIVE started out with a series of action scenes blended with some over-the-top performances and jingoistic fist-pumping and weapons glorification, and as a result it seemed like it was headed down the path of MEN IN BLACK or INDEPENDENCE DAY. While some of the battle sequences still had an element of that kind of ballyhoo, maybe even to the degree of STARSHIP TROOPERS, that potential mistake was averted. To THE HIVE’s great credit, the high octane start was just the hook and a false lead because for most of the rest of the film, it became more serious and developed some fine tension and drama. There were moments when some of the “cat & mouse” action was reminiscent of ALIEN (1979) and some of the ant attacks on human and their spreading menace recalled ANTS! (1977) aka IT HAPPENED AT LAKEWOOD MANOR. Even better, the science fiction element and the race to understand the intelligence guiding the ants came down squarely in the camp of PHASE IV (1974) and THE BEES (1978). As a result, this film had a very pleasant blend of action, intensity, contemplative science fiction and suspense. It was only in the closing acts that the pace slowed down inexplicably and then rushed into an unneeded romance and some very forced melodrama, causing the story a degree of disjointedness. Instead of ending on a note like THE BEES where an uneasy truce is established or a sadly triumphant victory is won as in THE NAKED JUNGLE (1954), there is a degree of grandstanding and even some harsh and strident political commentary. In the end, it is too bad because THE HIVE is one of the better additions to The Maneater Series. It takes itself seriously without being corny and has a sense of tension and horror that was absent from some of the other films of this collection.

From a technical standpoint, THE HIVE is a mixed bag. Shot on location in Krabi, Thailand, the scenery and landscapes all look authentic, as do the Thai extras filling out scenes of panicking villagers and grimly determined military conscripts. Many of the camera angles, establishing shots and editing sequences show some real creativity and sincere thought to composition. However, the use of handheld cameras for close-ups, many of which were FAR TOO CLOSE was grating and detracted from the feel of a film that seemed to be headed up the higher road. The CGI was very uneven. Some of it was very ambitious and worked fairly well, while at times it was exceedingly hokey. As I said in my review of VENGEANCE, Thai special effects crews are certainly making improvements and their efforts are sincere, but anyone expecting JURASSIC PARK quality effects needs to remember this was “made for television” and was done by a mostly Thai crew. There is no need for prejudice or parochialism, just understand what you are getting.

Most of the performances were solid, especially the very eccentric performance of Tom Wopat and the steady, leading man appeal of Kal Weber, but the Thai actors were a little unconvincing and wooden at times. There was absolutely no chemistry between Mr. Weber’s and Ms. Healey’s characters, probably through no fault of their own. Their romance seemed so obligatory, as if a “corporate suit” had demanded that it be stuck into the script, so that their love affair was totally disingenuous. The other technical problem of this dvd is the sound mix. Whether it is a problem with the 5.1 audio or the sound mixer’s mistake, I had to boost the volume on a regular basis, swerving drunkenly in between 25% and 85%, just to hear the dialogue that was as quiet as an ant’s antennae flicking in a pheromone-laden breeze. Someone needs to fix that problem or find funding to subsidize the purchase of HDTV units for all viewers in the U.S. My television is fairly new and in most dvds I can ascertain what is be said without too much trouble.

As has too often been the case with the films in The Maneater Series, there is nothing to be had in regards to a bonus features section. The disc starts with some auto-play trailers as is usual and there is a “play feature” and “scene selections” commands and that is it. If you’ve got Tom Wopat in your movie, you’ve got to get an interview with the former “Luke Duke” and have him describe the difference between battling sentient ants and villainous grubs like Boss Hogg. Having an empty extras menu is never a good idea, and while I felt a greater degree of warmth towards THE HIVE due to it being an entertaining film, some of that positive feeling evaporated when I saw that I was getting a bare bones disc. Without any extras, there is nothing to differentiate this viewing experience from seeing THE HIVE on Sci-Fi or Ion TV. It is essential to understand that in this very competitive market, having even a few tidbits will loosen the purse strings of consumers, especially when it comes to something like a film about Killer Ants. That’s a luxury that horror film lovers can do without if they don’t feel their money is well spent.

Making any “creature feature” is an immense challenge and to carry it off effectively is deserving of praise. THE HIVE is a film with its heart in the right place and it even has most of its eggs in the right basket. It is not “high-brow” science fiction or a blockbuster action film. It is a new addition to a long line of cinematic relatives, who saw that mining an instinctive fear will put people’s posteriors in theater seats or get them to sit down in front of a television, Swanson’s TV Dinner still puffing savory steam or Jiffy Pop still hot and crunchy. If you are looking for a flick that will update the idea of films like Bert I. Gordon’s BEGINNING OF THE END (1957) but will still stay fairly true to the inspirational spirit of the 50s “monster-rama”, then THE HIVE is worth your time. Expect that it will take you over very familiar ground, but that’s okay if you litter your evening with other old icons like Ballantine Beer. You’ll feel like time has skipped a beat and its Chiller Theater all over again.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK (2008) d. Patrick Beacham

Written by Rick Trottier

As an undergraduate and then later as a graduate student, I learned an important lesson about history that has stuck with me ever since; that there are really only two types of historical writing. An historian can try to present their case as impartially as possible or they can take a clear stance and present a biased exploration of events and outcomes. The former methodology is likely to be the most accurate, but it is impossible to be truly unbiased, for no matter how much we strive we are bound to transmit some of our values into any intellectual pursuit. The latter approach can be successful as an opinion in essay form and be persuasive and compelling, but is doomed to being “history with an axe to grind” and can never be anything but jaundiced in nature. Film is a little like this in that a film maker can try to tell what is called a “balanced” story where the audience is left the freedom of choice as to their opinion, or the film maker can tell an “unbalanced” story and try to influence the viewer’s perspective. When I watched THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK, once I had ascertained whether it was a “balanced” or “unbalanced” viewpoint, I was able to appreciate the film maker’s efforts to relate his ideas even as I struggled with how those opinions/perceptions were being conveyed. In the end, by choosing to pontificate from an “unbalanced” point of view, the film maker created more problems than he probably wanted to.

THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK is a fictional film in the form of a roundtable discussion done as a quasi-mockumentary where a very clear viewpoint about a pair of seemingly unconnected topics is being examined. Confused? You really shouldn’t be. Patrick Beacham and Paul Gentry “locked” eight people in a comfortable and well-appointed conference room overseen by a “barista” to ruminate on the legacy of the Star Wars films now that the third prequel THE REVENGE OF THE SITH had premiered. As each person relates their feelings about the movie, its siblings and the films’ creator George Lucas, they begin exploring their own pasts, presents, principles and predilections, both philosophically and politically. It isn’t long before truths are revealed, convictions are challenged and tempers flare. In the end, it isn’t what each person believes that is as important as the freedom to believe and the value of respecting other people’s points of view.

Since THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK is not your usual cinematic project and format, it is not an easy movie to review. On the positive side, I felt that trying to set up a soapbox film commenting on some of the flashpoint issues of the past eight years and wrapping it up in the packaging of a Star Wars discussion is creative and ambitious. Patrick Beacham’s film was attractive, well shot and edited, and was very pleasingly scored. I wasn’t a big fan of the slow dissolves between “chapters” for visual reasons, but I understood the purpose. Trying to make it seem like “average folk” from many of the “walks of American life” are hashing out issues mundane and critical is also an interesting vehicle for delivering your opinion. The problem is that much of the criticism Mr. Beacham levels against George Lucas, artistically and creatively, he is just as guilty of himself. One of the wise sayings I was taught as a youth came back to mind forcefully as I watched THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK, “the pot shouldn’t call the kettle black”. Mr. Beacham consistently hammers the Star Wars prequels for their “wooden” acting and flat characters, but THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK suffers from both ends of the spectrum. The characters of Bill and The Barista, played by Michael Smith and Brittany Quist, were every bit as robotic and uninteresting as any of The Prequels’ characters. Even as handsome as both actors were, their visual appeal, especially that of Ms. Quist, was not enough to rescue their characters from their waxed paper aura. On the flip side, Lloyd, Caroline, Don and Andre’s characters suffered from terrible overacting, making them stand out like sore thumbs and rendering the less vibrant characters even more colorless. All of the characters were encumbered by a total lack of sincerity that was likely to be a failing of the script. At no time did I feel like I was looking at “people”, rather I felt like I was watching actors forcing reactions and exchanges that screamed “prefabricated”, and not in a good way. The soliloquies and interchanges of each character did not feel like theater come to The Silver Screen, it felt hammed up and entirely artificial. Each character was also a social caricature at best; at worst they were a stereotype that made the story feel even more disingenuous. If it was the intent of the film maker to emulate what he considered to be the weakest element of the Star Wars prequels, he succeeded brilliantly, but it certainly didn’t come across that way.

Patrick Beacham also railed against the overly preachy and unnecessarily drawn out stories of the Star Wars prequels. Both of these sins could be found in his calendar, and yet THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK has such an imposing list of social issues it tries to explore that the 111 minute run time was not nearly enough to discuss Star Wars and the troubles of the opening decade of the 21st Century too. The transition from being a somewhat light-hearted and comical debate about the merits of a film franchise to analyzing the seminal divisions tormenting America today was jarring and was never fully assuaged. Partly this was due to tackling too many topics, partly it was a fault of the caricaturized nature of the cast but it was also partly the fault of the concept. Trying to graft two such disparate ideas into the primary narrative concept of the movie may have been impossible. Social problems and political issues are serious and uncomfortable to face no matter how much we try to parody or lampoon them, yet it is essential to have dialogue on the kinds of topics Patrick Beacham raised. Star Wars and all of its cinematic science fiction relatives are just that, fiction, and the underlying nature of all fiction is to be entertaining. In the case of science fiction it has an even deeper intent, to provide escape. While Mr. Beacham does raise the point that looking too deeply into something like Star Wars or Harry Potter isn’t entirely likely to produce useful fruit, he is guilty of attempting something similar. To start his film with such a whimsical premise and then try to ascend a dramatic staircase ending in near violence caused by heated discussion and powerfully internalized beliefs may not be achievable. I found the two ideas to be polar in nature and equal and opposite in force and energy, only this time the rules of physics do not apply and the two opposites do not attract.

Finally, and this might be sour grapes, but taking such a powerful stance on such an unimportant topic like Star Wars (yes, I am a huge fan, but relegate the films to their proper place in my life) felt like an angry man ranting from the mountain top. To be fair, Patrick Beacham did present the alternate side of the argument and did have some characters whose support of the Star Wars prequels was passionate, but they didn’t seem to be the real mouthpiece of the director and the true weight of opinion felt very lopsided. After we pass our early forties, we all get to a point where we feel we’ve really learned something from our burgeoning life experience and would like to share it with the world. Sharing your experiences without sounding preachy, bitter, judgmental and strident is a challenge under any circumstance. I applaud Mr. Beacham for wrestling with some of the nerve-fraying themes of the modern age, but his anti-Lucas tirades just came across as someone who thought they knew better and as a result, a tad egotistical. Patrick Beacham did provide his film with a caveat when his character Lloyd went into a lengthy monologue about his life’s frustrations and failures and how much he wanted the new Star Wars movies to sweep him back to his innocent and optimistic past. Since Lloyd recognizes this dilemma in his own soul means Patrick Beacham sees it in himself as well, but that doesn’t come across as cleanly as I think he would have liked it to.

THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK has a surprising number of tidbits in its bonus features section. In addition to an audio commentary by Patrick Beacham and Paul Gentry, there is a 7 minute introduction for the feature film, as well as short introductions for the 6 minute “Blooper Reel” and the 2 minute “Deleted Scene” segments. In some respects, the three introductory segments work as well as any interview or “behind the scenes” featurette in allowing the viewer to really see inside the mind of Patrick Beacham, possibly in greater depth than he intended. There is an “Original Concept Graphics” section of two pages that is quite interesting and a pair of theatrical trailers for this film and a series of trailers for other Indie Pictures projects. There is also a segment called The Things that are Thor’s, which was a promo for a novel that Patrick Beacham and Paul Gentry created a number of years ago. It includes an introduction, a mini-featurette and a commentary of an airship design that were all quite compelling. This set of extras was both illuminating and entertaining and may have been the most satisfying part of my time spent with this disc.

Some friends and colleagues of mine have been fond of saying that it is never a good idea to reference films better than yours during the feature. Patrick Beacham’s characters run through an impressive list of great films and directors during their sometimes venomous litany against the Star Wars prequels and movies in general that have been made after 1980. Perhaps it was the invocation of the referencing curse that doomed this project to being a disappointment and consigned Mr. Beacham’s effort to being no better than the films for which he feels such vituperative scorn. In the end it may come down to another old saw, “just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean it’s better”.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

d. Larry Fessenden

Reviewed by Simon Oakland

Back in the 1970s, "Nature's Revenge" films like PROPHECY and DAY OF THE ANIMALS were all of the rage. Well, now in the first decade of the 21st Century with the polar ice caps melting and gas prices reaching in some places close to $5/gallon the subgenre has made a comeback, arguably starting with the big budgeted 2004 Roland Emmerich spectacle THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. On a much smaller scale, THE LAST WINTER deals with a similar theme with much less predictable results.

I rather enjoyed THE LAST WINTER. I didn't read the back of the box, so going into it I didn't know what to expect other than what I could surmise from the artwork on the cover: something to do with a frozen corpse in a snowy wasteland. It sounded to me like the perfect movie to watch on a hot summer night! And it delivered.

An oil research team (led by Ron Perlman, aka HELLBOY) travels to the northern reaches of the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge in preparation for drilling. Representing the Environmental Protection Agency is James Le Gros (PHANTASM II, DRUGSTORE COWBOY) who, just by being present and performing his assigned duties, is a thorn in the side of Perlman's character. Aggrevating matters is that the winter has been milder than usual. If the ice isn't frozen hard enough, then the trucks wind up sinking into the ground and work comes to a standstill. To top it off, with the permafrost melting, hidden gases (or possibly spores) are being released into the atmosphere, causing hallucinations and paranoia within the party. Or is there a sinister, more evil, force at work?

To the filmmaker's credit, that answer is left vague, leaving it up to us, the viewers, to ultimately draw our own conclusions. Films like THE LAST WINTER are, unfortunately, few and far between in today's "Hollywood Blockbuster" mindset, where everything needs to be geared for children and have zero sense of subtlety, where all of the answers are to be firmly jackhammered into our skulls. I've seen far too many horror movies to ever feel a primal emotion like "fear" ever again while watching one, but I have to admit that this had the effect of leaving me sufficiently unsettled enough to give THE LAST WINTER a wholehearted recommendation to one and all. I suppose I should probably mention that it has a great ensemble cast as well. Aside from Perlman and Le Gros, the movie has the added benefit of featuring the ever enjoyable Kevin Corrigan of TV's GROUNDED FOR LIFE. (You know, at the moment I can't think of a single feature film in which any one of those actors have starred that I didn't like. Amazing.) Check it out.

Special Features include: "The Making of THE LAST WINTER"; A feature length documentary including deleted scenes and an interview with director Larry Fessenden. Also, feature commentary by writer/director Larry Fessenden.


PUZZLE (2006) d. Tae-kyung Kim

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Maybe it begins it’s when you first sneak a cookie or two out of the jar on the kitchen counter without Mom or Dad knowing. Possibly it begins when we first creep back into the house from a date or a party after being out later than we’d promised. For whatever reason, people love “heist” movies, and they continue to be one of the most consistently popular film sub-genres and have been so since the earliest days of “moving pictures”. Perhaps it is because heist flicks can be glamorous and exciting, but it is more likely that they call to the naughty side of our nature, that while submerged by ethical standards or values still lies unconquered just beneath the civilized surface. In a heist film, characters do things we’d love to try ourselves, but realize either can’t be done or we won’t do for fear of getting caught. The funny thing about the heist flick is that they don’t always turn out the way you want, think they might or should. There are heists that end on a very happy note like TOPKAPI (1964) or end on a sour note like POINT BLANK (1967). Either way, heist movies always include twists and turns, double crossing and dirty dealing and there is action and armed conflict one way or another. PUZZLE is a worthy addition to this well traveled but always entertaining canon of films and even though it borrows heavily from predecessors, one in particular, it does so with a sense of style, reverence and dexterity, just as a jewel thief would lift a necklace from a store case.

PUZZLE is the story of four young men and an older gentleman, brought together by an unknown figure to execute a daring, daylight bank raid. Hwan organizes the talents and trains the skills of Ryu, Noh, Kyu and Jung, doing everything in his power and experience to get them to work as a team, despite the fact that they don’t know each other. It is after the successful heist, when they arrange to meet Hwan at an abandoned factory that things begin to unravel. Distrust begins to flare, tempers fray, dislike expands to enmity and violence erupts. In the end, no one gets what they wanted from the operation, except the shadowy someone who started the ball rolling.

It doesn’t take long for it to be very obvious that PUZZLE is an homage to RESERVOIR DOGS and owes a great deal of its inspiration, in regards to the general concept and basic underpinnings of its story, to Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut. PUZZLE’s director Tae-kyung Kim even admits his admiration for RESERVOIR DOGS in the bonus features, but he borrows without thievery and pays deep respect to “his favorite film” by creating a structure that is told in flashbacks, creating a somewhat non-linear structure, but has stylistic elements that mirror other heist films too. The story starts out with an attractiveness and glamor that is reminiscent of OCEAN’S ELEVEN, all the while moving to the beat of its own drummer. The carefully crafted convolutions of the story have a feel like LAYER CAKE, where you know what the outcome is bound to be, but there is just enough of a circuitous path that it isn’t totally predictable. It is the descent into darkness and the disintegration of success due to mistrust and emotional instability that, while very reminiscent of RESERVOIR DOGS, also calls to mind some of the downward spiral of the characters in TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Instead of uniting against an obvious but still unknown threat from the outside, the characters in PUZZLE turn on each other until the ending is just as somber and misery-laden as KING LEAR. The sinister puppet-master of PUZZLE is not glaringly evident by the end, but by careful counting of the characters, just as you would count cards in a poker game, there is only one person that it could be, and the unmasking is satisfying.

PUZZLE is not a thrill ride like ENTRAPMENT and it doesn’t have the tight pacing or star-power allure of OCEAN’S ELEVEN, but it is entertaining and compelling. The increasingly gloomy atmosphere and the intensifying tautness of the character’s nervous states are infectious, as it becomes increasingly apparent how badly the “job” is going to turn out. Tying the tales of each character together are sinister figures in their flashbacks that are woven into the story in such a way that you can’t help thinking they are clearly the movers behind the melodrama, but they are pawns in a simpler, more vengeful game. PUZZLE looks very good and is quite an achievement when you learn in the extras that a fair amount of the photography is done with hand-held cameras. Unlike Hollywood directors of photography, who strap their hand-helds to the backs of howler monkeys and then turn theme loose, in PUZZLE, the hand-held camera was used to create clear, powerful imagery and even more experimental set of shots when blended with those of static cameras and then edited with thought and creativity. This is one of the characteristics of PUZZLE that sets it apart from RESERVOIR DOGS. In addition to its imagery, the musical score of PUZZLE is quite appealing and fascinating. Each character has his own “theme”, the vast majority or which are inspired by classical or orchestral music, giving PUZZLE both a more stately air as well as a more serious feel, deepening to ominous as the narrative descends the steps towards disaster. The principal actors’ performances are an excellent mix of understated, barely restrained and highly explosive, creating contrast and tension that is palpable throughout the film. There are some moments where the pacing is a little uneven, and some of the flashbacks have a slightly jarring quality to them, but like a good stock option, it all pays off in the end as the action escalates over the last one-third of the film and the violence becomes more brutal and bloody.

PUZZLE has a surprisingly strong set of bonus features. There is a 15 minute “Actors Interviews” segment where all five principal performers relate their thoughts on this project, their characters and how they became involved. What makes these interviews a little out of the ordinary is that most of the “clips” edited with their interview shots are not from the film, but are mini-features about the backgrounds and natures of each character. Following the “interviews section” is a 15 ½ minute “Behind the Scenes” featurette focusing on the director and the director of photography’s thoughts on PUZZLE, their inspirations, motivations and recollections of the production process, including how seeing the old factory helped to germinate the idea for the narrative in the sub-conscious of Tae-kyung Kim. Finally, there is a 12 minute “Making of the Music Score”, which may be the most compelling of the three offerings. The thoughts of the composer are carefully presented so that a viewer can really explore the creative and intellectual process of scoring a film like PUZZLE. One of the great strengths of the dvd releases of CJ Entertainment is that, large or small, there is always something on their discs that leads you to a deeper understanding of Korean cinema and how it is made.

There have been a lot of heist films over the past 70 years, but not many of them are Asian and even fewer from South Korea. Mingling the best ideas of The West with the uniquely captivating nature of Asian film making is one of the reasons PUZZLE is an enjoyable viewing experience. For those who are looking for bullet-ridden bombast akin to a classic Hong Kong John Woo film, they might be disappointed, for PUZZLE is a bit more contemplative. It isn’t an art film or an avant-garde experiment either. PUZZLE cobbles together some fine ideas and concepts of films that preceded it, then uses some inventive initiatives of its own and spins them into a story that will delight anyone who is a connoisseur of heist movies.

Monday, July 21, 2008

THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) d. Enzo Castellari

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It didn’t take long for film makers to start cranking out War Pictures after the guns went silent in Europe and The Pacific in 1945. Between 1945-1955, John Wayne, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster and many other “Leading Men” starred in epic and small time film efforts depicting the struggles of brave soldiers fighting in the Second World War from Belgium to Bataan and everywhere in between. It was during the 1960s and 1970s that War Cinema reached its height of spectacle and melodrama with some of the best remembered and most classic in the genre reaching the Silver Screen. Most of these films fell into two categories. On one hand there were the intensely serious films like BRIDGE AT REMAGEN, PATTON or A BRIDGE TOO FAR, while other films were more about action rather than historical accuracy and were even occasionally a bit humorous like THE DIRTY DOZEN and KELLY’S HEROES. The rare movie like THE GREAT ESCAPE fell in between the two categories and seemed to incorporate elements of both. With a name like THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (aka in Italy as QUEL MALEDETTO TRENO BLINDATO), you know you are getting a film that falls squarely in the realm of violent action and bombastic display and that is exactly what THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is all about.

THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is the story of a small group of American military convicts being shipped off the front lines in France towards the justice that awaits them. Along the way, they are able to engineer their escape and make a break for the border of Switzerland in hopes of finding freedom. During their lunge for liberty, they happen to stumble into a plan hatched by American Special Forces and The Free French partisans to destroy new Nazi weaponry being moved to the front. In an effort to win their freedom by participation in this dangerous operation, Lt. Yeager, Pvt. Canfield, Nick, Tony and Berle join the fray and fight like Hell in an attempt to come out on the right side in the end.

If you are after a war flick that combines the smoke, shooting, stabbing and savagery of PATTON and the body count and athletic action sequences of COMMANDO, than THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is exactly what you want to see. Right out of the gate, this film is vulgar, violent and vituperative in its depiction of both the double-crossing and the dauntless in battle. There is gun play aplenty, as bullets tear through uniformed bodies, nicely supported by grenade and artillery explosions, strafing runs of fighter planes, arrows and knives slicing into soldiers, fisticuffs, throttling, bludgeoning and all manner of property destruction like bridges being blown up, cars, trucks, tanks and trains being bombed and buildings burning like bonfires. The language is coarse, the men are dirty, the women are beautiful and some of them are disrobed, and there is a mix of Americans, Germans and Free French all fighting for their lives in the closing days of 1944. This is not a serious look at war or an effort to be historically precise, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is a profane and tough-in-cheek look at testosterone-based battle glorification and if that is what you like, the action rarely lets up and the scenery looks every bit like that of the other Italian War Films that came out during the 1970s and early 1980s like Vietnam epic, THE LAST HUNTER.

There are many other reasons to like THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, not the least of which is how good it looks. Released in the U.S. under the titles DEADLY MISSION on vhs and G.I. BRO through Xenon, neither of which looks like THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS does now. To get an idea of how this film once looked, check out the theatrical trailer in the extras section in all of its grainy-ness and murkiness. That is how THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS use to look, but now it has been restored to its proper aspect ratio and can be seen in all of its glorious color, especially the creative red and blue title sequences. In addition, there is Francesco De Masi’s fabulously dramatic military score that adds an even deeper sense of soldierly emotion to the film. For those who are drawn to the actors and their performances in a film, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the study in contrasts between Bo Svenson (Lt. Yeager) and Fred Williamson (Pvt. Canfield). While Fred Williamson tried hard to make a name for himself in his films that was cool and suave, he is really the epicenter of machismo and lethal intensity, all the while sporting his ubiquitous cigar and impish grin. It is Bo Svenson who unknowingly was the icon of cool in THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. When interviewed, Bo Svenson is jovial, animated and even a little raucous, but on the set, he played the same character throughout his career, strong, semi-silent and even-keeled, a tower figure of range-less acting. The two men made a perfect compliment to each other. Svenson is the tolerance-minded straight man with a machine gun, to Williamson’s hammed-up killing instrument hurling men as far ass he could shoot bullets. Add to that chemistry the atypical mix of the magisterial Ian Bannen as Col. Buckner and Peter Hooten, Michael Pergolani and Jackie Basehart playing a wild-eyed gambler/thug Tony, a kleptomaniac trickster Nick and a cowardly fix-it-all Berle and you’ve got a team just as entertaining as THE DIRTY DOZEN. THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS isn’t as well made a film as its inspirational parent, but it can often-times be just as much fun.

The three disc “Explosive Edition” of THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is as chock-full of goodies as a Nazi hoard buried in an Alpine cave. On Disc 1, in addition to the feature film and an audio commentary by director Enzo Castellari, is the theatrical trailer and a 38 minute “Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Enzo Castellari”. Depending on your opinions of Mr. Tarantino’s conversational style, this may or may not be a boon to you. Tarantino is certainly a big fan of the original film and that is partly why his is in the process of remaking it. While the conversation does allow for Castellari to make comments at times, some of which are revisited later in another extra feature, it is Tarantino who does most of the talking about what he perceives to be the lasting legacies of THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS on himself and film in general. On Disc 2 there is a spectacular 75 minute documentary about the film called “Train Kept a Rolling”, which stars Enzo Castellari, Filippo De Masi the son of Musical Composer Francesco De Masi, special effects maestro Gino De Rossi, producer Roberto Sbarigia, screen writer Laura Toscano, and actors Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson and Massimo Vanni. Their reminiscences about the entire pre and post production experience, music, writing, pyrotechnics, on-set relationships and impressions of the experience, then and now, are just amazing. I haven’t enjoyed a lengthy film documentary like this in some time. After this opus, the 13 minute “Back to the War Zone” seems a little anti-climactic, but upon further reflection, it is just as enjoyable on another level. “Back to the War Zone” is Enzo Castellari walking over the old grounds where much of the film was shot and his reactions and memories are simply enchanting. The third disc is a CD of the music of THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. Severin Films deserves high praise for their collection of such a wide variety of visual and auditory materials related to this film.

THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS didn’t receive much attention in the U.S. in the late 1970s or even the 1980s when it first hit the video market and it certainly deserved it. Since Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson were not “big name stars” at the time, it is likely that release rights were not taken very seriously and what could have been a well received film languished in obscurity. If you are looking for a bit of the old-time action/war film appeal like MIDWAY, but without the “recognizable names”, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is worth your time. In some ways, while this film may not be as well-made or well known as the usual fare like WHERE EAGLES DARE or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, it may be just as much fun in its own quirky way. It isn’t often that you get to see Fred Williamson shoot down storm troopers with a smile on his face or Bo Svenson shoot an SS lackey in the back with a crossbow. You’ll get an almost lethal dose of bullets shredding smoke-filled air and bodies flying in every direction. In an era when war films mean pretty boys walking across the decks of ships so that fourteen year old girls will swoon and then log-on to fan sites, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS takes you back to a time when action/adventure and war combined on the Big Screen to be gritty, gangrenous and glorious.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

d. Johnn Wintergate

Reviewed by Simon Oakland

From the back cover: "A man with telekinetic powers inherits a big house with a horrible past. He opens the place up as a boarding house, and it is soon inhabited by a gorgeous romp of women. Soon, though, the long-sleeping evil supernatural power occupying the house gets to work killing off the tenants, one by one."

Back when I was a kid, I would always look forward to Friday nights. By the time I was a teenager, it was a tradition of sorts to go down to one of the many local mom-and-pop video stores and then spend the evening eating popcorn, drinking far too much soda, and getting creeped out by the choice horror titles we selected. I was introduced not only to a lot of now classic horror movies that way (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD), but also to a lot of not-so-classics (NIGHT OF THE COMET) and a lot of outright bombs (CHUD II: BUD THE CHUD).

BOARDINGHOUSE falls into another category altogether. These were the kind of movies that always pissed us off, because as soon as you'd hit play you knew you were hosed and had just wasted two bucks on a worthless piece of you-know-what. First telltale sign: it was shot on video. Actually, that isn't true. Once you've fallen for the "SOV" scam you quickly learned how to recognize these things right off the shelf. First tell tale sign (and general rule of thumb): if you've never heard of the movie before, then the more money put into the artwork on the cover, the lower the budget of the film production is. Does it have a lenticular or 3-D case? Then forget about it. You may as well have taken that $2 and... Well, no. That would just be gross.

For what's it's worth, I did manage to enjoy BOARDINGHOUSE on a nostalgic level, at least for a few minutes. They certainly don't make them like this anymore (thank god). There are no doubt people out there (who may be reading this review, even) that will love this movie due to it's amazing cheese factor. If you love the 80s but are too young to remember experiencing the era firsthand, then watching this movie could possibly be an entertaining eye opener for you on an aspect of the era long since forgotten. For everybody else, it's a chilling doorway to the past that's probably best kept closed. On a personal level, what I initally thought of as a hilariously kitschy exercise in bad taste (80s fashion and music faux pas galore) quickly became painful, even torturous, to my eyes and ears. I honestly could not bear to watch it for longer than 20 minutes (but at least that was 15 minutes longer than I could've taken it back in the day). Perhaps when I live to be 80 I'll finally build up the fortitude to sit through the entire feature. In the meantime, though, I'll leave that chore up to somebody else with enough stamina to do so: Possibly you, kind reader!

The A/V in BOARDINGHOUSE is exactly what you'd expect for a movie shot on S-VHS tape: Low resolution with occasional instances of tracking problems and audio dropouts. In the beginning of the film, there is scrolling text done on a green screen computer, but is too blurry and caused me great eye strain to read. Thankfully, the filmmakers wisely saw fit to include some voice over narration. An odd quirk of the film's sound mix is that all of the dialogue is confined to the left channel speaker, and all of the music and narration is in the right. This may lead to some problems with film "enjoyment", as is what happened to me when I tried viewing BOARDINGHOUSE using a dvd player with two left-right audio jacks going out on a TV that only had one audio line in. Normally this set up wouldn't be a problem, but in this case you would have to choose between losing the dialogue or losing the narration, neither of which is a good option. Of course, an even better option that I can see (no matter what your sound system) is to put the BOARDINGHOUSE disc back in it's case and find something better to watch. May I recommend THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES to you, instead?

Special Features on the BOARDINGHOUSE DVD include: Audio commentary by director Johnn Wintergate and star Kalassu, moderated by Lee Christian and Jeff McCay, also, Interviews with Johnn Wintergate and Kalassu, Boardinghouse trailers and trailers of titles available through Code Red.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

VENGEANCE (2006) d. Preaw Sirisuwan

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

A few years ago, I had the good fortune of being introduced to Thai action films through watching Tony Jaa’s movie ONG-BAK. Fortunately, I was able to see an original subtitled version of the film through the good offices of a friend who procured a copy for us in Boston’s Chinatown. ONG-BAK was an exhilarating cinematic experience, prompting my friends and I to see BORN TO FIGHT, TOM YUM GOONG and just last night we watched CHOCOLATE, all of which have crystallized for us the notion that Thai action is what Hong Kong and even American action films use to be before the corrupting influences of money and the insurance industries took both motion picture centers down the wrong path. Adding to a growing legacy of exciting and visually stimulating Thai action films is VENGEANCE, originally titled PHAIRII PHINAAT PAA MAWRANA. It combines the gunplay of Hong Kong classics like BULLET IN THE HEAD, the mysticism of modern Japanese horror films and the creatures and monsters of American cinema like HARRY POTTER & THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS.

VENGEANCE is the twin stories of young men Wut and Naso, both of whom are tied to a tragedy they experienced as boys and now each occupying opposite ends of the legal and moral spectrum. Wut is the captain of a small police force that follows Naso’s band of thieves and killers deep into forbidden mountains and jungles. Neither realizes that the large coin that Naso has in his possession is at the center of their misfortune and is the nexus of the evil that grips the cursed forests of the Thai-Myanmar border. As the chase descends more deeply into darkness, the groups are attacked by malevolent animals and even more malicious creatures, some of them not fully human. It is only when Captain Wut reaches the center of the paradox of his life that he is able to gain an empty victory over lawlessness and evil.

VENGEANCE is what VAN HELSING should have been. VENGEANCE is a film for people who like their action to be a mix of guns, knives, creatures, chases and bloody violence, and then blend it with a jungle setting as well as mysticism and fantasy elements that take the story out of the realm of realism and make it something more. Even with all that, VENGEANCE takes a breather now and then to develop its story, explore characters and create a degree of drama. In fact, the first one-third of VENGEANCE takes its time building its momentum, moving in a patient slither like a snake stalking its prey, allowing the last one-third of the movie to become the appropriate thrill ride that it is supposed to be, just like a snake when it strikes. What rocket-ride movies like VAN HELSING never understand is that if a film is to be like a roller coaster, the roller coaster ride is only as exciting as the stretches where you decelerate briefly, building that sense of anticipation in advance of the next plunge. VENGEANCE has that undulating quality of pacing and intensity levels, giving you time to ponder what has happened, what is occurring at that moment and what is likely to take place in the future. Even better than that is the fatalistic nature of Thai cinema. Except for a brief spell in the 1970s when fatalism abounded, American film has always been chained to the need to tell a “feel good” story and end on a positive note. Not so with Thai film, and VENGEANCE ends with an almost Richard III bloodiness and pessimism. This makes the tale that much sweeter, for it becomes a “Sophie’s Choice” where no outcome isn’t fraught with sorrow, and even if victory can be achieved, it is won at a frightful cost.

VENGEANCE is a mix of visual strengths and weaknesses. Shot on location in the jungles of Thailand, the scenery is splendid at the very least and is often spectacular right when it needs to be. There are times when some of the landscape photography is augmented by atmospheric CG imaging to intensify the moodiness. This works well. The cast is a mix of old and young, male and female, beautiful and unpleasant-looking, aiding in creating an impression that average folk are now pitted against forces beyond their imagining. It is on the subject of imagination that things break down a bit for this film. The monstrosities that come forth from the Thai jungles to plague the protagonists are certainly creative and fascinating, but Thai computer wizardry has yet to catch up with the best the West has to offer. Many of the effects were created with sincere effort and emerging skill, but they still looked a bit fake and cheesy at times. My great concern is that the Siren Call of CGI is part of what ruined American and Hong Kong action films. Hopefully Thai films will still depend on their outstanding ability to create realistic action sequences and will not be seduced by the lure of what a computer can do for your motion picture.

VENGEANCE has a small bit enjoyable set of bonus features. There is a six minute “Behind the Scenes” feature where principal crew members discuss inspirations, techniques and challenges of filming VENGEANCE. For those wishing to hear and see more about the technical issues of creating a film like VENGEANCE, while not as in-depth as I’m sure you’d wish, there is still some fascinating points made. Grafted onto this featurette seems to be an industry commercial selling the strong points of VENGEANCE. There is also a film-inspired music video, which is certainly reminiscent of American-made film-music videos, but because it is the original Thai performer singing in his own language, that will be a little out of the ordinary for most Americans. Finally, there is a pair of theatrical trailers, one that is Asian in nature, while the other is a Western trailer, so the opportunity to compare is quite interesting.

One of the things I have always enjoyed about Asian cinema of all kinds is its genre-bending complexity. VENGEANCE pulls together crime drama elements and marries them to horror film components, then mixes them with a healthy dose of mystical fantasy and sprinkles on layers of action. The result is a film which may very well appeal to a wide variety of viewers who want their fare to be intense but a little more thoughtful. If Americans can overlook the unfamiliar names of the actors, get past the fact that they’ll have to read subtitles and open their minds to a different set of icons in folklore and fantasy, they should enjoy VENGEANCE quite a bit. Just as I have been thoroughly enjoying Korean-made horror films as of late, I am hopeful that the trickle of Thai films continues to flow unabated. There is a freshness and radiant sense of purity from the Far East these days when it comes to film. Just as Marco Polo learned a lifetime of lore from his journeys to The Orient long ago, maybe it is time for Westerners to look to The East again for inspiration and to see how rundown and worn out our formulaic efforts are and how its time to climb out of the rut we’ve made for ourselves.

Friday, July 18, 2008

BRUTAL MASSACRE (2007) d. Stevan Mena

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The horror movie business is a strange place. People make films about death, violence, monsters and the macabre while actors and actresses portray villains, madmen, victims and maniacs. The imagery is unsettling, unnerving and downright uncomfortable, but for those who follow the genre (me included), it can be incredibly rewarding. That probably says a great deal about horror fans, but the films themselves don’t always say as much as we’d like about the film makers. Sometimes we need another type of look at the industry to make us consider how truly ludicrous making any movie can be, especially something as “serious” as a horror film. It has been done before. Roger Corman made a classic trilogy of mock-horror films: A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959), THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) and THE CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (1961), all designed to scoff at specific types of horror cinema, while Del Tenney made the supremely ridiculous and wonderful THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964). BRUTAL MASSACRE is that kind of mockumentary that is “a film about making a film”, which is very popular right now and will soon be an overly mined idea. However, BRUTAL MASSACRE does have a little sincerity in the right places, a few laughs here and there and some sharp satire rearing its ironic head every now and then, and thus is able to claim it is not as bad as the movies and people it derides.

BRUTAL MASSACRE is the story of horror-exploitation film maker Harry Penderecki, a shlock-meister who hit it big with one film early in his career, but whose succeeding films have flopped, and as a result he has fallen on hard times. Forced to go the “independent film” route, Harry has to scrape the bottom of the financial and talent barrels to get his newest project, “Brutal Massacre” off the ground. All along the way, problems haunt Harry’s each and every step from low morale, to incompetence, accidents, venality and mental illness. All through the quagmire, Harry persists though not always due to his doggedness. Harry’s inability to see himself as a miserable film maker is just as much the reason for his perseverance. By the end of the filming and production process, Harry has a new hit on his hands, mostly due to luck and the equal amounts of stupidity of the viewing public and the movie moguls.

BRUTAL MASSACRE is much like the low-budget sleaze that it lampoons in that it is inconsistent. When we see old “one-sheets” of Harry’s past film efforts displayed on his office walls or in clips of the same movies, that is when BRUTAL MASSACRE is at its best. My God, who wouldn’t want to see a film titled Sasquatch at the Mall? Me!!! Besides being quite funny, there is an earnestness and accuracy to those moments that rings very true. All of the characters are overdone caricatures, but they work most often due to the performances of the real actors. The oft made criticism of “convention ensemble” casts is that it feels like they were “cast at a convention”, but this group of veterans pulls it off. From David Naughton as Harry Penderecki, to Ellen Sandweiss as Natalie the Production Manager, and Brian O’Halloran as Jay the Assistant Director, as well as Ken Foree as Carl the Gaffer/Grip, each of these performances is farcical and yet right on target, which keeps you from constantly being ripped out of the “reality” of the film by the presence of “recognizable” faces. Emily Brownell as Amy the crazy and affected actress and Michelle DiBenedetti as Tanya the slutty actress add even more authenticity to a film that when it hits its notes right, evokes some very sharp satire or mocks with a slapstick style that is almost as stark as a pie in the face. Along with the “shot on video” feel and the moments when the camera “loses focus” or zooms too tightly, the Z-Grade documentary feel is quite silly in the best sense of the word.

For every successful element of BRUTAL MASSACRE, there are stumbles, cringes and groans. Some were likely to be quite intentional, but if they fall flat, they fail none-the-less. Just as a film crew can number dozens or hundreds of people, there is an immense cast of “characters” in BRUTAL MASSACRE, many of whom are too static, too poorly acted or just too unsuccessfully scripted to work. Just as there are a million incidents occurring on any movie set, there are sometimes too many things happening in BRUTAL MASSACRE to make the story really coherent. Just as there are some altruistic and some appalling people working on a film crew, we are treated to some first-rate sleaze in BRUTAL MASSACRE, not all of which makes it a better film. Since it is meant to show us the underbelly of the exploitation film business, a little skin, depravity and crude language is naturally part of the process, but “potty humor” only works in small, thoughtful doses. When we see one of Harry’s old flicks’ one sheets called Bowel Movement with the tag line “Whatever you do, don’t look in the bowl”, that is fun, sick, juvenile humor done with a smile. When Natalie has to empty the overflowing RV toilet at a camp ground, and even though some restraint was exercised in shooting the scene, it is still a miserably obvious joke and the resultant frames were horrifically predictable. Making Harry’s Indian director of photography a sycophantic “yes man” worked for a couple of laughs, but the joke fell flat after repeated use. Finally, making a film about “making a film” is a risky prospect at any time and keeping the tone of the narrative stable is essential. At times, BRUTAL MASSACRE felt like a mockumentary, while at other times it felt more like a straight comedy without any documentary overtones. Most of the film was either humorous or it attempted humor, but at other times there were stretches of seriousness that didn’t hit the mark at all. It just felt awkward. While Stevan Mena did an admirable job of directing BRUTAL MASSACRE and some of his writing reached the bull’s eye, it might have worked better to co-write the script with another person, for having another voice in the writing process can help locate weaknesses you might have missed. Remember the old saying, “Two heads are better than one”?

BRUTAL MASSACRE has a small but very worthwhile extras menu. In addition to the theatrical trailer and a sizable “deleted/extended scenes” section of sixteen segments, there is a jewel in the crown. Billed as “Behind the Scenes of Brutal Massacre”, it is really another mockery of the film business that employs all the characters of the movie in a perfectly scripted look at the cast, crew and “behind the scenes” as if Harry Penderecki really made BRUTAL MASSACRE. It is possible that this 16+ minute featurette is as entertaining, certainly more focused and definitely better acted than the feature film. I would recommend seeing this extra after you’ve watched the feature since much of the point of what is coming will be given away. It was nice to see the real makers of BRUTAL MASSACRE take their sense of humor into the Bonus Features section of the dvd, and sharpen their satire knife a little before doing so. It left me with a very pleasant cinematic taste in my mouth after the somewhat confused and bland bouquet of the feature film.

I am not sure how much longer the “mockumentary” express can maintain its momentum. I have seen a lot of these flicks over the past ten years and an accelerating volume just over the last three years, and while they can be a lot of fun and worth a few laughs, the well may be running dry. What might be a good idea is for these film makers to turn to straight comedy with plenty of ludicrous but blade sharp humor like HOTROD or a documentary that makes you smile but cuts to the quick like KING OF KONG. Better yet, find inspiration out there in something that looks deeply at some humorous quality in life that people haven’t made a film about before or if they have, it is a nearly untapped gusher just waiting to inundate us in stories and themes wholly new and fresh. While BRUTAL MASSACRE had its moments and made me chuckle, I just couldn’t help but feel like this was an alley I turned down once before, maybe even twice, three several dozen times before. I like familiar things, but I don’t want anything I enjoy to wear out its welcome.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

DEATH VALLEY (2004) d. David Kebo & Rudi Liden

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Setting a film in a desert bestows many benefits on the final product. The intensity and harshness of the setting immediately adds a layer of emotion to the story and another level of energy to the scenes that must be composed. The desert is the home of twisted and tough creatures that have to struggle for survival, and if your film is a melodrama, the desert becomes almost like another character against which the battle is joined. Whether it was Clint Eastwood’s clash with sun, sky and thirst in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY or Tura Satana fighting with every guy she can taunt in FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL KILL, desert melodramas are a fascinating part of film history and continue to be a well writers and directors mine, even when they are making misery epics like WOLF CREEK. DEATH VALLEY, originally titled MOJAVE when it was made in 2004, is a desert melodrama through and through, but it takes its inspiration from DELIVERANCE, even though it has more in common with a lot of other predecessors.

DEATH VALLEY is the story of four friends, Josh, Anthony, Daniel and Brick, who head out to the desert to join a rave, take some mescaline, meet some ravers like Amber and then afterward find they’ve gotten in way over their heads. As they awake the next morning, they discover they have run afoul of some mean-spirited locals who have set them up, first just to make mischief, but then as events spin out of control, the dirt-bike gang’s intent becomes murderous. Friends and allies are forced to reach deep inside to find the strength to fight for their lives, or they will end up as just another bleached skeleton staring up at the unforgiving sun for eternity.

DEATH VALLEY has a lot of things going for it, but just as much going against it. On the positive side, the story, while derivative and obvious in its direction, is just almost as much about exploring the characters as it is an action or a “horror” film (this is mis-marketed as having any connection to horror), so as a result, you have the time to appreciate the best part of the film, the desert photography. Between the real-time and time-lapse shots, or the close-up and panoramic scope, there is some very attractive camera work that lends a picturesque aesthetic to a film that could have gone the route of THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake, which is a loathsome piece of garbage. Even though some may pick this up hoping it is a vile sump of ooze like any of the “torture porn” flicks, it isn’t that at all and it remained true to its creed of being a desert melodrama with some action thrown in for good measure. Another strong element is the story is also restrained in many ways, which lends it a feel of verisimilitude. None of the characters act in a “superhuman” or an “action hero” manner, defying physics or biology in any way. There is some semi-graphic violence, but even that was fairly restrained in its nature, and had the rape scene (which was tame by modern standards) been removed, this film might have been more like its distant cousin THE SADIST, and been more about character interplay and gone even deeper into their souls, thus saving it from the cinematic purgatory where it became stuck.

The problems with this film are simple. First, it was hard for me to really develop sympathy with the main characters, who start off as thrill-seeking, drug-using ravers. By the end, I was cheering for them, but it took a long time for that feeling of empathy to develop and it kept me from building any sense of bond with the filmmakers. Second, there is really nothing to distinguish DEATH VALLEY from films that have already mined this theme, the imagery or both. As a desert melodrama, the bad guys aren’t nearly as inbred and creepy as the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES. As a gang movie, the antagonists are not as terrifying as those in THE WARRIORS or as over the top as the creeps in MAD MAX. There isn’t the ludicrous frolic and fisticuffs of THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, which this film has a lot in common with at times, neither does it have the counterculture appeal and the thoughtful underpinnings of THE VANISHING POINT. Finally, Arch Hall Jr. left one of the most lasting impressions of sadistic cruelty and psychotic silliness in THE SADIST, so that anyone who sees that movie will have his leering face forever etched in their memory. No one in DEATH VALLEY can pick up that torch and carry it, and it is too bad. The gang jerks in DEATH VALLEY are racists, which seems out of place in a film that really isn’t trying to explore that angle. They are leering and violent, but it is unclear what has caused them to be that way, and if time isn’t taken to explore them and they must remain static, then more energy needed to be put into delving deep into the main characters. The principal actors of Josh (Eric Christian Olson), Daniel (Rider Strong of Boy Meets World fame), Anthony (Bumper Robinson), Brick (Wayne Young) and Amber (Genevieve Cortese) all give sincere and energetic performances, especially Bumper Robinson and Genevieve Cortese. I found myself wanting the story to go deeper inside their characters and look farther into the hidden places that they didn’t want to show, much as we saw in DEATH VALLEY’S supposed inspiration DELIVERANCE. It was not to be, and since there was little to truly set it apart, DEATH VALLEY will end up as a footnote in Silver Screen history and that is a shame. It looked good, sounded good, was fairly well acted, but it didn’t move me as much as I wanted it to.

DEATH VALLEY has a small but interesting set of “bonus features”. In addition to an audio commentary with directors/writers David Kebo and Rudi Liden, there is a 3 ½ minute “Making of Death Valley” featurette that shows a few “behind the scenes” clips, mini-synopses/interview segments with cast and crew and continued spectacular photography of the desert setting. There is an 18 minute extended and/or deleted scenes section of fourteen parts and a compilation gag reel that is 7 ½ minutes long. There is a 1 minute theatrical teaser trailer and a selection of Allumination Filmworks trailers, most of which I had already seen and reviewed for this site. While this was not the “mother lode” of extras, as usual it was nice to see a few tidbits thrown the viewers way, and looking inside the minds of the filmmakers and seeing some of their craft is almost always a worthwhile opportunity.

If you have never seen any of the films I have referenced earlier in this review, DEATH VALLEY might be a good foray into the “action-revenge-desert melodrama” subgenre and you might find it an entertaining and appealing flick. I was never bored while watching this film, and after some hard work I even grew to like some of the characters. It was visually attractive and I was even able sit back and appreciate some fine landscape photography that I always feel is a bonus to any film, for it deepens the sense of setting. In the extras, the directors/writers are “outed” as being fairly new to the film business, and after some research, it can be seen that this was their first project together. It would be interesting to see what some time and some experience will do to these young men. This was an intriguing first effort and these gents show some promise. Hopefully, they will get their chance to hone their skills and craft and build a worthy legacy that is as memorable as a spectacular desert sunset.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Complete First Season (2006)
Created by Jeff Lieberman

Reviewed by Tracy Hook

"'Til Death Do Us Part" also known in the UK as "Love You to Death" is a television series based on court cases of spouses murdering each other. Sounds pretty sick, huh? Who would want to watch that? Well, 50% of marriages don't last in the US and the UK, so probably a lot of people would. This series is a little more than tales of murder and carnage on supposed loved ones, it has a wonderful storyteller to host these programs: John Waters.

John Waters adds a touch of class and a touch of camp to the series. He's a lot like the Crypt Keeper from "Tales from the Crypt". The difference is John Waters wears a nice suit, but he is just as gaunt. Mr. Waters really makes the show, if it wasn't for him the series would be just ike any other "Caroline in the City" episode: completely unmemorable.

Each show opens with the beginning of each marriage with the couple's wedding. We view how things can go downhill from there. But some of the wedding dresses are so bad it's no wonder things went the way they did. Most of these dresses are a satin nightmare that probably took twelve sweatshop workers to construct. The material alone could clothe all of them too, but who would wear a white satin pair of shorts and a T-shirt?

I digress. . . The show is a warning in my opinion-"BE CAREFUL WHO YOU MARRY!" And if your spouse says "I got something that will end this fight once and for all", you better jump behind something bulletproof like your portable dishwasher. In a pinch the couch will do, but it may not stop all those bullets. If you've seen what a bullet can do to a can of cheap soda like I have, you'd be running. That Adirondack grape was completely ripped apart. It took a whole bottle of Formula 409 to clean the rifle range of that sticky purple stuff. But that's another story and I think I just told it.

I recommend this series simply for the fact that John Waters can do no wrong in my opinion. (Have you seen Pink Flamingos and Female Troubles? They're brillant!) He's a film icon now, especially when Broadway and Hollywood are making musicals of his past films. (Can you believe Travolta played Divine's part in "Hairspray"? Very bizarre!) That's what John Waters brings to anything he does. He adds a touch of the bizarre and some class, but that's probably due to to him wearing those great suits and the mustache. Definitely the Salvadore Dali mustache.

BCI Eclipse

Friday, July 11, 2008

SHUTTER (2008) d. Masayuki Ochiai

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Since childhood, I’ve had an interest in geology, and whenever a chance allowed I thoroughly enjoyed rock hunting, especially in old mines. I found the whole idea of a mine pretty fascinating when I gave it a little thought; digging deeply into the Earth, following a vein of valuable metal or mineral, not knowing how far you’ll get before the lode is tapped out and whether what you find will be enough for your needs. Film making is a little like mining, for when a story or shooting trend becomes popular, everybody wants to jump on the express to success and ride that train as long as they can. Mining a successful trend is even more challenging when you are remaking an earlier film that was itself part of the same trend. Masayuki Ochiai’s 2008 film SHUTTER is a remake of the 2004 Thai film of the same name by Banjong Pisanthankun. The newest version of SHUTTER is a success, but by the skin of its teeth, for as I watched it, I often said to myself, “I’ve seen this before”.

SHUTTER is the story of Ben and Jane Shaw, a newlywed American couple on a “working honeymoon” in Japan. Ben is a professional photographer and it is while the two are enjoying their new life together that they become aware that they are being haunted, first by spectral images in Ben’s photographs, but more and more by ghostly sightings out of the corner of their eyes, in reflections of windows and mirrors and eventually right before their faces. Ben and Jane race to find answers to these eerie and terrifying incidents before something dreadful happens, but the answers the two uncover turn out to be just as unsettling as the supernatural experiences they have encountered.

SHUTTER did nearly everything right. It told a patient story that carefully built suspense and spread its dependence on success over a strong foundation of a tight narrative, fine camera work, a mix of beautiful, stark and unsettling imagery, steady if unspectacular performances, a good soundtrack and incidental music and while being a little predictable at times, there were some fun twists here and there. One of the great pleasures of SHUTTER is that there are more scares created by a slow build-up of tension rather than “jump scares” which are nothing but a cheat. Although the “fish out of water” plot device using Jane’s character has certainly been done before, when added to the already intricate narrative mix, it helps add a layer of “discomfort” and aids in intensifying the feeling that “something is wrong” with the characters’ situation. In the end, between a good story and even better visual components (no shakey-cam, overly dark scenes and rapid editing), I enjoyed watching SHUTTER and I am sure most people who like ghost stories will enjoy it too. Why then, if it did so much right, am I not raving like a lunatic about how great this movie is? A lot of it has to do with the feeling that I had reached the end of a tapped-out mine.

About ten years ago, I started getting into Asian cinema of all types and genres and I still enjoy that continuing foray. I watched original Japanese and Hong Kong versions of films like THE RING, THE EYE, DARK WATER and too many others to list, and then watched their American remakes, sometimes with positive results and other times finding myself disappointed. When I got interested in Asian horror, the “ghost story” trend had been going on a long time. Even SHUTTER’s director Masayuki Ochiai admitted in an interview that viewers in Japan have “become bored with the long, dark haired girl ghost” in films, and I suspect we are fast reaching that reaction here in the U.S. At least this time the ghost was an adult, and the resolution of conflict was not a “happy ending” per se. Be that as it may, SHUTTER is a remake of a film that fairly recently mined a trend that seems to be in the process of burning out. Beyond the tired story idea, even the actors felt like they were derivative. Whether it was a casting director’s/producer’s choice or no, Rachel Taylor looked too much like THE RING’s Naomi Watts for comfort. During the film she sounded like an American, but when interviewed, she even betrayed her Australian accent. While Miss Taylor did a good job in her performance as Jane, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a doppelganger for Naomi Watts and it kept me from really sinking into the loam of the film. The same goes for Joshua Jackson, who also gave a reasonably strong performance as Ben, but who looked eerily like Ewan McGregor, who has done his own share of mysteries/horror. Some may call it coincidence, but it felt like cynical marketing to me, and it kept me from enjoying the film as much as I wanted to. I truly believe that those who have seen little or no Asian horror cinema and/or western remakes of the originals will probably find SHUTTER very powerful, but so many of these types of films have saturated the market over the last five years that the “virgin” audience may be pure no longer and film makers may have reached the limit of the lode and taken all the ore.

SHUTTER has a surprising treasure trove of goodies in the “bonus features” section, and for that I was immensely thankful. In addition to a commentary track with production executive Alex Sundell, screenwriter Luke Dawson and actress Rachel Taylor, there are no less than seven featurettes and a deleted/alternate scenes section. All of these extras are informative, compelling or amusing in some fashion. There is an 8 minute featurette called “Ghost in the Lens” which is a series of short interview segments, behind the scenes shots and film clips with actors Joshua Jackson, Rachel Taylor and John Hensley, producer Roy Lee, screenwriter Luke Dawson and spirit photography expert Hideyuki Kokubo. Next is a 9 ½ minute featurette called “A Cultural Divide: Shooting in Japan” which looks into the impact of Japanese culture on this film project through interview clips with actors Joshua Jackson, Rachel Taylor and David Denman, producer Roy Lee , screenwriter Luke Dawson, stuntman Shinji Noro and translator Chiho Asada. Following that is a 9 ½ minute subtitled interview with “The Director: Masayuki Ochiai” that looks at his reflections on the film, its predecessor, motivations for the project and his thoughts on ghosts. Next up is a 5 ½ minute “Conversation with screenwriter Luke Dawson”, followed by a 5 minute “History of Spirit Photography” mini-documentary. Then there is a 4 minute short feature called “Create your own Spirit Photo”, explaining the computer method of photo-manipulation. Finally, there is a 2 ½ minute text feature called “Hints for the Haunt: Tools and tips for Ghost-Hunting”. After you’ve delved deeply into these extras, there are 11 deleted or alternate scenes to enjoy and a pair of Fox trailers not on the autoplay opening segment or the “Inside Look” selection from the main menu which gives you a trailer for MIRRORS, coming out in August. There haven’t been too many discs I perused recently that have as deep an extras menu as SHUTTER, and for that I was impressed. The interviews segments answered a great number of questions that I had and improved my appreciation of SHUTTER and its history.

When it was released back in March 2008, SHUTTER grossed more than $25 million domestically and over $43 million worldwide. I can’t help thinking that had this film been released a few years ago, it might have been the blockbuster that THE RING was, or at least somewhere in that range. Sadly, we are probably reaching the end of the line for the “Asian-inspired ghost story” and as a result viewers like me, who have seen a thing or two, are a little jaded and are yearning for something new, will be turned off or left feeling ambivalent towards a film that deserved better. SHUTTER was a good film and has a lot going for it, but just like that last bite of turkey leftovers after the Thanksgiving holiday; you are just a little tired of “the same old thing”. Just as I discovered after ambling through a few old mines as a youth, the best pickings had already been taken and I wasn’t likely to find anything too precious now that the mine had been cleaned out.

ASYLUM (2007) d. David R. Ellis

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the rites of passage as a child is being asked “what you want to be when you grow up”, and then pursuing that question through life until you reach some kind of goal. When asking that question of a very young child, no one in their right mind expects an answer that will be reflected in what you really achieve 20 or more years down the line, nor does the questioner expect you to already have a plan mapped out. Eventually, you have to make a clear choice and follow some kind of clear plan, the best plans being ones where you blend a little good advice with your own original thoughts to reach a destination that is yours alone. A good film has to make a clear choice as to what it wants to be, and the best films blend inspiration and originality to become something sensational and satisfying. If a movie doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be and follows a plan that is horrendously derivative, it may arrive at a conclusion once the path has been followed, but it won’t be its own creation and it won’t be rewarding. Such is the case with ASYLUM, which had some very positive elements but struggled with a lot of troubling issues which led to cinematic schizophrenia and severe neuroses due to overbearing “parents” looking over its shoulder as it developed.

ASYLUM is the story of college coed Madison and her dorm mates Tommy, String, Holt, Maya and Ivy, who arrive for opening weekend and orientation at Richard Miller University and move into the newly renovated North Hall of what used to be the Burke Building, a one time Insane Asylum and medical facility for the mentally ill. Each of the students has deeply buried secrets and fears, but none more than Madison, who comes from a family torn apart by insanity and suicide. It isn’t long before Madison begins seeing eerie sights and she experiences frightening visions, most of which cause her to question her state of mind. Soon, all of Madison’s friends are fighting against a force that seems bent on smashing their psyches, ripping their flesh and shredding their souls. Madison’s only hope is to confront this evil head on before she becomes its next victim.

The great tragedies of ASYLUM is that it may be one of the best looking mainstream, direct-to-dvd, “Big Movie House” films I’ve seen in a while. At no time in this motion picture was there any assault to the eyes caused by the “shakey cam plague”, nor was there an apocalypse of rapidly edited sequences that moved so fast nothing could be ascertained. Neither was there a descent into darkness so deep that I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on. None of these banes to modern film making occurred, and as a result, I could enjoy this film on a visual level to a great degree. Even the soundtrack had some bouncy, airy but pleasant songs to go with the lighter moments and some innocuous metal and spooky orchestral accompaniment at the scarier parts. At least it wasn’t rap! Sadly, one visual error was peopling the cinematic canvas with impossibly good looking principal characters and even the extras looked like they stepped off the set of The O.C. or some other absurdly hip and hot TV show. While I can’t deny the appeal of the “eye candy”, it keeps me from getting in the mood of a horror film, and as any connoisseur can tell you, atmosphere is essential. It isn’t just the perfect teeth, superb legs and incredible hairdos that keep the right mood from being developed, it is a problem with multiple personalities and an inability to grow past the influence of its “parents” that cripples ASYLUM.

Director David R. Ellis brought us FINAL DESTINATION 2, and one of the reasons that film was enjoyable was that it “went for broke” right out of the gate. While it was a “horror” movie, the death scenes were so wonderfully over the top and outlandish, that FINAL DESTINATION 2 was just as much an action/comedy as it was a horror movie, and for that I gave it high marks. ASYLUM never chose a clear path and as a result, it meandered through the wilderness of subgenres, thoroughly unclear of its purpose. Part of the problem was its derivative nature. At the start, the initial premise seemed to combine the ideas of POLTERGEIST and the 1999 remake of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL: new building renovated on the site of violence and death disturbing the “spirits” and evil doctor haunting the creepy halls of his “practice” and seeking vengeance after his brutal demise. Even if ASYLUM had continued down a derivative path and mined these too oft used plot ideas, at least it would have gained some clear direction and momentum. As the movie progressed, it took on aspects of the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET flicks and the FINAL DESTINATION films, as the death scenes became more grandiose and absurd and as the evil Dr. Burke’s killing repartee and monologues consistently sounded more and more like Freddy Krueger. To make matters worse, there was a district aroma (or odor) of The O.C. or any other glamorous teen melodrama you can name. While getting inside the secrets of the characters made sense, too much of their interaction and interplay was mindless and superfluous flummery created for titillation purposes and nothing else. Beyond being repulsive archetypes of the “Beverly Hills” set, even the characters’ names were horrifically trendy. Once again, had ASYLUM chosen what it wanted to be in its essential stages of creation, it wouldn’t have ended up as warped as it did and in need of analysis. Possibly even more detrimental to its development, it often felt like “the suits” were standing over the film makers, forcing them to “paint by numbers” and adding in marketing devices and other forced story telling that ruined the originality of this film. As we all know, when a parent lives their child’s life for them, the kid is going to be “messed up”.

To make matters worse, the characters themselves were a perfect example of multiple personality disorder. From the serious side of the affected brain (ala HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) were Madison played by Sarah Roemer and Holt played by Jake Muxworthy. Both actors tried to create earnest, thoughtful and sympathetic characters, flawed by tragedy and working toward resolution. Both gave sincere performances. From the sillier side of the twisted mind were Tommy played by Travis Van Winkle and Rez played by Randall Sims. If both of these actors were trying to create a dynamic mass of irritating energy building a thermonuclear reaction of sheer idiocy, they succeeded brilliantly, and that is probably the case. Under other circumstances, their performances might have been wonderfully comedic and have been a great benefit to a screenplay. In this situation, they were the infantile anti-matter to the common matter that was Madison and Holt, and we all know what happens when matter and anti-matter come into contact. Every time the serious characters tried to divert this film the silly ditch and pull the characters stuck in the “no-man’s land” between the poles towards the real horror world this film should have lived in, Tommy and Rez would use their electro-magnetic powers of stupidity attraction and yank the film with overwhelming force back to its helpless “middle of the stream” drifting. I can’t honestly remember ever seeing a movie so deeply divided against itself, and as President Lincoln warned, no house (or mind) can stand in such a situation.

The final insult to injury was a disc that started with three auto-play trailers and then took you to a main menu that had no extras! How many times must I screech about this, but ANY dvd must have a little something. Since director David R. Ellis has a reasonable pedigree, a commentary track or short interview featurette should have been forthcoming. Some of the actors like Sarah Roemer have had some success in other films and probably have some interesting anecdotes about the production process. Even a short piece on the setting of this film in South Carolina and the grounds that were used would have been a good idea. One of the strengths of this film was a nice mix of appealing interior and exterior sets. Whether it was the fault of the production company, the releasing company, both or some other villain, whether it’s a good or bad film, some extras are always advisable, especially if it is a disappointing effort. There is no question that after I’ve watched a film that didn’t impress, I generally feel more kindly towards it if I’ve heard the thoughts of cast and crew about their experiences. I feel a sense of connection to their efforts and an even deeper sense of goodwill towards the people who made sure those stories was told.

One of the most difficult aspects of psychology is seeing beneath the apparently healthy surface to the internal illness that needs treatment. Once a diagnosis has been made, the healing can begin. Despite its glittering beauty and glamorous appeal, ASYLUM has some serious problems lurking just below the waterline. Whether these issues stem from a troubled start in the film world or a painful developmental stage during cinematic adolescence is not entirely clear, but the outcome is a specimen that does not know where it wants to go or how to get there, and the result is stagnation. ASYLUM would have probably benefited from early intervention to keep “the suits” from stunting its growth and/or counseling to determine its schizophrenia and to prescribe the necessary therapeutic protocols to address its needs. Whatever the reason, a lack of professional attention doomed a promising addition to the motion picture canon did not realize its full potential and will probably need some form of theatrical hospitalization.