Sunday, September 28, 2008

THE DEVIL’S CHAIR (2006) d. Adam Mason

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

For some reason, over the past few years films about asylums, mental institutions and prisons for the criminally insane haunted by demons and other creatures of the abyss have proliferated. Even though such fare is fertile ground for a movie, dipping into the same well time after time will eventually bring forth stale water. While the well hasn’t gone sour yet, the water level is clearly getting lower and that is not likely to be a good thing. While THE DEVIL’S CHAIR precedes such recent efforts as ASYLUM, INSANITARIUM, FALLEN ANGELS and FURNACE, it is dealing with a topic that is beginning to get threadbare. The only way for a film maker to get around seeming old hat and tired is to take your film in unexpected directions and that might have been a good thing for THE DEVIL’S CHAIR to do, but instead of blazing a new trail it borrows from another source, THE DESCENT, and as a result a somewhat passable but clearly mediocre film emerges instead of something special.

THE DEVIL’S CHAIR is the story of Nick West, a lowlife who witnesses the grisly and inexplicable death of his girlfriend Sammy when they visit an abandoned sanitarium known as Blackwater Asylum. After years of incarceration for Sammy’s death in Hilden Mental Institute, Nick returns to Blackwater in the company of Dr. Willard, a man who blackmails Nick in order to secure Nick’s release in exchange for assistance on a book he is writing. Accompanying Nick and Dr. Willard is his assistant Melissa and students Brett Wilson and Rachel Fowles. It isn’t long before gruesome experiences begin again at Blackwater, putting everyone’s soul at risk.

THE DEVIL’S CHAIR starts off in an uneven manner and continues to be uneven throughout its runtime. The story is told through the eyes of Nick West and all through the film we are treated to his narration of events past, present and future. At times Nick’s commentary can be gripping, but at other times it is distracting and occasionally just plain irritating. It doesn’t help that his whispery British accent makes the audio messy and muddy far too often. The first acts of the film are created using the modern photographic philosophical plague of exceedingly fast edits, painful close-ups and miserable shaky-camera disease, all of which are meant to parallel Nick’s descent into “madness”, but it still doesn’t work. What does work is that after that prologue, the camera work improves steadily and we are treated to much more thoughtfully arranged compositions. What is especially enjoyable is the use of shifting hues, subtle shades, and overexposure blended with dense shadow to create some very atmospheric segments of the film. There were times when icy cold blues and velvety blacks coruscate across scenes providing a texture that helps to briefly erase the earlier photographic transgressions. When coupled with the dismal and scabrous interior setting rife with revolting and unsettling props, the imagery in the middle of the film is profound. Keeping this fine camera work from reaching an apex of excellence was the film maker’s propensity for using freeze frames to accentuate the feel of a story told in a series of flashbacks and scattered memories. This worked in small doses, but to have it be a regular component of the movie kept the imagery from settling deep inside the soul of the viewer and lodging there like a cold core of evil not to be expelled. What was also disappointing was that in the last act of the film, we returned to the modernist methods of shooting scenes unpleasantly, creating a symmetry of visual dissatisfaction that limited THE DEVIL’S CHAIR’S appeal.

THE DEVIL’S CHAIR’S story was just as uneven. After the initial shock to the system in the prologue designed to whet the cinematic appetite, the story wound its way through some clearer channels that were designed to establish a firm belief in the occult nature of the conflict. While the plot was building steadily, momentum was increasing far too slowly and the earlier stages of the film suffered from being slow. Once the pace picked up however, as with the camera work, there was a stretch in the middle of the film that was gripping and thought-provoking. Then in an effort to take this film away from being predictable and formulaic, the writers decided to sample the primary plot device from THE DESCENT. Nick’s traumatic experience unbalanced his mind and it is only at the end that we see that Nick is truly insane and that there is no occult explanation for the bloodthirsty acts being visited upon the other characters. It is Nick who is the demon and it is his lust for blood that must be sated. Had THE DEVIL’S CHAIR preceded THE DESCENT, this plot twist might have been novel and incredibly creative, but it comes off as totally derivative. In the end, which is worse, to be formulaic or derivative?

THE DEVIL’S CHAIR is unevenly acted but inventively cast. Andrew Howard and Elize du Toit give strong performances as Nick West and Rachel Fowles. The venerable David Gant is a little over the top as Dr. Willard, but for a while that fits the tone of the film. Matt Berry’s character Brett Wilson adds nothing to the story for he is the proverbial “jerk that must be endured”. Whether the character was scripted that way or Mr. Berry played his part in his own inimitable manner, having a “pain-in-the-ass” in your serious horror film doesn’t make it scarier, it makes it less realistic and a more difficult sell. At first glance, the casting doesn’t seem to be all that inspired but the one element that does foreshadow the eventual payoff of Nick’s insanity is that the male characters are uninteresting looking at best and downright ugly to be honest. Elize du Toit and Louise Griffiths (Melissa) are drop dead gorgeous and that is purposeful. They are part of Nick’s dementia and a creation of what his mind wants to see. At first I didn’t notice this little tidbit dropped in the literary lap, but it became a clear construct that I felt added to the complexity of the overall painting.

The bonus features menu of THE DEVIL’S CHAIR is not terribly diverse, but it is rewarding. In addition to an audio commentary featuring writer/director Adam Mason and writer Simon Boyes, there is a 58 minute featurette called “Blood, Sweat and Fears: The Making of The Devil’s Chair”. This short feature is much more in-depth than the average “behind the scenes’ documentary and for those who find this film satisfying and compelling, it will be a worthwhile venture. There are a series of auto-play trailers at the head of the feature film and a menu option in the extras that offers another series of Sony Films trailers. While not “The Great Train Robbery” of bonus features, there is enough here to satisfy those who are willing to delve into this film more deeply.

When I first went ice skating on a pond and not a rink, I was both transfixed and somewhat vexed by the uneven nature of the ice. The smooth sections offered the best skating while the rough stretches often dumped me on my backside, but the lack of consistency kept me on my toes. THE DEVIL’S CHAIR is a little like that long, lost experience. I enjoyed elements of this film and found reason to praise it, but it wasn’t a superior motion picture. It struggles with paying homage to other films, even references other works in the dialogue like HELLRAISER, DR. WHO and SCOOBY DOO, but even more problematic it ventures over well-traveled ground that is beginning to feel worn. Had THE DEVIL’S CHAIR tried to be its own project and brave its own path through the wilderness, it might have been a bit more memorable.

VIPERS (2007) d. Bill Corcoran

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Few creatures inspire the kind of disgust and revulsion as do snakes. Whether it is the autonomic response that most mammals feel around reptiles or the special abhorrence mankind has developed over millennia of demonizing snakes in religion, culture and literature, people generally don’t like this legless lizard. When it comes to the movies, there has rarely been a time when snakes haven’t been far from the Silver Screen, whether it is taking a small role in films like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) or sitting squarely on the center stage in movies like RATTLERS (1976) or ANACONDA (1997). Film makers have mined the public’s fear of snakes in a wide variety of ways. Taking inspirational pages from films like THE BEES (1978) and TARANTULA (1955) and borrowing ideas from SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006), VIPERS blends the classic killer snakes tale with that of corporate greed and science gone wrong to spin an effective yarn and add another successful notch to the Maneater Series franchise’s growing belt.

VIPERS is the story of the Universal Biotech Company and its researcher Dr. Vera Collins, who is experimenting on horned vipers to extract their venom to concoct a cancer serum. Dangerous mutations have been bred into the vipers unbeknownst to Dr. Collins and when the snakes are accidentally released into the wild, they head straight for the Pacific Northwestern fishing and resort town of Eden Cove to satisfy their excessive need to feed. Villagers like Nicky Swift (Tara Reid) and Hank Brownie (Stephen E. Miller) must join forces with newcomers like Cal Taylor (Jonathan Scarfe) to fight this fanged menace before everyone becomes a snake snack.

Despite some clear weaknesses and an adherence to a very tested and somewhat overused formula, VIPERS is an enjoyable film. The story, while fairly obvious in its direction from the opening scenes, depends on a nice mix of gory snake killings and grisly feasting on their prey, some suspenseful and occasionally exciting segments where the townspeople are forced to dodge, run from and fight the serpents, as well as some dramatic character interplay often bordering on melodrama. In fact, one of the surprising qualities of VIPERS is that in spite of a bit too much dysfunctional dirty laundry among the townsfolk, in the first half of the movie there is also an unexpected quantity of character development that makes for a reasonably compelling plot. Most of the principal characters are people you like or at least come to care about and as a result, a viewer’s emotions are engaged and they are able to identify with the triumphs and tragedies of those involved. The story is thoughtfully paced so that it moves along without being too brisk, but it takes breaks to explore its characters without stalling. There aren’t too many films these days that know how to strike that kind of balance.

One of the reasons the characters work so well is that there are some capable and seasoned veterans cast in many of the roles. Jonathan Scarfe puts in one of the better performances as Cal and his affable yet decisive persona makes him one of the more effective leading men in any of the Maneater movies. Old hands like Don S. Davis, Stephen E. Miller, Jessica Steen and the venerable Corbin Bersen add something that is usually lacking in low budget TV Movies, experience and talent, and it really helps to add momentum to this somewhat tired plot construction. When you’ve got actors and actresses who know what they’re doing and can deliver lines and respond to each other with some flair and chemistry, even a formulaic narrative can be transformed. Even youthful Genevieve Buechner who plays Maggie Martin gets in on the act, adding a heaping helping of hysteria and histrionics that any “scream queen” of past years would admire. The only weak link in this chain is Tara Reid. Never a good actress to begin with, her performance is so uninteresting and “like herself” that she is a distraction. It doesn’t help that she is no longer an actress, but rather a “celebrity” and it is not likely a viewer can distance themselves from the fact you are looking at Tara Reid and not a story character. Tom Cruise has the same curse and it has made it impossible for me to see one of his films for many years. Tara Reid has reached that same threshold, and once past that door, there is no return. Another grating note in the Tara Reid opus was that for much of the film, she wore one of the stupidest hats I have ever seen, making her look like a brown-headed, spindly-legged pixie with creepy eyes that never blink. Since the Maneater Series was not a theatrical release and not dependant on a “bankable star”, it might have made more sense to cast a prettier face with a better figure and more acting talent.

Like many of the RHI-TV films made in conjunction with the Sci-Fi Channel, VIPERS looked pretty good on many levels. The sets were fairly small and limited, but they were well chosen. There was an idyllic charm to the coastal fishing village imagery and the panoramic vistas of sea, sky and the soaring cliffs of British Columbia. In addition, scenes were patiently shot and well lit so that everything could be viewed with ease. There were no painful close ups or “shakey-cam” disease to make the viewing experience less pleasant. The snakes themselves were almost always created through CGI, but they looked relatively good and at no time did I get “taken out of the story” by the special effects. What was a surprise was that unlike most of the Maneater Series, there was a fair amount of violent death, bloody gore, sex scenes and nudity. Possibly, VIPERS wanted to “keep up with The Joneses” and emulate some of the characteristics that made SNAKES ON A PLANE popular with those who saw it, but it was a good choice. Between the pretty landscape photography, loads of hungry snakes, naked women being devoured by lecherous serpents and an A-Team inspired transformation of a truck into a fighting machine, there was a lot to enjoy about this film visually.

As has been the case with all of the Maneater Series films, there was no bonus features menu and once again it was a terrible missed opportunity. When you’ve got a director like Bill Corcoran who has a long pedigree of working on TV movies and series, established actors like Corbin Bersen and Don S. Davis and even Tara Reid, although I’m not sure I’d want to sit through any of her reflections, there need to be some cast interviews and/or behind the scenes featurettes. Just about anyone is going to want to hear about the making of a “killer snakes” film and the serious, silly or salacious recollections of the cast and crew will only make the viewing audience’s experience that much better. As I have said before, in an economy where people are losing jobs and money is harder to come by, adding extras to a disc will increase the likelihood of a larger product run. For goodness sakes, put a computer game on the bonus features menu where the viewer gets to command the vipers to hunt down various cast members. If I had the chance to send legions of snakes after Tara Reid in a video game, I’d certainly pay full price for the DVD.

VIPERS is another fine addition to an inconsistent franchise of Maneater Series films. While it is not the most exciting of the bunch, it may be one of the more visually interesting and it is probably one of the better acted movies. It is the kind of film that I used to love to go and see at the Drive-In or on a Saturday afternoon matinee. It isn’t terribly original, but it mines a rich vein in the human psyche and does it with enough success that I would recommend VIPERS to anyone who likes to see genetically modified wildlife run amok in a small town, on a small island, where there is small chance of escape and survival.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH (1978) d. Franco Prosperi

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When the topic of Italy comes up in casual conversation, one instantly thinks of that country’s spectacular history and ancient culture, their incomparable food and wines, as well as their trend-setting fashions and the jet setting lifestyle of its celebrities. There will even be some people “in the know” that will be able to speak with authority when it comes to the merits of Italian cinema. However, there aren’t many initiates to Italy’s glorious exploitation films from the 1960s, 70s and early 80s where stylishness and sleaze were grafted in a way that has yet to be eclipsed. There was no country on Earth that could equal Italy for their lascivious and gratuitous combination of panache, pulchritude and perversity in a manner that was so very chic and yet made one’s skin crawl. Over a 20-25 year period, Italian thrillers, horror films, westerns and even science fiction exuded sexuality, savagery and sickening salaciousness like no others and yet those who came to appreciate those films could not always admit that guilty pleasure, for Italian exploitation cinema pushed boundaries of acceptability right to the edge. LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is exactly that type of film for its heady mix of violence, rape and revenge.

LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is the story of three bank robbers, Aldo, Walter and Nino, who pull off a vicious and daring daylight heist and then go looking for a hideout in the hills overlooking the coasts near Rome. They discover a beautiful and spacious villa owned by a religious school and find that a nun, Sister Cristina, and her five beautiful female students are staying there, practicing for an upcoming Shakespearean play and studying for exams. What ensues is a lengthy ordeal of torment and molestation of the girls and Sister Cristina at the hands of their captors until finally the tables can be turned.

What starts off as a competently shot, somewhat patiently told and partly reserved film with overtones of potential debauchery carefully hidden in the very thoughtfully composed sequences, steadily gains power and punishing profundity as the simplistic story moves forward. At no time during the movie's narrative are there surprises or twists in the plot, and there is no reason for any to exist. LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is all about gritting your teeth and girding your loins against what is coming. Even though the scenes of abuse and abasement are done with a lighter hand than misery-fests like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, the filming techniques and shot composition, coupled with the emotive musical score make each scene carry just as much weight. Whether it is the use of fish-eye lenses, slow-motion photography, asymmetrical framing, unsettling close ups on eyes or thoughtfully arranged editing, the result is a film that slides into your stomach like a razor sharp and ultra-thin blade, delivering the same kind of incredibly stunning impact. No one likes to admit they enjoy a film like LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, but its appeal is also impossible to deny. As each step is taken on the plot path, you grow to hate the miscreants and wish fervently for their dispatch. Whether they are acting like feral wolves following a potential kill or infantile bullies intimidating others through mindless blunt force, they are despicable to the core and the viewer is led forcibly to draw a bitter conclusion that these pustules must be eliminated. When it comes to the fairer sex, despite the static nature of their characters, as well as their helplessness and petulant submissiveness, a viewer can’t help but feel pain every time one of the school girls or Sister Cristina herself is subjected to intensifying debasement. Their final revenge is a dish served as sweetly as any sugary delicacy at the end of a fine repast.

What makes LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH even more of a rare find is how it works on other levels too. The interior and exterior settings are simply stunning for a low budget exploitation film. All of the rooms of the villa are draped in fashionable and exotic décor of the Mediterranean and they whisper “sophistication” in a way that only European cinema once had. Even better are the sweeping vistas of the sun-drenched Italian coast. There is a overwhelmingly heart-breaking quality to the azure blues of sea and sky as well as the buttery yellows of the sun and the luxuriant greens of the flora that is unique to Italy’s coast. One thing that certainly doesn’t hurt is the pristine and wonderfully crisp super wide-screen transfer of the film print done by Severin Films. Coupled with the splendid architecture of the interiors, the glorious hues and atmospheric exquisiteness of the Italian seascape provide a compelling contrast to the slightly seedy beauty of the often bikini-clad young lovelies and the far too often gruesome physiognomy of the male antagonists. All through the last half of LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, there is the stark juxtaposition of wide-eyed, tormented and tear-streaked faces of tender innocents side by side with the leering and depraved visages of their enemies, all the while set against the backdrop of Italy’s splendid panoramas, creating a surprisingly sublimity. Added to that is Roberto Pedragio’s haunting, often disturbing score that combines funk, techno-synthesizers and disco/rock influences to create a sound that slithers into a sinuous sickness throughout the story and the sickening scenes of sadism. There is no way to shake off the sensory snares that enmesh you in a web that steadily draws each and every viewer into the dark heart of this film.

The extras menu of this little known flick may not seem deep to the average movie-lover, but those who know how hard such fare is to come by appreciate that what has been created and found is very worthwhile. There is a 30 minute interview with star Ray Lovelock called “Holy Beauty vs. The Evil Beasts”. Mr. Lovelock, who played the lead character of Aldo, discusses everything from his personal history, to relationships on the set, the production of the film and the music for the movie and does it with a flair typical of continental Europe. Getting any European film star to reflect upon and recall their memories of those times of lost glory is a boon and every time I see an interview like this, I am thankful for small companies like Severin Films and the pains they take to bring forth such goodness. In addition to the interview featurette, there is an Italian and a German trailer for LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, both of which are quite interesting for the fact that each trailer shows some pretty graphic content that obviously was seen in European cinemas. It is always fascinating to me what was allowed to be viewed by the “general public” on “The Continent” and compare it to what was considered passable here.

LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is the kind of film that should be made today, but so often isn’t. Not only does it look great and sound just as good, it is a film that combines loveliness and ugliness in such a way that it achieves a bizarre kind of artistry. One wouldn’t normally think of such a term in the context of exploitation cinema, but that is the end result. In today’s repulsively “politically correct” world, most people wouldn’t dare to apply the moniker “art” to a film like LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, but it is apropos. Just because it deals with subjects that we don’t normally equate with art, doesn’t mean that such an achievement is impossible. Brutality and beauty often co-exist in a symbiosis that is not easy to assimilate. If you can absorb and thoughtfully process the less pleasant, then you can bask in the splendor of the other.


Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When you were a little kid, the monster under the bed or the creature hiding in the closet was a terrifying reminder of all the beasties that could be lurking just within the shadows at anytime or anyplace. Whether it was a bare and lifeless skeleton of a tree that harbored spooks or other sinister spirits, or the dank and lightless corners of a musty and threatening cellar, monsters could be found almost anywhere, even in movie theaters. The problem with putting monsters up on the Big Screen is that the monsters created by the febrile crevices of a fertile mind are always scarier than monsters in a motion picture. When movie monsters are made to look more disgusting than scary and are part of a horror-comedy that isn’t funny and isn’t particularly frightening, you’ve got a problem on your hands. JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER is a “scary” monster film that is supposed to bring forth a few laughs, but sadly it fails on almost every count that a movie critic could consider.

JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER is the story of Jack Brooks, an angry young man who lost his family during his childhood under grisly and ghoulish circumstances, leaving Jack orphaned and full of unfettered fury. Now a young man, Jack is searching for answers but instead finds himself fending off troubles at his job, difficulties with relationships and dealing with a science night class that seems boring and pointless. Life takes an interesting turn though when Jack’s science teacher, Professor Crowley, is possessed by a demon, whose sole interest is in spreading its demonic power as far as it can and ingesting whatever nourishment that can be had from those within tentacle grasp. Jack is forced to focus his rage on demon-spawn that need a good thumping so that he can save his class mates from all kinds of fates of a most gruesome nature.

When I first watched the venerable CHILDREN SHOULDN”T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972), I realized that one of its many cardinal sins was that it had almost nothing going for on over the first 65-75% of the film and it was only during the last moments of the falling action that a passable stretch of the film ensued. Since that time, I have held up CHILDREN SHOULDN”T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS as an example of a flick that had a good idea for its final act, but most of the rest of the movie was cobbled together in such a way so that the story and the characters were boring, miserably irritating or both. JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER is an updating of that unpleasant experience. Despite having a final 20 minutes that delivered some action, some gore, a few “thrills” and a smidgeon of story potential, it isn’t worth sitting through the first 60+ minutes to get to a denouement that was only mediocre, and let us remember that initial two-thirds was a laborious chore. JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER started off with a reasonably good segment where we see young Jack scarred for life by a run-in with a monster, but shortly after that the film slides down a greasy slope of somnambulistic synergy into insipid, meaningless dialogue delivered by vapid and infuriating characters coupled with a story that had absolutely no momentum. Worse still, we kept looping back to return to places where no amount of forward progress on the story could be achieved. Every time we revisited John’s or Eve’s or Dr. Silverstein’s characters and rehashed failed dialogue and storytelling, the real terror began as I began to realize that precious minutes were being lost and the plot was still stuck in the LaBrea Tar Pits. Even when the tale sidestepped to slightly more interesting story lines like that of Professor Crowley played by Robert Englund or Howard played by David Fox, inertia continued to dominate and the narrative crept along like a sloth fallen from its tree. I enjoy a patiently paced film and am often teased about my penchant for movies that are “atmospheric” and not “active”, but I felt like a Paleolithic hunter waiting for the glaciers to recede so I could stalk the great Woolly Mammoth across the still frozen tundras of the North. No one has that much patience, and mine steadily eroded as this snoozer of a flick inched its way forward.

To add insult to injury, JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER was steeped in unpleasantness both human and fluid. With the exception of Professor Crowley and possibly Howard, the characters were uniformly onerous, irksome and obnoxious. One should not feel like they are bearing up under the weight of a 15-ton block of stone when watching characters interface during a motion picture, but by the halfway point, I identified with the builders of the Easter Island statues and knew what it must have been like to lug those monoliths over expansive ground. Why is it that modern characters must be so consistently dreadful? When I think back to films like THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), Vincent Price’s character was no Boy Scout, but he had a menacing charm and an intellectual charisma that made him both compelling and appealing. If film characters reflect the nature of our current society and give viewers someone to identify with, our nation is in a sorrier state than ever. To go along with that, why is it that film makers today equate scary imagery with loads of viscous fluids that is not blood? By itself, blood is not particularly chilling, but when it has been freed from an artery by teeth or a knife, it connotes a certain amount of shock and revulsion. Seeing green, brown or color-indeterminate liquids erupt from the bodies of monsters, or ichor squirt from appendages or slime spread so thick it could have been laid down with a mop isn’t creepy, it is just another example of how the “geek show” has taken hold of the motion picture industry. If that is really what people want to see on film today, then such profile information continues to provide damning evidence that American Society is totally screwed up. If you like spewing, spurting or spraying, there is plenty to be had in the last 30 minutes of JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER. I found that it accompanied the early story well, for runny discharge rocketing forth from some orifice becomes just as dull as a poorly crafted story after a while.

JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER is not without its positive qualities. Ryan Shore’s film score was very impressive, probably too much so for this movie. Such a good score should probably be accompanying an epic like BEN-HUR or some other heroic tale. The special effects of some of the monsters and some of the action sequences were well done too. While the puppetry/costuming of the demon/troll at the end had a ludicrous element to it, it is clear that a great deal of effort went into its creation. What is astounding about JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER is its extras menu, which may be one of the deepest I’ve come across in a long time. In addition to an audio commentary track featuring the director, producer Patrick White, the title character actor Trevor Matthews (who is also a producer) and composer Ryan Shore, there are another nine features to be enjoyed. There is a 50 minute “Behind the Scenes” featurette followed by a 15 minute “Creating the Monsters” short feature. Next is the very engaging 13 minute “Creating the Music” segment, which may be the best of the bunch. There is a 3 minute “World Premiere: Sitges, Spain” mini-feature which is pretty unusual. There are five Deleted Scenes of lengths varying from 30 seconds to 6 ½ minutes. There are six Storyboard Comparisons also of varying lengths and complexity. The 15 slides in the Conceptual Art Gallery are pretty interesting and there is a 45 slide On-Set Still Gallery which is also worthwhile. Finally, there is the trailer. After the disappointment of the film, the overstuffed bonus features of JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER helped to soften the blow.

When I looked at the attractive poster art on the outside of JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER, I briefly hoped that this film would hearken back to times when movies like ARMY OF DARKNESS or AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON brightened marquees, and when horror-comedies were both funny and scary. I hoped that it wouldn’t be typical of so many failed efforts that are foisted on the movie-going public today. I hoped that I would be able to praise it, for I very much like what Anchor Bay does and want to support their efforts, but I came away very disenchanted. JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER may appeal to a segment of the viewing population who have little or nothing to compare it with and know not of the fine horror-comedy forerunners that have brilliantly braved the way, like Roger Corman’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959) or Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY (1968). For those of us who know better, JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER is a drink from the tainted wells of today that leaves a bitter tang upon the tongue that no amount of gargling with lye can dispel.

Friday, September 26, 2008

NECROVILLE (2007) d. Billy Garberina & Richard Griffin

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Creating a horror-comedy poses some unique challenges. Beyond the fact that the legions of horror genre fans have very eclectic tastes and are famously hard to please, everyone has their own ideas as to what they think is funny. For some people it’s the subtle nature of tongue-in-cheek humor that fits the bill, while others prefer the pratfalls of slapstick. A segment of the population finds laughter in razor-sharp satire, while others get their jollies from the juvenile avenue of “bodily functions” comedy. Since the horror-comedy clearly has the unenviable reality of not being able to please everyone, and yet that is what most films try to do is catch a sizable audience, it takes some pretty careful planning to find the best mix of chilling and chortling story components and imagery. Even more thoughtful consideration must go into the audience you want to reach and how best to do that. NECROVILLE will score a few points with a surprising variety of people who like horror-comedies, but because it never really chooses which brand of humor it wants to mine, it may eventually disappoint a large number of viewers too.

NECROVILLE is the story of Jack and Alex, two friends who can’t seem to catch a break. In addition to their shared problems of losing jobs on a regular basis, they each have their own individual problems. Alex is a slovenly, slug of a loser with no real prospects in sight, despite an excellent knowledge of firearms. Jack is enslaved to a shrewish girlfriend named Penny who controls every aspect of his day, and despite being a martial arts expert, he seems more helpless than a cornered mouse. To make matters worse, Jack and Alex live in Necroville, outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city infested with zombies, vampires and werewolves. Then the pals find a bit of luck and land a job as exterminators with “Zom-B-Gone”, patrolling the city and helping folks rid their lives of the murderous vermin that make like in Necroville rather hazardous to one’s health. Between fighting off hordes of the undead and gunning down lycanthropes, Jack and Alex are forced to tackle a “master” vampire, who holds all the rest of the city’s bloodsuckers under his sway. Jack and Alex are forced to use every tactic and resource available to them to win this all-out grudge match to the death.

NECROVILLE is a very uneven film, which is to its credit, because the vast majority of low-budget, “cast is the crew” flicks I have seen are uniformly miserable. When NECROVILLE concentrates its comedy laser to a focused beam and keeps the energy levels high, it can be surprisingly funny at times. For example, there are numerous zombie mockeries, the best of which was the bdsm zombies, but the helpless zombie set upon by the phalanx of “girl guides” was also quite humorous. In addition, the Paul Bunyan reference was rather funny and had a nice twist on the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. Best of all was the implacable savaging that vampires, goth culture and all the numbskulls in between took at the hands of NECROVILLE. The insufferably melodramatic and horrendously haughty Euro-cool nature of these poseurs was lampooned time and again with some very incisive sarcasm. Add to these strengths some very silly and wonderfully ridiculous battle scenes and some over-the-top gore that was liberally troweled throughout the film and there are some reasons to like NECROVILLE.

On the so-so side were the camera work and the scenery. Low budget films often have little to work with when it comes to interior and exterior sets, and NECROVILLE isn’t a boon for the eyes, but it wasn’t tragically dull and unappealing either. While there some moments where the close-ups were a little too tight and the editing was a little too fast, I chalked this up to the need to cover the lack of stunt experts for the hand-to-hand fights and an equal lack of cash for more involved special effects since the budget was clearly spent on gore and makeup. That is where the real visual strengths of this film lay. The zombies look like mouldering and scabrous shambling corpses and there is blood, guts and bodily effluent aplenty so that anyone looking for a gore-filled chum-fest will be pleased. The werewolves and vampires are not as impressive looking but that seems to be intentional, and part of the mechanism for mocking these horror icons.

What didn’t work were a series of story problems coupled with character concepts. Keeping in mind the low budget nature of this film, there is still room for reconsideration of how a project is put together. The main characters of Jack and Alex may be down-on-their-luck losers, but they don’t have to be unappealing turds, which is what they were to a greater degree. Making characters absolute jerks does not make them funnier, especially when you’re talking about a wild romp through a fantasy story-line. Viewers don’t need to be reminded of the real world of pain, they want escape, and characters should be a vehicle for that getaway. There were times when Jack’s character had a bumbling good-natured quality, but Alex was never anything but detestable and obnoxious, and when the two characters were engaged in their infantile arguments and bitch-slapping of each other, the momentum of the movie was brought to a screeching halt. When Gilligan and The Skipper would disagree, it was carefully constructed comedy, but when Alex and Jack squabbled, it felt more like rancid meat left in the pig trough for too many days or even worse, it may remind you of your children who you are trying to take a break from. In addition, while most of the average populace of our fine country curse and swear more than they should, making both characters, especially Alex, constantly foul-mouthed belies the effort to create characters who are really winners unfortunately covered in the aura of losers. Incessantly cursing characters come across as imbeciles at best, and at worst the viewer grows to dislike them and won’t fully relate to them. Moreover, it was painfully obvious where the direction of the Penny character was headed and the reason for Penny and Jack’s arguments was just as evident. I understand why she had to be an unsympathetic character, but forward momentum in any film is important, and in a horror-comedy it is absolutely essential. Every time Jack and Penny began their descent into relationship ferret-fighting, the pace of NECROVILLE slowed to the point where it was almost collapsed into the ditch. What might have worked better would have been shorter, slightly more intense scenes where mood can be developed, but we return briskly to the horror and the comedy.

Some other problems stemmed from taking the low road instead of the middle or higher ways. Drug humor, like the buddy cop or the wise cracking sidekick or the adorable animal partner or the rapper-turned-actor, has come to the end of the line and needs a mercy-killing. There may be just as many people out there taking drugs today as there has always has been, but that avenue of humor has run its course and has depleted its power source. Since most power sources are non-renewable and/or non-rechargeable, its time to find a new source, so drop the drug humor because that is another way to slam your story momentum into a brick wall. That means the stoner-boss needed to be slightly altered. Make him an airhead, an absent-minded type or even an aged burn-out due to his time working in a benzene factory, but drop the drug humor, it doesn’t work. The other story criticism I have is the bodily-functions humor of the victory scene at the end of the penultimate battle. Again, this was an obvious outcome of plot devices “sprinkled” throughout the story that could only lead to this result. Taking that humor device out of the film wouldn’t have made sense, but making the “shower” scene as long as it was became moronically gratuitous. Stick with your idea, make it “short & sweet”, and then as the vampire is melting, have the “dynamic duo” give him a series of atomic knee-drops and other ridiculous wrestling moves, or have them take turns slamming the decaying body into the side of the building while singing "Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead” or something ludicrous that goes with much of the sharper humor that worked so well earlier in the film. Going down the low road with no hope of re-ascending the higher ways means you run the risk of losing a diverse viewing population. There are a lot of horror fans that don’t want their horror-comedies to feel like they are going the way of YOU, ME & DUPREE and Owen Wilson, which is one of the meanest things I can say about any element of any film.

The bonus features menu of NECROVILLE is amazingly deep, giving people who enjoy this film or Shock-O-Rama features another reason to like it even more. In addition to an audio commentary with Billy Garberina, there are two outtakes and five deleted scenes collected into a short section. There are no less than two featurettes and two short films. One featurette is a 4 ½ minute piece called “Fun with actor Mark Chavez”, which is really a series of humorous outtakes with the actor. The other featurette is another 4 ½ minute segment called “NECROVILLE Visual FX” with Neil Garcia, which really is a montage of the better constructed special effects set pieces of the feature film. There two short films are the 17 minute “The Legend of Aerreus Kane”, a sepia-toned silent film and the 4 minute “Cum-uppance”, a rather odd little trinket. Finally there is the ubiquitous Shock-O-Rama trailer vault and a liner notes booklet by Billy Garberina which is a lot of fun. One of the things I continue to enjoy about most of my dealings with dvds from the PopCinema universe is that even if I don’t like a film, which wasn’t entirely the case with NECROVILLE, I can find some solace in the extras menu.

NECROVILLE had a lot more going for it than most low-budget Shock-O-Rama films than I’ve seen and it is to be hoped that Billy Garberina, Richard Griffin and Adam Jarmon Brown are able to sharpen the points of their comedy rapiers so that their next project continues to be funny, but is more consistently so, continues to mock some worthy buffoons, but maintains its momentum while doing it and sloughs off some old and tired mechanisms, like any good snake would shed its useless skin. Staying with the serpent analogy, what makes a viper so deadly is its ability to strike swiftly but to leave a lasting impression that is lethal. A good horror-comedy is just like that, it lances in with blade-sharp humor, pulls back and arms itself for the next strike, and keeps striking with surgical accuracy until the end. NECROVILLE was a little more like a Gila Monster, who does not have injector fangs, so the poison in its saliva must work very slowly. I got the point and laughed here and there, but for too much of the film I was waiting for something good to come again and as we all know waiting for anything brings an increase in entropy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

BLOODSUCKING CINEMA (2007) d. Barry Gray

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Of all the creatures spawned by horror writers and film makers, none is as popular as the vampire, and that pretty surprising considering how little they look like their original portrayals from long ago. Werewolves, mummies and zombies have all remained much the same as they have always been, while vampires have taken on aspects of the culture from which they’ve sprung when their movie was produced. As a result, vampires in the 1950s still had the old Gothic appeal, while 1980s vampires began to wear “guess jeans” and sported punky haircuts. Modern vampires are often clad in even wilder fashions and sometimes are packing pistols. Despite the changes which can often leave older fans behind, vampires evoke images of power and profundity, lethality and laconic apathy as well as savoir-faire and sensuality. BLOODSUCKING CINEMA: THE ORIGIN AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE VAMPIRE MOVIE takes a look back at vampire films using an interesting focus and filter and finds some success doing it.

BLOODSUCKING CINEMA is a documentary that looks at a series of successful modern vampire films like VAMPIRES, THE LOST BOYS, VAN HELSING, UNDERWORLD, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, FROM DUSK TIL DAWN and BLOODRAYNE but more interestingly, looks at the films and film makers that inspired these recent additions to the canon. Using a wide variety of modern clips, older film segments and movie posters/lobby cards, vampire imagery is paraded across the screen while film industry folk discuss the merits of films past and present. To name just a few of the dignitaries, there are iconic directors like John Landis and John Carpenter, less well-known directors like Uwe Boll and Len Wiseman, special effects wizards like the late Stan Winston and Greg Nicotero, actors and actresses like Stuart Townsend, Kristanna Loken and Cheech Marin as well as erudite scholars like Leonard Maltin all discussing cinematic vampire lore. In the end, a surprisingly comprehensive retrospective of vampire films spanning more than 80 years is presented over the one hour run-time.

When I watched the opening segments of this documentary and saw that it was going to focus on modern vampire films, I was nervous at best and at worst ready to hate this film, but I changed my mind and am willing to admit my prejudice. I am not a big fan of most of the modern films explored, FROM DUSK TIL DAWN being the big exception. However, BLOODSUCKING CINEMA was a fair and balanced presentation, going back to the roots of vampire cinema with NOSFERATU and DRACULA, and then proceeding through Hammer Films’ many versions of Dracula including Christopher Lee’s portrayal, Mexican Vampire films, and groundbreaking efforts like BLADE, among others. When older films were referenced, they were done so with exceptional use of old movie posters, movie stills and clips from some of the best sequences in vampire movie history. What also worked was the mix of seasoned professionals lending their knowledge and experience that any movie-goer can benefit from. The reverence of the younger industry professionals for the older fare also aided in adding an air of legitimacy to BLOODSUCKING CINEMA. It was during this segment of the documentary that my fears were allayed and I was able to really enjoy the production.

Sadly, I had my problems with any dealings with the modern films. The panel of experts was entirely too kind to films that either haven’t held up especially well as the years have past, or films that will drop to the bottom of the motion picture pond without leaving a ripple. There is a big difference between a film that leaves a lasting impression because it is well made and a film that is a commercial success but will be forgotten after a decade or a generation. I can’t imagine that BLOODRAYNE or VAN HELSING will ever have the kind of cachet that Bela Lugosi’s or Christopher Lee’s portrayals of DRACULA still have today. To give some of the modern films any space on the Tablet of Fame and Immortality just seems wrong. In addition, whenever BLOODSUCKING CINEMA cuts to scenes from the modern vampire flicks, the many reasons why I don’t like those movies was evidenced, whether it be rapid editing, poorly shot sequences, too many close ups, a reliance on gaudy special effects style over atmospheric substance and vampires that are far more effeminate than they are frightening. For those who like most vampire films that are post 1990, this documentary will probably delight and since it pleased people like me who think that vampire cinema peaked before 1980, I suppose it can be said that BLOODSUCKING CINEMA will reach a fairly wide audience and find reasonably broad approval.

Since BLOODSUCKING CINEMA was a “made for Cable TV” documentary and it is all about interviews and analysis, there is no extras menu to be had. Usually when such is the case, I ascend into a righteous state of indignation, but in this case it makes sense. In some cases, BLOODSUCKING CINEMA might actually be an excellent “bonus feature” to add to a future vampire film release that reaches the kind of classic status that some of the older films have attained. That would be nice.

If you are a fan of silently stalking, pale-faced, undead villains who prowl the night seeking fresh human blood to assuage their hunger, BLOODSUCKING CINEMA is worth your time. It is not the “end all-be all” of vampire documentaries, but it covers a surprising amount of ground in a short time, has some smart and talented people say a few words about films they like and/or admire and to my mind, the more we get the word out there regarding the artistry and creative minds needed to create horror cinema, the better. Horror films continue to be treated like the weird step-sibling to dramas and thrillers. Hopefully documentaries like BLOODSUCKING CINEMA: THE ORIGIN AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE VAMPIRE MOVIE will tear the throats out of such Philistines.

CANNIBAL TERROR (1981) d. Allan W. Steeve aka Alain Deruelle

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Beginning in the very late 1970s and continuing well into the 1980s, European Horror Cinema began leaving behind the well-traveled paths of historical or modern gothic stories and imagery to embrace the slasher craze and an even more infamous subgenre rage, the “cannibal” movie. Titles like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and CANNIBAL FEROX with their subsequent sequels and miserably unrivaled knockoffs proliferated for a time and helped to raise the bar of what the movie-goer could endure when it came to shocks, guts and gore. Not all “cannibal” films lived up to the hype and were more commonly exercises in enduring boredom before you got to see some violence and viscera. CANNIBAL TERROR is just such an example of that type of flick.

CANNIBAL TERROR is the story of a pair of hapless thieves and their hooker friend who try to make a big score by kidnapping a wealthy businessman’s little daughter Florence. When the snatch goes wrong, the three hide out in the wilderness with an associate named Antonio. While they are lying low, one of the gangsters rapes Antonio’s wife. It is after that act of savagery that even more bloodiness ensues, as nearby cannibals exact their own version of vengeance on the villains. By the end, the gangsters have become communal snacks, revenge has been served cold and little Florence is returned to her Mommy and Daddy.

There are some who might consider CANNIBAL TERROR an example of a “good/bad” film, but I just found it to be bad. Right from the start, the title sequences’ bright and bouncy Latin horns and calypso music warned me that I was in for a rough ride, and I was sad to see my instincts weren’t wrong. For the duration of the movie, music that didn’t fit the scenes and was ludicrously bad, awkward or just atonal would return to haunt me and cause my teeth to vibrate painfully. If you start a film with bad music and that is one of the many terrible qualities that is memorable, you know you’ve got a stinker on your hands.

For any medical professionals who wish to study the science of locomotion, CANNIBAL TERROR will serve them well. This film is mostly about people walking. Whether they are walking through cities, walking to meet other people, walking over hill and dale or through a river or a meadow, sometimes walking purposefully or just ambling about, you will see all kinds of walking. Sometimes it’s the villains, other times it’s the victims, and occasionally it’s the cannibals, but the actions of moving from place to place via the use of one’s legs is the primary agent of the plot. As a result, I found CANNIBAL TERROR punishingly dull and only terrifying when I realized that another walking scene was imminent. By the end of the film, I was entirely desensitized to the few scenes of gore that were to be had (cannibal gore is not something I generally like), but at least such segments broke up the long tedium of tramping about.

If extensive padding of this 90+ minute film due to walking wasn’t enough, there were also long scenes of Spanish men painted and dressed up like natives, bouncing up and down and pretending to engage in aboriginal dance that continue the suffering. Obviously this particular cannibal village procreates through some mystical form of parthenogenesis due to consuming non-villagers, for I saw no village women, just a bunch of stooges with bad haircuts and wearing war paint that made them look like kinky kabuki dolls or experimental Maybelline misfits. I wanted so much to find these meat-loving forest critters amusing or asinine so that I would chuckle here and there, but they were thoroughly uninteresting. In addition to this second form of padding, there was more stretching of the story to be had. Whenever a chance came to just hold on a scene, whether characters were doing anything worthwhile or not, ludicrously long holds occurred. Often a viewer would be served up a heaping helping of a person just staring off into space, people sitting in chairs, a toucan waddling about or a monkey looking intently at something only he finds compelling, cars rolling across a landscape or cars bumping up and down over obstacles in the road, all at slow speed of course. By the end of this film, I felt like I had been swathed in cinematic padding and desperately wanted a cannibal to come and finish me off. I even contemplated spreading condiments on myself to hasten the process.

It gets worse. So many other elements of this film that could have gone bad did. The dubbing was horrendous and the acting was worse. While some of the exterior scenery had a “wild charm” to it, most of the exteriors did not match each other. During the horribly choreographed gunfight scenes when one shot in a reed-choked riverside would cut away, it would be to a conifer forest, then the next cut would be to a flatland filled with palms, but the next would be a deciduous forest, and yet these were combatants supposedly fighting each other! Sadly, if you are a fan of cannibal gore sequences and yearned to see bloody guts being stretched between the greedy hands of hungry hunters, there isn’t that much to be spread around. In the first half of the film, there is one vile eviscerating and dismemberment. After that we return to cinematic introspection of a circuitous nature. It is only in the last 30 minutes of CANNIBAL TERROR that two more “chop & chew” chances are to be found and two short scenes where the heaped remains of a bloody feast on Mario were to be “enjoyed”. As I said, I am not much of a fan of such fare, but there are those who like their cannibal films chock-full of grisly goodness, and CANNIBAL TERROR will probably disappoint as a result. CANNIBAL TERROR is really a kidnapping/rape/revenge film at its heart with cannibalism thrown in as a lure for the unsuspecting. As a kidnapping film it is as inept as you can possibly imagine. As a rape/salacious film, there really isn’t a lot to titillate and as a revenge film, everything happens so slowly that no amount of tension or suspense is created. CANNIBAL TERROR is the proverbial turd in the punchbowl.

What was done right was done by Severin Films. CANNIBAL TERROR received a crisp and bright transfer. I doubt this film ever looked this good before, possibly not even in the theater, considering the condition of the early 1980s cinema experience here in this country with small screens and poor projection being the norm. Severin was able to scrape together a 1 ½ minute deleted scene and the theatrical trailer into the “bonus features” menu. It’s not much, but considering how cheaply made CANNIBAL TERROR was and how unknown most of this cast and crew is, finding anything to supplement this stinker shows a great deal of relentless determination.

I have generally liked everything I have seen that Severin Films has put out and it pains me to shred this terrible movie because I REALLY like what they are doing and feel that the efforts of Severin and other small, niche DVD companies should be supported. If you like to be bored to death by a story that is pointless and leaves you waiting for something to happen, watch CANNIBAL TERROR. If you like bad acting, worse dubbing and abysmal incidental music, watch CANNIBAL TERROR. If you want to see some Euro-Horror and Euro-Sleaze worth watching, check out the rest of Severin’s vault, for it is very good. Steer clear of this road apple, for it stinks worse than the real thing.

NUDE FOE SATAN (1973) d. Luigi Batzella

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

While European Horror Cinema has always been a rare gem of unique and compelling properties, it reached its gloriously gaudy pinnacle of exotic excess in the 1970s and the epicenter of alluring and absurd film-making was Italy. Colliding with titanic power in the movies of that time and place were the forces of surrealistic imagery, eroticism, bizarre plots, cutting edge music, glamorous actresses and old-world architecture, making for films that had a look and a feel that was singular and never to be truly equaled since. NUDE FOR SATAN is a perfect example of that era’s striking and delightfully sleazy Euro-horror, and while it may not live up to the promise of the exploitation-inspired title, it does deliver in all the categories that count.

NUDE FOR SATAN is the story of Dr. William Benson, whose VW Bug careens off the road on a dark and stormy night while he is out on a call to see a sick patient. Just as he is emerging from his damaged vehicle, another car crashes nearby, carrying a lovely young woman named Susan Smith. William seeks help for Susan at a nearby castle, but as he does so he sets in motion a series of events that catapults both he and Susan into an alternate reality peopled by dark and frightening alter-egos of each other along with other more terrifying and enticing persons. William and Susan are forced to battle against the sensual chains that try to bind them to this Otherworld, even as they strain to understand its nature and to free themselves from its intoxicating charms.

NUDE FOR SATAN is a visual feast for those who are looking for such a repast. Combining incredibly lavish settings and stylish décor with daring and superbly executed camera work, the eye is provided with much to satisfy its hunger for appealing and provocative imagery. In addition to well composed wide shots, fascinatingly arranged close ups and a wide array of dizzying angles and space-warping hand held sequences, all of which aid in creating a supremely avant-garde mood to this film, there are shots utilizing multiple images, soft focus, diverse filters and a wide variety of tinted gels that are used to produce a color scheme that can only be described as voluptuous. The visual intensity and creativity of this motion picture is consistently and thoroughly a pleasure to bask in. Add to that the curvaceous and fair-skinned exquisiteness of Rita Calderoni and her ethereal sexuality, interior and exterior scenery that is just as sensuous as Miss Calderoni’s clothed and unclothed splendor and NUDE FOR SATAN, despite its crass title, is every bit as attractive as any other Italian Cinema I’ve ever viewed, with the possible exception of the best works of Mario Bava or Dario Argento. In addition to the sublimity of the visual loveliness, Luigi Batzella knows full well that photography that is morose and miserable must be added to create contrast, and to generate such juxtaposition there is blood on occasion, a creepy but badly constructed spider and web, as well as horrifically ugly men’s faces shot in close up and with a mix of lenses like the “fish-eye” to produce some thoroughly repulsive images. To cap it all off, NUDE FOR SATAN is presented in all its wide-screen glory and a brilliantly crisp transfer that allows the film lover to partake in each and every dynamic moment, like a diner at a twelve-course meal sampling a carousel of never-ending fare. The eye-catching nature of NUDE FOR SATAN is a visual cornucopia that helps to make up for some of the weaknesses of this film.

From the standpoint of a story, NUDE FOR SATAN is a convoluted, often incomprehensible, certainly illogical and occasionally sluggish plot that tries hard to be as impressionistic as possible. The idea of the story isn’t to create a cohesive and linear series of ideas, but rather it centers upon a central theme of two people crossing the border of past and present, life and death, reality and fantasy and then wrestling with their understanding of the rules of time and space having been twisted. NUDE FOR SATAN’S story is sensually indulgent, haphazard, slightly silly and at the same time somewhat self-important, but that is what adds to the charm of this film. One minute you are treated to inscrutably philosophical dialogue or even a monologue, while the next minute the story dumps you unceremoniously into a scene of debauchery. All throughout the story of NUDE FOR SATAN is a musical score that is as inventive as the camera work. For some people like me, this is a boon for the experimental feel of the score and the use of singular instruments or small ensembles of eclectic pairings are another manner in which layers of atmosphere are draped over this film. To add to this already heady mixture is a cast that is superbly utilized. Despite the atrocious dubbing of the Italian language track, Rita Calderoni (Susan/Evelyn) and Stelio Candelli (William/Peter) are perfect choices for their roles. Each is able to affect exactly the appearance of the persona they are asked to portray, whether it is the confused, frightened, modern William and Susan or the dissolute, unearthly and sinister Peter and Evelyn. James Harris plays the part of one of the most interesting Devils you’ll ever meet. While not as powerful or as corrupt as the average Satan, he is unstable, decadent, effete and courtly. The rest of the cast is used most efficiently as either delightful or distasteful window dressing for scenes where the painter’s palate is asked to render another impressionistic image.

NUDE FOR SATAN has a small and somewhat unimpressive extras menu. There is a tiny stills gallery (both in size and number of stills), the theatrical trailer and a set of four Redemption Films trailers. Much of this cast and crew is still alive and their thoughts and impressions regarding NUDE FOR SATAN would have made for some excellent interviews, commentaries and/or documentary fodder. Just as Severin Films and No Shame Films made names for themselves with their fabulous extras on their Italian exploitation cinema DVDs, it would have been just as enjoyable had Redemption gone the extra mile to create a batch of extras that was just as good or better.

As the years roll on and the 1970s disappear further into the mists of time, much as the 1920s and 1930s have done, many impressions and recollections of that interesting time will be lost. Preserving a fascinating jewel like NUDE FOR SATAN helps the avid movie lover to maintain their connection to the motion picture past so that we don’t allow ourselves to be swept away with the tide of vile and putrid modern film that exists for no reason other than taking up space and excreting waste. NUDE FOR SATAN isn’t award-winning film in and of itself, but there is a lot to like about this flick and if you go into it looking for certain desires to be fulfilled, you won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

NEVER CRY WEREWOLF (2008) d. Brenton Spencer

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the cinematic tragedies of the modern age has been the inundation of movie-lovers with miserable remakes of classic or cult films. Usually this strategy is nothing more than a cynical money-making ploy designed to cash in on the name recognition of the original motion picture, the studio execs knowing full-well that most of the viewing public is just too gullible to stay home and avoid a fiasco. What many film makers don’t realize is that there are options available to them. Updating an older but still successful story through a retelling or a treatment of the story can lead to an artistic success that can also be a financial triumph if marketed correctly. Instead of remaking John Carpenter’s THE FOG and foisting on the populace one of the worst horror dung heaps of all time, retelling the story in a subtly different way might have worked better and then adding a different title mixed with aggressive but thoughtful marketing might have brought success. Let’s hope that NEVER CRY WEREWOLF achieves that kind of accomplishment, for it is a movie that updates a tried and true story and uses its own tack to do it.

NEVER CRY WERWOLF is the story of Loren Hansett, an athletic and imaginative teenage girl who becomes suspicious of her new next door neighbor Jared Martin. Jared oozes magnetism and soon has everyone, even Loren’s little brother Kyle in his mesmeric power. Loren slowly discovers evidence and observes strange behaviors and occurrences that steadily convince her that Jared is a werewolf, but no one will believe her. Eventually, Loren’s friend Angie disappears under terrible circumstances and Loren can bear it no longer. She humiliatingly but unsuccessfully ties to expose Jared and it is then that he decides to take the fight to her. Loren is forced to ally herself with Redd Tucker, a TV show hunter, to fight off Jared’s assault, save her brother, herself and everyone else within the territorial hunting zone of this bloodthirsty lycanthrope.

NEVER CRY WEREWOLF is clearly an updating of FRIGHT NIGHT (1985) which is itself an updating of many films that have sourced the old tale of Peter and The Wolf. The story is as old as the hills, but it still resonates today, and that is why NEVER CRY WEREWOLF works and is not just a cheap knock off. In the place of passionate and suspicious Charlie Ragsdale, you have Loren Hansett, played superbly by the likable and lovely Nina Dobrev. Nina sells her character well, and she comes off as being concerned, resourceful and supremely sexy in a teenaged way. Instead of Roddy MacDowall playing the failed horror-host Peter Vincent, Kevin Sorbo is the equally false and inept Redd Tucker, right down to the cowardly and vain affect and the red cravat. The only problem with Mr. Sorbo’s character is that he isn’t in the film enough, but when he is, his character’s cowardly shenanigans are the perfect foil for tough yet inexperienced Loren. Normally Kevin Sorbo plays earnest, hunky characters, but his portrayal of Redd Tucker is such a great change of pace for him that I found myself leaving NEVER CRY WEREWOLF very impressed. Peter Stebbings character of Jared Martin does not have the effete charisma of Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandridge, but he doesn’t have to. He radiates a sense of animal menace and hisses his lines like a quasi-lupine probably would. There is even the irritating teen character, but instead of “Evil Ed”, this time it is lovesick punker Steven, played by Sean O’Neill, who adds a little romantic tension and ridiculous humor. While not a shot-for-shot remake, so many of the plot elements that worked in FRIGHT NIGHT are reworked or retold in NEVER CRY WEREWOLF and wrapped around a new set of revised characters so as to feel somewhat fresher and thoroughly up-to-date. The sets are simple and carefully utilized to keep the story centered in and around the neighborhood where all the action takes place. Like any good small project and made-for-TV movie, NEVER CRY WEREWOLF puts its eggs in the right basket and sticks to the right guns, even if they are small caliber.

NEVER CRY WEREWOLF is not without its small problems. While most of the film is shot to be occasionally colorful and is usually atmospheric, there are times when the werewolf scenes are shot too close and edited too rapidly, making those scenes are little harder to enjoy. This was probably done to hide the special effects and costuming/makeup weaknesses that may have been an issue. They certainly were in the case of Steven’s transformation to his own brand of werewolf. I couldn’t help thinking that Steven’s werewolf was a mix of the poorly costumed creatures from TROLL 2 and some of the appalling costumes from the sets of TV’s Lost in Space in its 3rd Season. He didn’t look scary or vicious, he looked mutated and ludicrous. In addition, the CG effects of Jared’s undead dog in the sporting goods store were equally as unimpressive. At least NEVER CRY WEREWOLF has Kevin Sorbo’s red cravat and Nina Dobrev’s unlimited beauty, so well displayed by her leather hunting garb in the last act of the film. Had the movie shown us a little more of her spectacular splendor, then all the bad effects in the world would have been ameliorated.

Like so many of the TV Movie releases being brought to the DVD market today, NEVER CRY WEREWOLF has almost no extras. There are a series of four auto-play trailers before the main menu comes up. In addition to “play movie” and “scene selection”, there is the film trailer as well, but that is it. With an actor of Kevin Sorbo’s well-traveled past and an up-and-coming starlet with the kind of visual appeal of Nina Dobrev, some kind of cast and crew interviews are a must. I am sure that a ten minute spot of Nina Dobrev modeling swimwear that “would catch the eye of a werewolf” would appeal to 12-21 year old movie-lovers and would probably have discs flying off the shelves. Think it over you lonely film producers and distributors! That was a lost opportunity that will probably get snapped up when Miss Dobrev is cast in a vampire or mummy movie in some future year. Can’t you see it? Nina Dobrev modeling sexy mummy wrappings as part of the bonus features on the DVD retelling of THE MUMMY’S CURSE. It would sell like hotcakes. Make sure you cut me in for some of the profits since it’s my idea.

It is my hope that when people see and enjoy NEVER CRY WEREWOLF, especially if they remember and liked FRIGHT NIGHT, that they stop going in droves to pathetic remakes of once-proud films. I remember my absolute disappointment shading towards depression after I walked out of the remake of PLANET OF THE APES (2001) and yet I didn’t learn my lesson and went back for more cinematic pulverizing until I realized that I didn’t want to see remakes, I’d rather see a treatment or retelling. NEVER CRY WEREWOLF is exactly the kind of visitation of a past idea that I like. I enjoyed seeing the writer and director shape and craft a new flick from an old tale and do it with a wink and a smile and a little panache thrown in for good measure. Good job folks. Now if you could retell ZONTAR and update that wonderful old tale, I’d really be on board. Get Nina Dobrev to star in that flick and I’d find a way to help finance the film, even on my meager teacher’s salary.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Once upon a time, the film industry produced movies for the Silver and Small Screens that often had an all-ages quality whether they were action, suspense or thrillers. What set films like BENJI (1974) and THE MYSTERY IN DRACULA’S CASTLE (1973) apart from today’s more pedestrian fare is that the child characters were likable, the stories were wholesome and the themes were connected to all-American values that were accessible, not preachy and certainly not polarizing. Somewhere during the 1980s, that changed as film families had to be dysfunctional, kids were rude, obnoxious and asinine and the stories of all-ages cinema incorporated topics and elements that were often crass and unsavory. SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is a film that hearkens back to a time when the whole family could go out the theater or sit down and watch a TV movie on THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY, be entertained and not feel like you had been through a wood chipper massacre.

SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is the story of 17-year old Sarah, on her way to Pine Valley, CA to briefly visit the grandmother of her recently deceased best friend Megan. It is on the way to Pine Valley that Sarah’s car gives her some trouble, forcing her to stay with Mrs. Shaw for the weekend. It is while Sarah is staying in Pine Valley that she hears of its terrible tragedy and ugly secret. Sarah becomes enmeshed in the heartbreak of the Woods and Baker families, a misfortune that seems to involve spirits and possible curses. Sarah and her new friend Matt Baker race to save the life of his brother David and in doing so, try to set Pine Valley, its residents and its restless spirits free from the gloom that has been hanging over the town for more than 13 years.

In a world where movies for youngsters must be filled with rampaging rhinos and other gigantic juggernauts, violent special effects, excrement humor, insufferable and intolerable characters and ludicrous story lines, SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is probably going to miss its audience and it is a shame. Not that SARAH LANDON is a first-rate film with no weaknesses. That is not the case. It is just that SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR has some surprising strengths and it is hoped that more than just “family values” types will check this film out, since that would be preaching to the choir. SARAH LANDON is one of the most wholesome films I’ve seen in a very long time. All of the youthful characters are nice kids, polite, good-natured and pleasant. It was so refreshing to see young people whom you’d want to know, who are caring and respectful, patient and responsible. Even the adults were generally enjoyable people who were not buffoons, morons and thoughtless fiends, as adults are too often portrayed in “children’s films”. The story was not dependent on an abundance of gaudy special effects or lavish and grandiose plot twists, nor was it a “thrill-a-minute” rocket ride. This was a film that felt like it should have been made 30 or more years ago. It was dialogue-driven and the narrative was very patient, possibly too much so at times, but at least I felt like the principal characters were developed to a greater degree than in most films. None of the characters possessed super powers or uncanny abilities or knowledge. They simply worked at solving problems through effort, teamwork and friendship. Think of that for a modern film! A good collection of interesting and appealing exterior settings was chosen for this film and it was attractively shot. There is no “shakey-cam” disease and when it is night time, I can still see all of what is going on. There were few painful close-ups and some good establishing shots of sets and characters. All of this adds up to a film that I would want my ten and eleven year old students to see and would recommend to friends with intermediate age children. Why is it then that this film grossed less than $900,000 in its theatrical run of a little over 1100 theaters and why can’t I give it overwhelming praise now? The answers lie in some of the nuts and bolts of the acting and writing, and the audience that it was intended for that no longer exists.

While looking over the film credits, I noticed that a large percentage of the cast and crew had the last name “Comrie”, the same as the director. This is just a guess, but it felt like SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR might have been a family project, which on the surface sounds like a nice idea and I am sure that it was a very rewarding experience. Part of the problem with such an enterprise is that there isn’t much in the way of “external” opinions and brain power during production. During a recent interview with a director of a motion picture I’ve already reviewed for this site, I asked her why she didn’t have her hands on all the controls and only directed and co-wrote for her film. The director’s answer was that she felt getting a few more perspectives and minds into the mix would help to increase the possibility of success. Even though Lisa Comrie didn’t have her fingers over all the buttons, a Comrie wrote, directed or produced for SARAH LANDON and such a confederation may make it hard to see mistakes. One of the greatest mistakes of this flick was a lack of experienced actors. In addition to having several of the Comrie clan in the cast and playing principal characters, the rest of the cast, including Rissa Walters who played the title character, had few or no screen credits and it showed. Rissa Walter’s performance was probably the best in SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR, and Dan Comrie as Matt Baker put in a sincere if stiff effort. Other performers were not so lucky. Brian Comrie as David Baker alternated between very forced portrayals and terribly overacted efforts, some of which made his “disturbed” character more humorous than dramatic at times. Jane Harris as Mrs. Shaw was even more lifeless than some of the dearly departed characters mentioned in this film. Since the story was dialogue-driven, in such a case the dialogue has to be scintillating. At best, it was simplistic and at worst it was trite. While the cleanliness of the screenplay was impeccable, the interest level for most modern movie goers is going to be low and if you don’t have the acting talent to pull off a dialogue-driven narrative, it is going to be a tough sell. What saves SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is that the story concept is a good one and any movie about a ghost story is going to have its supporters. In addition, it is a short film whose paces steadily picks up as the movie progresses. You genuinely feel for the characters because they are so nice and want them to win their fight. Had the cast been a little more experienced and talented and had the dialogue been a little livelier and more substantial, this film could have fired on all its cylinders. There is no question the potential was there.

The other weakness of SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is possibly in its marketing. For most movie-lovers steeped in the lore of horror films, this movie may seem hokey at best and very possibly it will come across as dull. For most average parents and children today, there won’t be enough vile and unpleasant content to catch their eyes, tickle their grotesque-loving fancies and fire the MTV-ruined endorphin centers of their brains. SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is almost a paean to films of the past like those by William Castle or Robert Wise and for today’s excitement-enslaved movie-goers that is probably an unpardonable sin. Speaking of sins, those who purport to be subscribers to family values or religious morals would probably like this film. There is only one gentle kiss in this flick and the main characters have modest clothes on their bodies throughout. There is no objectionable language or music and the kids even go out for a slice of apple pie. Since the story is about the paranormal and ghosts, I am sure that most potential viewers of the fundamentalist Christian persuasion found reason to stay home and not see this film either. SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR would have been a fine addition to a theater marquee back in the late 1960s right up through the 1970s and would have probably succeeded brilliantly. SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR has been compared to a modern equivalent of a Nancy Drew mystery and I think the parallel is somewhat appropriate. “Sarah” doesn’t have all the talents and skills “Nancy” had and that is all to the good since it makes her more realistic and viewers can identify with her. Having said that, few students in the school where I teach read the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries anymore and it is for all the same reasons why SARAH LANDON failed at the box office. It isn’t totally the fault of the film, it is just as much a fault with us.

As a result of being given a “screener” copy, I was not able to plumb the bonus features section of the dvd release. On the press release, one feature that was mentioned is “Frida's Psychic Readings Game”, which will probably be a fun experience for families to delve into.

SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR has some very obvious benefits if you are looking for a film for the whole family that isn’t animated animals or monsters or blazing thrill rides that have little or no story. It requires a little self-reflection first however. If you and your family are patient types who are used to waiting for something good and don’t need instant gratification, this film might be for you. If you like stories about nice people, in nice places trying to do the right thing, this movie might also be your cup of tea. If you like a little bit of suspense mixed with some dialogue and a gently applied layer of atmosphere that whispers of ghost stories, you might be looking at the right film to rent or buy for your family. If you can’t say yes to these questions, you will probably be disappointed with SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR. It isn’t without its faults, but I think the greatest fault is that we are a people who have fallen from our high estate and embrace that which is low and mean now. SARAH LANDON needs to find a way to get into Dr. Who’s Tardis and take a trip back to a time when she would have been more appreciated.

Monday, September 1, 2008

SOMETHING BENEATH (2007) d. David Winning

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It isn’t long after the first time you play in the mud, that goop can be seen as both attractive and repellant. A mud puddle born in your backyard and filled with rain from a cloudy summertime sky is as pleasant an opportunity to create childhood mayhem as there is. However, the first time you pour milk out of an old jug and on to your cereal in a series of grayish and slimy curds with a smell strong enough to make you gag, you realize that not all glop is a boon. As we get older, greasy and dark viscous fluids are no longer a password to fun, but they take on a rather frightening affect as cleanliness = godliness becomes our mantra, unless you are a performance artist. SOMETHING BENEATH, starring Kevin Sorbo, taps into our adult fear of sticky ooze from an unknown source, married to our deeper fear of ominous underground tunnels to become a TV Movie that is worth watching if you like your horror mixed with other genres and with a little bit of blended tone.

SOMETHING BENEATH is the story of Cedar Gate Conference Center, a building project with a checkered past and the scene of the Clean Planet Conference. Hosted by Pastor Douglas Middleton (Kevin Sorbo), the conference is an eclectic gathering of environmental experts, the ecologically concerned and celebrities, none of which know there is a problem brewing under the soil and inside the foundation of Cedar Gate. As people begin turning up dead under extremely bizarre circumstances, Reverend Middleton teams up with Conference Center Manager Khali Spence (Natalie Brown) and her rent-a-cop Jack Deadmarsh (Peter MacNeill) to fight the menace. It is only when they meet up with the reclusive Dr. Connelly (Brendan Beiser) that they discover the truth of what they are fighting and can find a strategy to stop the killings.

There are several reasons why SOMETHING BENEATH is worth a view. Most surprisingly, this a film with a cast that is not only primarily adults, but even the youngest of the cast have some acting experience, and the rest of the cast is either tried and true or quite veteran. In a world where the roles of a film are usually rife with children, this was an unexpected treat. While not the cast of ROMAN HOLIDAY, the cast of SOMETHING BENEATH is able to act, deliver their lines with some energy and sincere enthusiasm, but best of all they are able to create chemistry. There is palpable tension between some characters, affection and concern between others and a sense of shared purpose by the end. Unlike many of the low-budget, TV Movies of today that are cast with rookies and nobodies and the result is some very uneven or downright bad acting, SOMETHING BENEATH treats you to reasonably good performances. Kevin Sorbo has the look and the skills to be a thoroughly convincing crusading pastor out to help anyone and everyone. The lovely Natalie Brown portrays the determined and resourceful yet vulnerable and overwhelmed Khali and does so with a surfeit of style and sex-appeal. Grizzled veterans Peter MacNeill (Jack Deadmarsh) and Blake Taylor, who plays Reggie the Maintenance Director, add legitimacy and stolid strength to the story, for no one wants their cop and their custodial care to be in the hands of 20-somethings. Lastly, Brittany Scobi who plays Mikaela and Brendan Beiser play their wacky and off-base characters perfectly, adding an entirely different dimension to SOMETHING BENEATH that keeps the viewer on their toes.

The story and the use of the characters in SOMETHING BENEATH is the other strength of this movie. What starts out as a somewhat gory horror-film and then adds a layer of eco-terror to the plot, soon becomes a tale that has been tightly twisted with elements of science fiction. The goo that is causing so much trouble at the Conference Center has the capacity to create hallucinogenic effects and induce psychotic behavior in its victims. Sound familiar? It certainly should, for when you hear the audio effect added to the visual sequence of having the sludge smeared on any segment of unprotected skin, it is right out of Star Trek: The Original Series Season 1 episode The Naked Time. While some might accuse writers Mark Mullin, Ehtlie Ann Vare and David Winning of thievery, I like to think of it as a very kind nod to a great idea that helps to make SOMETHING BENEATH a cut above the “something’s in the pipes” kind of film that we’ve seen all too often. The deleterious effects of “slop contact” is made even more interesting when it becomes obvious that the slop is part of a living, thinking creature that is fighting for its own existence, which is once again reminiscent of several old Star Trek scripts. All of these ideas tie well into the subtle and not-so-subtle sub-themes of ecological sensitivity and the many forms of faith. Towards the end of the film, there were some science fiction-inspired “leaps of faith” or places where “suspending your disbelief” will be required. Those who don’t like science fiction will probably refer to those stretches as “gaps in logic”, but this isn’t high cinema. It is a story whose roots go back to the days of TV when most viewers had to let their minds wander a bit into realms of fantasy (and the fanciful) where logic took wing and flew into the sun leaving silliness fully in control of the tale. So be it. It forces you to go with the flow and enjoy the story for what it’s worth. Just look deeper into Natalie Brown’s fathomless eyes. That did it for me.

Beyond the thoughtfully woven plot, there is the use of the characters to create a very diverse sense of tone that could have wrecked this film but eventually helps to make it a little more fun. On one side, you have the deadly sober characters of Khali, Jack Deadmarsh, Reggie, Mr. Kent and Mr. Symes played totally straight by the actors who took those roles. On the other hand, there are the zany and somewhat bizarre characters of Dr. Connelly, Mikaela Strovsky, Eugene Herman and Hank, played totally over the top by their actors. Right in the middle is Kevin Sorbo’s character of Pastor Middleton, who must navigate these dissimilar waters and does so very effectively. What comes out of this very interesting mix are larger stretches of the film where the tone is serious shading to somber and even sinister, but dappled with moments of humor that even approaches madcap proportions. Had the mix been any different, the end result could have been a disastrously messy motion picture, but a nearly perfect balance was achieved, creating a contrast in tones that makes the entertainment varied.

SOMETHING BENEATH is not without its faults, but fortunately they are fairly small and can be passed off or overlooked if you are so inclined. Since the budget clearly went to the stars, there isn’t much left to the visual effects. Not only is the CGI very poor quality, but the settings are fairly pedestrian as well. While SOMETHING BENEATH was well shot and evidenced little or no photographic detritus aka shakey-cam or poorly lit of badly edited scenes, what was filmed wasn’t incredibly dynamic at times. The underground scenes were as well constructed as possible, but they just weren’t explosively eye-catching, even when the needless gouts of flame erupted around the cast at improbable intervals. Shot in Canada during one of its wintry months, the outdoor scenery wasn’t terribly compelling either. Nothing looked bad, it just wasn’t the most inspired choice of exterior sets. Even the interior sets were a little drab at times. For a conference center that was supposed to be a Mecca for the rich and famous, it seemed a little more like an Econo-Lodge. Like any TV Movie, SOMETHING BENEATH was probably shot on the cheap, and there is never enough cash to really spread around, and in this case the sets were one of the places that the budget was kept too thin.

As has been the case with too many of the RHI-TV DVDs released by Genius Products, there are no bonus features on this disc. Whether this is the fault of Paquin Films and/or Hallmark Entertainment, who originally produced the film, or RHI-Entertainment who aired it and probably fronted some of the cash, this must stop. A montage of auto-play trailers at the start of the DVD does not qualify as “extras”. When you’ve got a film with a pedigree like SOMETHING BENEATH, a few cast and/or crew interviews about the project is a moral imperative. All of the principal cast members have been in some interesting films of TV Shows past and present and their thoughts on their roles, the script and the production of what turned out to be an enjoyable film would be welcomed. I don’t know nearly enough about Natalie Brown and would certainly like to hear more, but there is nothing to be had. If low budget film companies like PopCinema can sling a few tidbits into most of their offerings, there is no reason why SOMETHING BENEATH couldn’t have had a few extras!

As a reviewer of DVDs of all kinds, I often have to step, wade and sometimes swim through filth unimaginable, but this time the slop that I had to brave was part of the entertainment. Instead of feeling soiled, I got to watch others sink into sticky ooze or have it drip over the faces under all kinds of conditions. It was refreshing to exchange places for once and be able to sit back and enjoy a film that had its number of strengths be greater than its number of weaknesses. I reveled in seeing adults in the primary roles of the film who knew how to do their jobs and when I hit the stop button on my remote, I felt like I had spent the time fairly well. SOMETHING BENEATH will not revolutionize the horror/sci-fi canon, nor will it win any awards, but it was 90 minutes of entertainment, which is more than I can say for a lot of films I’ve endured.