Saturday, January 31, 2009

KILLER MOVIE (2008) d. Jeff Fisher

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Mocking pop culture and lampooning modern society is both easy to do and a very treacherous choice if you are doing so in your feature film. So much of our daily existence is so repugnant and moronic, providing exceedingly fertile ground and an abundant cinematic harvest when it comes to parody. The problem is that tackling any recent topic will badly date your film and in succeeding years, viewers may find your narrative tedious at best and at worst it will be absolutely irrelevant. However, turning down the chance to satirize something as inane and intellectually noxious as “Reality TV” is absolutely impossible to refuse and deserves all of our considerable support, for few blights on civilization have arisen in recent years that are more deadly to the mind than the reality television series, with the possible exception of a prefrontal lobotomy. When you ridicule something as idiotic as that and do so in the guise of a horror film, it is going to be a delicate balancing act as to whether your film will be campy, cruddy, childish or simply churlish. KILLER MOVIE somehow navigates some very choppy and challenging waters and ends up being a mildly entertaining film that will likely appeal to a surprisingly wide audience and for an even broader range of reasons.

KILLER MOVIE is the story of a young, down-on-his-luck director named Jake Tanner, who has been hired to film a reality series set far off in the wilds of White Plains, North Dakota. He must somehow find a way to work with a shrewish female producer and her sycophantic assistant, an exceedingly spoiled and loathsome diva of a celebrity/actress, a crew that is comprised of quirky goofballs, neophytes and self-absorbed technophiles, and somehow get the hayseed locals to accept this intrusion into their “small town lives”. It isn’t long before crew members start disappearing, putting a crimp in production, yet stocking the larder of a sadistic killer. Somehow, Jake and his cohorts have got to find a way to dodge the sharp implements of this maniac and salvage their troubled show all in the same fell swoop.

KILLER MOVIE started off showing very little promise. The mix of “Real Life” style video journal segments with a chronological plot narrative didn’t seem to mesh very well, producing a grating end product that felt like it was never going to be cohesive. Add to that a very sizable cast of characters that was being juggled somewhat haphazardly, and I had my doubts whether I would be able to finish this film without breaking a tooth or two during fits of anger. Before the one-third mark of the movie though, the plot settled down and some of the more interesting story and character components become to assert themselves, primarily those of a spoof. The satire of KILLER MOVIE is mostly a subtle mockery of the tenets of reality TV, television production in general and the foolishness of most celebrities. At times, more ham-handed derision is added into the mix to liven up the pace of the film, which after its uncertain start begins to build momentum and then move along steadily towards its crescendo. At the start of the flick, the horror elements seemed to be the most obnoxiously silly parts of the plot, but ever so slightly that began to change. As each dead body was added to the pile of kills, each murder became a little more stylish and gruesome, but all the while iconic methods of dispatching the victims were employed by a masked perpetrator who was clearly garbed in such a way so that no viewer could ever take these scenes totally seriously. The resulting blend of TV parody with a gently reverential nod to classic slasher films came off as astoundingly sophisticated for a mainstream send-up. What made this film work in the end is that it never took itself totally seriously as a horror flick but still tried to develop a small degree of suspense and drama, had nothing but contempt for pop culture in general and Reality TV specifically and it kept moving at a brisk but steady pace. Had there been a few less characters to manage and the story could have focused on developing some of the more compelling personalities, the humor could have been a little more intense. While I was impressed by the dry nature of the “comedy”, I smirked 98% of the time and never really laughed out loud. That is far and away a better result than most comedies where I downright scowl through their puerile attempts to be funny, but I would have liked this film to be somewhat more humorous.

From a visual standpoint, there are a lot of unexpected strengths to KILER MOVIE as well. It was competently shot and lit so that every scene was easy to see and comprehend. There were many well-scouted and then attractively photographed exterior scenes that successfully developed the rural feel of the setting. The interior sets were classic “school slasher” imagery akin and reminiscent of films like HORROR HIGH and MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH. When set outdoors, there were often bright sunshiny scenes and vibrant colors which contrasted well with the more somber and moodier interior segments. While never an atmospheric film, KILLER MOVIE looks good, I could figure out what was happening without having to rewind segments as is too often the case and I could appreciate some of the other visual benefits of this film. While many modern motion pictures suffer from the casting of loads of impossibly beautiful people who make the story seem totally implausible and render the characters equally unlikable (the APRIL FOOL’S DAY remake is a good example), the satirical nature of KILLER MOVIE lends itself to creating a predominantly “hot” cast and as a result, the eye candy in this film is rather impressive. Between the many pretty faces, long lustrous locks and trim, sexy figures, there is a lot to gaze at and wish they had been asked to disrobe repeatedly, that lack of nudity being the greatest weakness of this movie. Led by Kaley Cuoco who plays “Blanca Champion”, the list of babes continues through Leighton Meester, Gloria Votsis, Torrey DeVitto, Cyia Batten, Jennifer Murpshy, Maitland McConnell and my favorite Adriana Demeo. While none of these lovelies are household names yet, many should be because their decorative splendor in KILLER MOVIE helped to distract me from the occasionally inane dialogue, simplistic plot devices, obvious caricatures and archetypical character composites, none of which would derail a film, but they are caused to be less irksome by the “trim”. On the plus side, many of these young beauties and some of the young men in this film can actually act and the performances, while not inspiring on the whole, were competent or serviceable. Paul Wesley (Jake Tanner) does get the part of the artistically ethical and good natured director right and plays his role well. Kaley Cuoco is entirely convincing in her role as the insufferable and ultimately somewhat lovable Blanca. It would/will be interesting to see some of these cast members in some other, potentially more challenging roles, especially the lovely Miss Demeo (huge hint for producers and casting directors).

KILLER MOVIE has a small but pleasantly engaging extras menu. There is the theatrical trailer and a sizable photo gallery that is engineered in a “flash” style progression of images that actually works fairly well. The photos are a mix of promos, “behind the scenes” shots and screen caps. There is a 13 minute “Behind the Scenes of Killer Movie” which is a blend of cast and crew interviews shot on set, as well as production scenes and film clips. The film clips are a little too numerous but the sizable number of cast members interviewed for this featurette and their genuinely interesting anecdotes and comments are a benefit to the disc. True to its form, the interviewees do not always take themselves seriously and there is some charming tom-foolery that takes place to brighten this segment. In addition, we get to see Adriana Demeo in her shortest skirt yet, showing a fabulous pair of legs to the camera for those who wanted to see more of her during the feature. Lastly, there is a “digital copy” of this film for those who wish to watch it outside the confines of their home theater environment. This is probably the wave of the future and while it is nothing too exciting to an old codger like me, it may be a real draw to the younger, technologically savvy viewers out there.

KILLER MOVIE is likely to appeal to more movie-goers than one would expect. Those who like and revere the crassness of modern culture will probably not get the subtle digs and will revel in the cattiness and garrulous nature of some of the characters. Others like myself, will enjoy the delicate savaging that is administered to Reality TV and the even gentler nods to 80s slasher movies that are woven into the narrative and the aura of KILLER MOVIE. While most men would prefer to see the beauties of this film even more scantily clad, or unclad as it were, there is enough hotness to attract a wide range of ages from the male half of the demographic chart. In the end, I was surprised by how this film slowly and irrepressibly drew me into its silly folds. I wanted to dislike and then dismember this motion picture in a literary fashion, but by the conclusion, I was not able to do so. KILLER MOVIE is not high-brow, neither is it intricately crafted cinema, nor is it award-winning film making, but somehow it became entertaining after I gave it a chance to get rolling and those kind of revelations tend to make me smile more than I usually do nowadays.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

BLACK SWARM (2007) d. David Winning

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Cross pollination is one of the most important and beneficial adaptations in the plant community. Incredibly successful variations on original botanical species have arisen because a busy little bee stopped at one pear tree, crawled about on a blossom, got dusty with pollen and then flew to another pear tree and carelessly left that genetic material behind. The resulting permutations gave rise to a better generation of pear trees and fruit, and so it continues. In the world of writing and producing film scripts and screenplays, cross pollination can be a treacherous trail to trip along. Watering down your primary theme through a cross pollination of ideas can lead to a messy end product, but mating two concepts can also strengthen an initially weak story premise. BLACK SWARM is able to benefit from a degree of cinematic cross pollination, but so much swapping of screenplay chromosomes leads to a mongoloid that may not be as entertaining for everyone as the creators hoped.

BLACK SWARM is the story of young widow Jane Kozik, who returns to her childhood home of Black Stone, NY with her ten year old daughter Kelsey in tow. Once back in town, Jane takes on the mantle of her new job as deputy sheriff even as Kelsey tries to adjust to new faces and places. What is especially strange to the precocious youngster are the many shambling and vacant looking citizens of Black Stone, all of whom sport large stingwounds, an unhealthy pallor and emit a strange buzzing sound. Soon, Jane is reunited with an old flame/friend while Kelsey is making the acquaintance of people who are all part of a diabolic plot to lose upon the world a weapon of frightening deadliness, uncontrollable power and uncertain purpose that is no bigger than the common paper wasp.

Typical of most of the RHI-TV movies of the past few years that work very hard to mine the old formulas of the TV films of yore, BLACK SWARM is as much a drama as it is a horror movie. There is a rich tapestry of interpersonal connections and exchanges between the characters that is replete with feelings of lost love and sorrow, desire and guilt, confusion and caring, and when this already complex web of emotions is grafted onto a story of intrigue, science-gone-wrong and a classic “creature feature” plot line, you’ve got a Mulligan’s Stew that may be a bit too involved. Indeed, one of the “weaknesses” of BLACK SWARM is that the horror elements are only punctuation marks against the backdrop of the dramatic interplay that dominates the first two-thirds of the movie. Now I am all for a good dramatic story and far too many horror films overdose on the action, creating a thrill ride that is more like cotton candy than a heaping portion of cherry pie. BLACK SWARM starts patiently and develops a sense of threat and danger nicely, but just as the pace begins to really intensify and the viewer’s pulse quickens, the melodrama reasserts itself a little too forcefully. The constant back and forth never allows a clear conflict to emerge from a unified narrative, which eventually leads to an ending that is messy and anti-climactic. It is a shame that BLACK SWARM was not a more focused effort for there were many things to like about this hybrid of story ideas.

When you’ve got deadly wasps as the primary “monster” in a film like BLACK SWARM, just as in THE BEES or THE NAKED JUNGLE or THEM, direct contact with the baddies is what brings about the death and injury, and so it does this time, but the most frightening imagery that inspires dread and horror in BLACK SWARM are the “wasp zombies” created by the stings of those insidious flyers. There are several scenes of pallid, ungainly and horribly twisted humans under the control of their wasp masters that were far more effective in creating a feeling of menace than the clouds of angry buzzers. The “wasp zombie” makeup and the performances of the secondary characters acting like “drones” was arguably the best part of the film. Cross pollinating the ideas of killer wasps and zombie humans might seem on the surface to be a risky venture, but it works far better than the blend of emotional drama and creature feature. It also doesn’t hurt to have CGI effects of the wasps that were also surprisingly convincing and didn’t detract from overall aura of the movie. Had there been more “wasp zombie” moments and a little less of the romantic and nostalgic story devices, BLACK SWARM could have been a real zinger.

The performances were also a mixed bag as was the use of the characters in the story. Robert Englund gives an amazingly complex and quirky portrayal of Eli the Beekeeper lending an air of legitimacy to BLACK SWARM, his complicated character doing more to add to confusion of who is really the villain in the plot and keeping you on the edge of your seat. Sarah Allen (Jane Kozik) has a supremely appealing “apple pie and the girl next door” attractiveness and her trim yet womanly figure doesn’t hurt a film that needs a little kick every now and then. Ms. Allen is at her best when she is the take charge deputy sheriff, but has less impact on the film when she becomes entangled in the romantic melodrama. Rebecca Windheim plays little Kelsey and as a young actress she appears to have a degree of potential. When she is portraying a bright and pleasant youngster, she is surprisingly endearing and she has one hell of a good scream, but her early petulance and sourness almost derail any sympathy a viewer might engender for her. Certainly, her character is meant to be a bit sad and possibly bitter about an unwanted move, but it comes across as spoiled and moody. What was less welcome was how dependant the plot was on her character. In the early stages of the film, this left me a little less pleased, but after Kelsey’s connection to Eli is established, their chemistry is far more electric than the forced romance between Jane and Devin. Sebastien Roberts (Devin Hall) and Jayne Heitmeyer (Katherine Randell) give stable if unimpressive performances in their roles, but Devin’s relations with Sarah and Katherine are unconvincing and it is likely that the problem stems from a screenplay that was too elaborate and not from actors unable to do their jobs.

As with the last Genius Products “maneater” DVD I reviewed, YETI, there isn’t much to be had in the extras menu, but it isn’t entirely empty. There are three auto-play trailers that engage before the main menu and included on that main menu is the original film trailer for BLACK SWARM. While this does not really constitute a true extras menu, and after the immense vaults of goodies to be found on COLD PREY from Anchor Bay and DEAD OF NIGHT from Dark Sky Films the extras on BLACK SWARM felt thinner than the gossamer wings of a bee. I do remember the absolutely bare bones discs at the beginning of the “maneater” series and still hold out hope that future Genius and/or RHI-TV discs might have more for the fans than just a trailer. I do recall that DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE had a Dougray Scott interview that was pretty engaging and I cheered that foray into the bonus features wilderness mightily. I hope my praise didn’t fall on deaf ears.

BLACK SWARM is probably not for people expecting a thrill ride, but if you like your horror films heavily laced with character drama, this may be up your alley. If you are expecting loads of gore, you’ll be disappointed, but if you want to see a zombie priest and a zombie ice cream man because zombies give you the chills, there will be some scares in this for you. If you want to see a less lurid and licentious take on INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, but with pretty Sarah Allen in tight jeans and a tighter t-shirt this might be your cup of tea. Don’t go expecting the best of the “maneater” series because this isn’t it, but if you are a fan of “insects take over the world” kind of flicks, then you will probably enjoy this film to a degree if you don’t expect too much of it.

SUZIE HEARTLESS (2008) d. Tony Marsiglia

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It isn’t easy to make a film that is designed to be an artistic statement, depict a repugnant social construct and get people to watch it and say they “enjoyed” it. Tony Marsiglia, the director of CHANTAL which was another descent into the heart of cinematic darkness, weaves a tale of even more frightening imagery and creates a character whose experiences may examine one of the bleakest outlooks on life yet. His newest film, SUZIE HEARTLESS is certainly artistically ambitious and it stares unflinchingly at one of the oldest and most depraved segments of our culture, but SUZIE HEARTLESS is not a film that I can say I “enjoyed”, though I certainly was impacted by the sights and sounds I endured.

SUZIE HEARTLESS is the story of a teenage prostitute, whose daily existence we are privy too and follow through a series of gut-wrenching and disturbing vignettes. Told without any appreciable dialogue and in a semi-cohesive fashion that cannot really be called “linear”, we see through the eyes of the main character what she must deal with each day as she fights for survival, turns tricks and interfaces with equally distasteful denizens of her day-to-day mini-universe. Along the way, “Suzie’s” story is punctuated by flashbacks, symbolic reminiscences and traumatic/dramatic glances at her psyche, making this “narrative” very complex and difficult to follow, but for a good reason. Just as the life of a teenage prostitute would be a disastrous mess of emotional decay and physical decline, so too the plot of this film is meant to pattern “Suzie’s” wretched existence and even more desolate psychological state. In place of dialogue, there is a haunting, eerie and disturbing set of incidental musical strains and scores that match the disjointed lurches from one repulsive chapter in “Suzie’s” crawl through misery to the next. SUZIE HEARTLESS may not be an entertaining film, but it is sadistically gripping and there are creative elements that are worthy of analysis.

Throughout this difficult and demoralizing tale there are the constants of the actress Wendy McColm, who plays the title character, and the cinematic direction of Tony Marsiglia. Miss McColm gets the part of “Suzie” right and her portrayal is both accurate and highly unsettling. Her youthful face and trim figure decked out in a jean micro-miniskirt and a red crop-top and fitted with black boots is simultaneously cute, attractive and deeply repellant. What has even more weight are Wendy’s incredibly emotive facial expressions and her distressing eyes that speaks volumes about the torments she continues to endure. SUZIE HEARTLESS is at its best when it focuses on Wendy McColm’s reactions and responses to her environment and the monsters who control and abuse her every step. While there are many scenes that are far too long and explore far too much of the same fare, the general concept is a good one and efforts at execution are sincere, for centering on the eyes and the face of a shattered character is what often made older European exploitation films great, and Tony Marsiglia has the right idea here. He just doesn’t have enough story to stretch over the canvas of debauchery he is trying to paint, causing segments of this film to drag or feel repetitive, even when the subject matter has such an abysmal tone to it one would think you would never grow bored.

What is one of Mr. Marsiglia’s greatest strengths is his use of color in a wide variety of scenes and his constant juxtaposition of color sequences and those that are black & white. There are many scenes where bright hues like those of “Suzie’s” crystal and yet lifeless eyes or her skimpy vermillion top, a heart-breaking azure sky framed by austere buildings or verdant tress, or the bronzed skin and exotic makeup and tattoos of a hooker help propel the emotional content of the film forward where dialogue would normally be the standard vehicle. Camera angles change, the speed of scene edits is constantly in flux, the use of light and exposure are consistently altered and what emerges is something akin to a painter’s palette. There is a heady mix of shades, tints and other combinations, but there is an underlying method to the madness that seems so abstract and meandering. Whether he is focusing on the coltish and overly exposed legs of “Suzie”, the washed out textures of a simple playground or the syrupy slide of blood down a forehead, it is attention to the visual details that help to make this exploration of the cultural macabre work as well as it does.

SUZIE HEARTLESS is a two disc set. Disc 1 has the title feature, an audio commentary with the director, a slide show and a short deleted scene. The slideshow is quite interesting for it serves as almost a picture-format “making of” featurette set to the same kind of unsettling music as the feature film. The photos are of on-screen moments before, during and after production. The end-result is very similar in its emotional force to the movie itself. The deleted scene is also compelling for it is obvious why that segment was cut, for it is not in accord with the tone of the rest of the film and would have felt very out of place in the vast expanse of emotional barrenness that is SUZIE HEARTLESS. Disc 2 has a second feature, Tony Marsiglia’s first film PHOENIX (1995), also referred to as ASHES & FIRE. PHOENIX is an avant-garde film making effort of much the same style in some respects as SUZIE HEARTLESS. It is a black & white flick and it is somewhat more stylishly cast and extravagantly shot, but the artistic elements feel exceedingly forced and bizarrely contrived. The story is choppy and has a “student film” vibe to it. However, it does fit the overall aura of this two disc set. On disc 2 there is another audio commentary with Tony Marsiglia, a lengthy bonus feature with two interviews of cast members from the film as well as a set of audition reels. Finally, there is another thoughtfully constructed slide show. Both sets of extras are well worth your time and are a fascinating look into the background, backdrop and backstory of these motion pictures.

Teenage prostitution is an ugly abscess on the bright epidermis of America’s carefully sculpted image. Just as disease is never easy to look at, but must be observed if we are to fully comprehend its root and method of transmission, so too SUZIE HEARTLESS is not a film that one should go into expecting cheap thrills, reflective analysis or even a comforting documentary-style bio-pic. This is a “misery epic” in the best sense of the term. It is brutal and savage cinema verite and slides down the throat with all the light-heartedness of a sledgehammer to the abdomen. SUZIE HEARTLESS is certainly not the finest film I have ever seen, neither is it the most creative nor the most enlightening. It is an earnest attempt to tell an unrelentingly dark tale, and while doing it no prisoners are taken. For some, this may not be a journey worth taking. For those who like to look into the abyss to see if it stares back, SUZIE HEARTLESS may be just the painful medicine you need.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

COLD PREY (2006) d. Roar Uthaug

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

After the flood of “heroic quest” novels and series that were spawned by the success of THE LORD OF THE RINGS in the 1960s, it soon became apparent that writing anything that was remotely original in that genre was going to be difficult if not impossible. Fantasy has since worked hard to reinvent itself and has spun off many subgenres, breathing new life into what could have become a very musty field. New generations of readers have discovered recent additions to the “heroic quest” canon that must seem fresh in their young eyes, but are nothing more than pale imitations of the forerunners of long ago. If slasher films have not already reached that same impasse of a lack of innovation, they are fast approaching it. While it is a thorny conundrum to authoritatively determine when the slasher film category first began, it is likely that it was sometime in the early 1960s. By the 1970s this subgenre of horror had become almost iconic and certainly very successful at the box office. Sadly, slasher films of the last twenty years increasingly suffer from a terrible case of “the derivatives” and they mine older ideas to the point of no longer emulating good concepts but are just simple mimicry and apishness. The Norwegian slasher flick COLD PREY (aka FRITT VILT) does a lot right and has strengths that could only be exhibited by a European motion picture, but its potential success is limited by its imitative nature which makes it a little stale to someone who has seen it all before.

COLD PREY is the story of five young friends, off on a snowboarding expedition to Jotunheimen where a challenging slope awaits their eager adrenaline systems. After a laborious hike to the fresh powder, Ingunn, Mikal, Eirik, Jannicke and Morten hit the trails but an accident brings their fun to a screeching halt. Without any way of getting their injured friend to safety or contacting the outside world, the hapless ski enthusiasts find an abandoned lodge called Ondskapens Hotel and shelter from the elements there. It isn’t long before they find that cold and discomfort are not their most serious problems and that the hotel isn’t really deserted.

COLD PREY is a true paradox for it has an almost equal number of impressive characteristics as its does failings. Right from the beginning, there are tired story elements that have been tread and retread too often over the years like “innocent young people off on a lark and looking for a thrill unwittingly stumble into danger”. There is also the ubiquitous “no chance to call for help due to a lack of cell phone reception”. Not helping matters is the equally exhausted vein of character stereotypes all grouped together like the playful, sex-happy couple, the loving and yet tormented sensible couple and the quirky, somewhat nerdy odd man out. At least these characters were not miserably unpleasant jerks that made my mental checkout of the cinematic motel a certainty. Possibly the Scandinavian film makers who crafted this screenplay have never seen many or any of the myriad slasher films that have paraded past my eyes over the years or even more likely they assume that young viewers haven’t seen them either and will find these plot devices fresh. Whatever the motivation for adding them, they are like seeing a “Halfling” in a fantasy story, it’s been done before. When coupled with some trite and unimportant dialogue that didn’t develop the characters terribly well and left me caring for them a great deal less than I should have, there were story elements of COLD PREY that needed a lot more consideration and careful crafting.

However, the narrative is superbly paced and builds a very patient head of steam over the nearly 100 minute run time of the movie. Except for the gently applied layer of suspense in the introduction and the accident in the early stage of the rising action, there is very little that is menacing for some time. Bit by bit though that begins to change and before long we are treated to some legitimately shocking and intense scenes of murder and violence. One of the many reasons why European horror films continue to be superior to their American cousins is their reliance on teasing and tormenting the mind of the viewer while all the while subtly intensifying the pace of the conflict. In addition, we don’t always see the killer in clear light or well-framed shots so that a sense of mystery and menace is maintained. We do see the “prey” in all their gut-wrenching fear either forced to run for their lives or meet their end in a brutal but not overly gratuitous manner. Typical of most modern European fare, there is a degree of sophistication that is evident in the presentation of violence or adult themes. American films slap on schlocky gore like color applied with a Wagner Power Painter. European horror still tends to use carefully considered brush strokes that develop palpable mood and a dense aura of apprehension. Despite the weaknesses in COLD PREY, I somehow found myself drawn into the drama and I attribute that to the construction and execution of a pace that works well.

From a visual standpoint, COLD PREY continues to be a mixed bag. The exterior scenes are shot and lit very effectively. During the snowboarding excursion, we are treated to some spectacular vistas (augmented by CGI it is true) that were quite lovely and impressive. During the snowstorm and nighttime hours at the lodge, there was a look and feel to many shots that felt distinctly reminiscent of THE SHINING, but did not evoke a sense of mimicry. The interiors were also striking at times. The common room of the lodge was old, eclectic and had a homey charm strangely blended with its desolate eeriness. The stark and lifeless hallways were some of the most effective sets for establishing atmospheric impact and called to mind moments from COMA where corridors have never looked more menacing. The imagery of COLD PREY was created using fairly stable camera work and editing, not overly creative and impressive, but competent none-the-less and I could see what was going on due to their competence and relatively thoughtful approach. That is more than I can say for a lot of horror films today. True to form however, the makers of COLD PREY could not find their own path to brave and had to copy a popular trend that has been terribly overused. Most of the interior sets were lit and/or processed so that the color was so desaturated as to be monochromatic bordering on black & white with some sepia thrown in for good measure. This hue design deepened steadily as the grimness of the story increased. While this was once a very intriguing and creative concept, nearly everyone is either trying or has tried to use it over the last ten years and in growing numbers. I am sure that part of the idea behind such a color scheme was not only to aid the sense of emergent doom and disaster, but to strengthen the bleak and inhospitable feel of the surroundings, and it does, but at the cost of being unoriginal.

The extras menu of COLD PREY is one of the largest and most diverse treasure troves I have seen in some time and I was simply astounded by the generosity and comprehensive nature of the bonus features offered. We begin with a 2 ½ minute “Alternate Ending” depicted in storyboard form which is pretty novel. Even more compelling is the 21 minute “Behind Cold Prey” featurette which is a blend of “behind the scenes” footage, interviews and anecdotes augmented by clips. These kinds of features normally engender a deeper respect in me for the movie and this was no exception. Following that was a 23 minute “Visual FX of Cold Prey” presented in four sections dealing with the digital, color, sound and poster effects created for the film. People with an interest and/or an affinity for the technical side of the industry with find this especially compelling. There is another visual effects featurette of 10 minutes called “Car Scenes” that is pretty appealing. An 8 ½ minute series of “Bloopers” follows that. Then there are two short films; a 2 ½ minute feature-connected piece called “Mountain Rose Runs Amok” and a 3 minute early creation by the director called “An Evening in the Green”. Both have their attention-getting qualities. A 4 minute film-inspired music video by The Bloodlights called “One Eye Open” is next, and this mountain of goodies is capped off by the teaser trailer, the theatrical trailer and two TV spots. It isn’t often that you find such a mammoth load of extras on a single disc like COLD PREY.

It might sound like I disliked COLD PREY and I want to unequivocally state that was not the case. I found myself intrigued by many of the traits of this motion picture and would recommend it to viewers who want to see a well-paced slasher film and who may not be as jaded and soaked in slasher flick blood as I am. COLD PREY has a lot of beneficial qualities that the majority of mainstream American films are sorely lacking today. It may not be as contemplative or as visceral as its Scandinavian cousin LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, but it moves a bit faster and is more conventional, which means it may appeal to a wider audience. If you are a younger person without the poison of cynicism flowing through your blood vessels as I have, you will likely be impressed with this addition to the venerable canon of slasher films. Don’t mind my complaints; I was listening to my joints creaking.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

DEAD OF NIGHT (1976) d. Dan Curtis

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Horror anthologies are a lot like a “grab bag” at a party, you never know what you’re going to get and whether it will be any good. Some cinematic horror anthologies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT were excellent and delivered a rich variety of shocks and surprises, while others of the same genre like TORTURE GARDEN were a little more inconsistent despite strong visual elements and some good performances. The same was true of television-based horror anthologies. While DARK ROOM may not be as well remembered as NIGHT GALLERY, it may have been more dependable in its delivery of fright-filled entertainment, despite the fact that NIGHT GALLERY was a Rod Serling production and often had a lot more star power. DEAD OF NIGHT is probably one of the least well-known of the TV horror anthologies, but it has an impressive pedigree. Director Dan Curtis is probably best remembered for his long-running series Dark Shadows, but he was also the man behind THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER television movies, as well as TRILOGY OF TERROR, CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW, BURNT OFFERRINGS and many other masterpieces of the macabre on the Big and Small Screens. DEAD OF NIGHT is a splendid return to a time when people would watch television and expect to be entertained in an adult fashion, with adults in the starring roles and dealing with adult concepts that required some thought and reflection.

DEAD OF NIGHT (not counting the Bonus Features) is a set of three stories described as a foray into “imagination, mystery and terror”. Each segment was shaped or crafted in some manner by the inestimable Richard Matheson, who wrote a screenplay for one tale from a Jack Finney story, adapted another story of his own creation to a screenplay, and penned the teleplay for the third narrative. The first installment is called “Second Chance” starring Ed Begley Jr., which is a tale about a young car enthusiast who restores a 1926 Jordan Playboy to mint condition and then takes an auto trip through a slip in time back to the days of the car’s glory. In the process, Frank initiates a series of cause & effect paradoxes sending ripples through the Time Stream. The second story is “No Such Thing as a Vampire” starring Patrick MacNee, which is a yarn about a wealthy nobleman and professor whose wife and manor are plagued by a “vampire”. Finally, Peter is forced to turn to violent methods to solve the problem he is really wrestling with. The last story is “Bobby” starring Joan Hackett, a nightmarish account of a bereaved mother who resorts to occult practices to restore her dead son to life. Her actions bring unforeseen consequences that underscore the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for”.

Right from the introduction which felt so very typical of “Dan Curtis Productions” and had that wonderful, modern/Gothic aura, I knew I was in for an enjoyable stretch of time and I was not disappointed. Of the three stories, “Second Chance” is the tale that has no relation to horror but it may be the most interesting of the bunch. Time paradox stories have been around for ages and this breaks no new ground, but the loops and twists of the plot are still compelling and force a degree of introspection onto the viewer. The air of nostalgia is heavy with an aroma of “lost youth” and that is certainly aided by the soft focus camera work and gently modulated color scheme against a fairly simple collection of mostly summery exterior sets. The cast is small but effectively used in a story that is on one hand patient and yet relatively tight in its construction. “No Such Thing as a Vampire” has the most recognizable cast, for beyond Patrick MacNee, there is the ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr. and Horst Buchholtz, all three of which were regulars in film and television throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. Of the three tales, “No Such Thing as a Vampire” has the most lavish sets, costumes and props and it is well lit and well shot, depending heavily on some pretty classic “vampire imagery” to propel the narrative. What seems to be a simplistic story takes a nice left turn at the end and leaves us with a mystery rather than a true horror story. Lastly, “Bobby” is the most reminiscent of 70s TV, for the luscious California seaside setting and the fascination, bordering on obsession, with the occult is so evocative of that decade. Of the three stories, “Bobby” is the most atmospheric and is replete with heavy shadows, dim lights, a spooky house and a “cat & mouse” game that is the nightmare of any parent. Despite having the weakest performances of the three stories, this tried and true tale of terror is classic Dan Curtis, with even a few moments where Dark Shadows stock footage is utilized. What may be one of the slickest choices was to arrange the stories as they were, building the intensity slowly and carefully like a wave cresting towards its curl or an orchestra gathering power as it approaches the crescendo. After such a satisfying ride, one would not expect much in the Bonus Features menu, and there you would be terribly wrong.

The extras on DEAD OF NIGHT are diverse and splendid. First up is a 15 minute segment of a Deleted Scene and Extra Footage from “No Such Thing as a Vampire”. The first deleted scene has audio, but the rest is subtitled since no sound was included with the extra footage, which was typical of that time period. From a simple film history vantage, this tidbit is a real surprise and quite interesting. Next is “Robert Cobbert’s Music Score Highlights” a series of 36 incidental and musical score tracks set over a looping series of stills from “No Such Thing as a Vampire”. Anyone who likes 60s/70s style mood music will delight in this addition. Skipping the third segment to leave it to the place of honor, the fourth section is a sizable “Photo Gallery’ of color and black & white on-set and promotional stills from all FOUR features, for there is a FOURTH feature. The third bonus feature is the 52 minute original pilot of DEAD OF NIGHT titled “A Darkness at Blaisden” from 1969 and starring Kerwin Matthews and Marj Dusay. “A Darkness at Blaisden” is a story about psychic phenomena in an old house tracked by a small group of investigators. The opening credits give your some idea of the superbly spooky vibe that will dominate this feature throughout and it does. The wonderful mix of mod fashions, incredibly ornate Gothic sets and props, lurid colors mixed with some very creative camera angles makes this possibly the most ambitious and rewarding of all the features on this disc. Many people of today who have been raised on the sharpness of DVDs may be put off by the grainy and dissolute nature of the 40 year old video and the tinny mono sound, and the plot is occasionally “talky”, which was typical of earlier Dan Curtis work in particular and late 1960s drama in general, but I found this pilot to be the “jewel in the crown” in some cases. While not as well made as the other three installments in some ways, the feel that steadily enmeshed me and soaked into my soul swept me back to a time when I was younger and happier.

DEAD OF NIGHT is probably not for everyone, which is a brutal condemnation of the state of our nation today, for this trilogy is wonderfully enjoyable. If you are the type of viewer who needs bangs and flashes every thirty seconds, who thinks “jump scares” are what make a horror film frightening, or confuse action films with horror and expect outlandish special effects in every scene, you will probably be disappointed. One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed this disc was for the reason that it reminded me pointedly of a time when writing and production of such fare thundered across the airwaves with greater force than any herd of buffalo. The evening network lineup featured many shows like DEAD OF NIGHT from the late 1950s all the way into the early 1980s when anthologies began to disappear from the broadcast landscape. Beyond being a set of stories that is perfect late-night fodder with all the lights turned off, a thick fog shrouding the windows and creaking sounds haunting the halls of your house, this is television history that must be preserved at all costs. Nothing like this is being made anymore in the U.S. and that is to our great detriment. If you don’t pick up DEAD OF NIGHT, more gems of the past like this are likely to slip through our befuddled fingers and vanish with the streams of time down a river from which there is no returning.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

FANTASTIC FLESH (2008) d. Kevin Vanhook

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Since the advent of “fantastical films” in the earliest years of motion pictures, movies of the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres have been driven by a variety of creative forces. Inspired writing has been the fuel behind the evolution of gripping stories that delight viewers of all ages. Impassioned acting has been responsible for drawing the filmgoer into drama that unfolds before their eyes and recreates their sense of authenticity. A superb musical score plays the emotions of the movie-lover like a harp and manipulates the cinemaniac in the best sense of the word. However, even during the days of Lon Chaney and his incredible portrayal of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, it is the makeup effects in a film that cause a viewer to feel like what they are seeing is real. The pioneers of makeup effects restructured what could be achieved on The Silver Screen, they motivated the next generation to expand the limits of accomplishment, and since those days each ensuing generation has built upon the works of their preceding colleagues and taken it in new directions. The “Starz Original” documentary FANTASTIC FLESH is a relatively comprehensive look at these makeup artist masterminds and the impact that they have had on films past and present.

FANTASTIC FLESH is a one hour documentary utilizing an incredible lineup of luminaries from the Film Industry in a short interview and movie clip format that spans the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres with a few mainstream films from the drama category thrown in for good measure, illuminating the diversity of these talented professionals. Broken into eleven chapters, FANTASTIC FLESH starts with a series of recent films like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, Michael Bay’s THE ISLAND and TRANSFORMERS and then THE MIST to whet the appetite of viewers and create a modern introduction setting the stage for a more explicit look the impressive successes of the past. There is a transitional chapter exploring the deep history of makeup effects created by legends like Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney and the impressions they left upon contemporary masters like Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, all of whose work is explored. Living legends like Dick Smith of THE EXORCIST fame are also lauded for the amazing artistry they have created. Finally, a run back up to the present examining the make up effects in the films of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are presented. All through these analyses, the reminiscences and anecdotes of directors like Joe Dante, John Landis, George Romero, John Carpenter and Wes Craven are juxtaposed with the observations of actors like Dee Wallace Stone and Jordan Ladd, among many others from both sides of the camera.

Having seen, reviewed and enjoyed FANTASTIC FLESH’s documentary cousin, BLOODSUCKING CINEMA, I found this installment to be superior despite an obvious weakness. I have always been a lover of the now mainstream subject of vampire lore and imagery, as are most horror film fans, and a topic as esoteric and specialized as makeup effects can sometimes be a bit of a tough sell for a viewer who may not be as captivated by something as technical and that regularly deals in a world dominated by minutiae. Despite this potential drawback, FANTASTIC FLESH is fascinating. After the initial introduction which explored one film about which I felt ambivalent (NARNIA), films by a director I tend to loathe (Michael Bay) and a flick I LOVED but that should have gotten a wider release and a lot more press (THE MIST), FANTASTIC FLESH settled into a steady pace of examining some excellent films of yesteryear (1930s up through the 1980s) and did so in a respectful and even reverent fashion. There might be some who will grouse about what almost amounts to a “mutual admiration society”-style documentary but let the guys pat each other on the back. The amount of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears, as well as skill, training and knowledge required to be at the top of this highly competitive game is staggering. Paying tribute to the accomplishments and enduring impressions that decades worth of talented artists have left is certainly worth an hour’s time. What makes FANTASTIC FLESH even better is the tone borders on scholarly.

The vast majority of the “talking heads” are intelligent, experienced and erudite folk who know a lot about movies, have put their time into the business and earned their stripes and reached their seat of exaltedness through a lot of tribulation and trial and error. The lone exception is Eli Roth of course, who stands out like a sore thumb among older, wiser and more seasoned veterans. His thoughts and ideas were not weak or lame and he came across as articulate and deferential, it just felt like his addition to the cast was a form of pandering to the younger set who may not remember who Joe Dante or John Landis are. A pleasant surprise was that even Quentin Tarantino’s ruminations came across effectively, for it is well known what an inconsistent interview subject he can be. Interspersed with the outstanding interview footage were film clips that did not overtake the visual side of this documentary. In fact, they were masterfully blended with behind the scenes clips and stills along with a small smattering of movie posters and promotional photos, creating a wonderfully eclectic montage of cinematic history that helped to assuage my fears that FANTASTIC FLESH would be overly “technical”. For Goodness Sakes, there was even a pair of stills from the makeup effects on the TV Series Lost in Space, which immediately warmed my aging heart. What the viewer is left with by the end is a thoughtful and sincere paean to people who have lifted motion pictures up to a level where fantasy and reality blur to such a degree that we cannot really tell the difference. This was made so brilliantly apparent in the examination of the “aging” makeup effects used on Max Von Sydow in THE EXORCIST, which on the surface seems so simplistic, but the achievement is one of the most stunning in all of motion picture history.

Since FANTASTIC FLESH was a “made for Cable TV” documentary and it is all about professional discussions and cinematic scrutiny, there is no appreciable extras menu to be had except four auto-play trailers that engage before the main menu, one for a game and three film trailers. While some might be put off by this apparent “lack”, they need to stop and consider for a moment that a documentary does what an extras menu is. I came away from this feature enlightened and entertained, which is damned rare today.

FANTASTIC FLESH is the kind of informational film that will delight aficionados and lay people alike. It is able to explore a topic in a fairly in-depth manner and do it in a timely fashion, without unnecessary digression, circumlocution or sycophancy. It was thoroughly enjoyable to spend some time with people I admire, people I don’t see nearly enough anymore or people who I genuinely like to listen to. Think of FANTASTIC FLESH as similar to sitting down over a beer with a sizable group of friends who also happen to be experts in their fields, all of whom want to talk about a pretty engaging theme. If these guys ever want to do something like this again and on a similar issue, I’ll provide the drinks and the chips. I can’t think of many other ways I’d want to spend a Friday night.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

MOONLIGHT: The Complete Series (2007) created by Ron Koslow & Trevor Munson

Reviewed by Morbia and Dementia

Part 1 – Morbia’s Take

This is an excellent series! I think that the best part, for me, is the mythological accuracy. Of course, there are many different aspects to the vampire myth, but given that this is a modern tale set in sunny L. A. they've really made the whole thing very believable.

The scenes are, for the most part, beautifully shot and the story lines are consistently compelling. At times the relationships between characters can be frustrating and even annoying (lots of yelling at the tv!), but such is human nature, so more points for accuracy. Also, the casting is superb! There's no over acting from the main characters and Alex O'Loughlin was the perfect choice to play the lead. He's just the right amount of brooding, sexy and even humorous.

I also appreciated the vampire makeup. I know it may seem trivial, but given past experience with vampires on screen I enjoyed the fact that they made the decision to not go into "gross" territory. It's much less distracting to be subtle about their appearance. Going along with that is the fact they just sort of gloss over a lot of the "vampire" aspects of the characters, such as rapid healing. Once something is explained they don't waste time going back over it again and again, pointing it out each time. Overall, I was very pleased with the series.

As for the packaging, it's among the best I've ever seen. While it could definitely do with some extras, Warner Home Video has managed to fit all four discs into one regular size DVD case. The information on the case and inserts is sufficient and has a nice clean look. In the end, it is such a pleasure to watch and enjoy another interesting addition to vampire lore in the form of a 16 episode television series, one that I know I will enjoy returning to again someday.

Part 2 – Dementia’s Take

Dementia here, reporting from Room 666 in Hellview Hospital. I recently watched Season 1 of MOONLIGHT coming soon on DVD. Let’s face it, I’ll take vampires any way I can get them but I am genuinely impressed with this effort. Starring Shannyn Sossamon, Alex O’Laughlin and Sophia Myles as his mortal love interest, I wouldn’t miss it. It’s a quality television show with great acting where the main characters really shine (and it’s not just their luminescent undead skin). Irony aside, the vamps have very human emotions and feelings whether likable or not. There are a good variety of them too. I really hate it when all vamps are portrayed as this “Goth” stereotype. I like moody, brooding hotties as much as the next girl, but who says as soon as you’ve turned, you belong to this “angsty” club? The actors are at ease and comfortable in their roles. I enjoyed the interaction between the bloodsuckers and their lively counterparts (especially the romance, of course!). Overall, the show is consistently interesting and well-paced. The way that vampires are depicted is refreshing. At times, especially in the first few episodes, one gets nervous that the show might delve into trite territory, but they surprise yet again with a sense of humor!

The DVD itself is a pretty package. With an internal set-up I’ve never seen that allows all four discs to fit into a normal-sized DVD case, this one really hits the mark. There are some nice screenshots inside the liner notes to pique the interest of first-time viewers. A great feature on the discs themselves is the ability to turn the previous episodes’ recap on and off.

I would definitely recommend this show for sci-fi or regular drama fans alike. In fact this could bridge the gap for some viewers, welcome them to the coven, so to speak, of supernatural television. While it’s not a classic yet, I am anxiously awaiting Season 2 with remote in hand and a bare neck!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

THE ALPHABET KILLER (2008) d. Rob Schmidt

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Some of the scariest books and films mine the deep-seeded fear of having our faith in community pillars shattered. It is those we trust the most implicitly, like law enforcement, clergy, teachers and coaches who turn out to be some of the most compelling characters in horror films or thrillers when those same persons go wrong. What makes that kind of a character even more absorbing is when they are riddled with faults, you can see the cracks widening and yet you still cheer for them and hope for their ultimate success. A character we can relate to or at least feel strongly towards set amidst difficult circumstances can drive the plot of a film even if that movie has its own faults. THE ALPHABET KILLER has just such a gripping character and an actress who gives a dazzling performance, but sadly there are some serious story problems in the last one-third of this motion picture that keep it from being the great success it should have been.

Set in Rochester, NY in the very recent past and based on a “true story”, THE ALPHABET KILLER is the tale of passionate and driven police detective Megan Paige, played by Eliza Dushku. Detective Paige is tracking the killer of a pre-teen girl, who she is convinced will strike again from all the evidence she is able to amass. It is during the early pursuit that Megan’s obsession with finding the killer unseats her reason, destroying her career and nearly her life. Two years later and after much therapy and reconstruction of Megan’s daily routine, the killer resurfaces and begins to murder other young girls at an increasing rate. Against his better judgment, Capt. Kenneth Shine (Cary Elwes) puts Megan back on the case and once again she must battle inner demons in an effort to bring this monster to justice and stop him from the brutalization of other innocents before her self-control and sanity snap.

THE ALPHABET KILLER has a tried and true story idea of a “cop on the edge” that is effective and most of the story’s conflict and drama is created through a detailed focus on and careful attention to Megan’s psychological state. While the early stages of the plot are patient, the spotlight on Megan’s fixations and the strange but effective use of supernatural-seeming accents to scenes help to establish and strengthen the sense of her delicate state of mind and precarious struggles with mental illness. It is the exploration of Megan’s psychology instead of centering on action and/or shock tactics that allow THE ALPHABET KILLER to be a little smarter of a film for the first two-thirds of its runtime. After the introduction and early segments of the rising action, a subtle but steady increase in the momentum of the movie occurs, even as Megan’s character’s fight with potential mental dissolution and the drama played out with friend and foe alike help to create a rather absorbing and reflective tale of a good person, fighting the good fight and losing an inner battle with her frailties simply because she is doing the right thing.

All throughout THE ALPHABET KILLER there is the inestimable presence of lovely and talented Eliza Dushku, whose performance in this film is nothing short of amazing. As an attractive young woman with striking features, it would be easy to get lost in her looks and lose the authenticity of her character, but just the opposite occurs. Ms. Dushku’s portrayal of Meghan is so vibrant, intense and convincing that before long, I had totally forgotten I was observing an actress whom I enjoy and was feeling strongly for her character’s “no-win” situation and the likelihood she would not emerge unscathed from her trials. It was very often throughout THE ALPHABET KILLER that Ms. Dushku’s barely suppressed inner fire and perfectly modulated emotional roller coaster ride reminded me of the consistently moving performances of Steve Railsback, another talented and skilled professional whose force of will can propel an entire motion picture, and that is exactly what Eliza Dushku does. Her commanding and yet vulnerable persona, her expressive face and wonderfully convincing physical quirks leave a lasting and persuasive impact on every moment of THE ALPHABET KILLER. When coupled with Timothy Hutton’s steady performance of Richard Ledge and his stabilizing influence as an actor as well as the wonderfully crusty and thoroughly unsympathetic portrayal of crooked police Capt. Nathan Norcross by Michael Ironside, there are a lot of reasons to like THE ALPHABET KILLER. Unfortunately, there are quite a few reasons this film falls short of what it could have attained.

It doesn’t help that other performances in this movie were not as extraordinary as that of Eliza Dushku or as competent as Michael Ironside or Timothy Hutton. Cary Elwes has had a long career in the picture business, mostly fueled by the one great performance he gave in THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987). Most of the time, his acting is inconsistent at best, often times weak and it never helps to have him trying to play an American with his unconvincing accent and flat affect. His presence does not do this film any favors and despite Ms. Dushku’s best efforts, there is no chemistry between their two characters. Tom Malloy’s character of Steven Harper is little better and while a small degree of tension is created between the his character and Megan, it is almost totally erased when a brief but entirely unnecessary romantic element is foisted on the viewer. It is likely that this scene was scripted to try to show Megan’s continuing emotional instability but it has the opposite effect and felt foolishly forced and totally contrived. These weaknesses could have been small “bumps in the road” had it not been for a serious plot problem at the payoff.

Tom Malloy may be an improving young actor and he certainly has shown some growth in dealing with the topic of madness in his screenplays between THE ATTIC and THE ALPHABET KILLER. Having said that, you’ve got to deliver the goods by the end and your climax and denouement have to be up to the test of the earlier stages of the narrative. THE ALPHABET KILLER suffers from a horrendously implausible and miserably manufactured climactic set of scenes when Megan “learns” who the killer is. To make matters worse, what follows is an old hat and worn out “cat & mouse” game between Megan and the killer only salvaged by some unsettling final scenes that show Megan’s final descent into The Void. THE ALPHABET KILLER had me fairly well-hooked for the first two-thirds of the movie and Eliza Dushku’s brilliance left with a sizable amount of good will towards this project. In addition, Rob Schmidt’s directorial efforts were also praiseworthy. While not a “beautiful” motion picture, it was capably shot with some excellent attention paid to the small facial and body language that vividly displayed Megan’s steady decline and eventual dissolution. There even was some church imagery towards the end that was very attractively shot and well composed. Having said all that, the faults of the screenplay when it needed to be believable, disturbing, filled with impact and import just were not there and it was a damned shame. Hopefully Tom Malloy will show more progress as a writer and between now and the next film of his I watch, so that next time he will be able to pull together a slam-dunk ending.

THE ALPHABET KILLER has a small yet interesting set of bonus features. There are two audio commentary tracks, one with director Rob Schmidt and producer Isen Robbins, the other with actor/writer/producer Tom Malloy. Both are worthwhile. There is a 6 minute featurette called “A to Z: The Making of The Alphabet Killer” which is truly a “behind the scenes” look as we are treated to production shots contrasted with final scenes, alternate or unused footage and applied makeup effects, all the while set to music. Finally, there is a 3 minute alternate scene called “First Victim” that is worth a quick look. While this is not “The Seven Cities of Cibola” as extras go, it is intriguing to hear what cast & crew have to say on the commentaries.

I felt deeply torn when I pulled THE ALPHABET KILLER out of my DVD player, for I liked what it tried to do for the majority of the film and my respect and admiration for Eliza Dushku continues to grow. Certainly, performances like this one will go a long way to proving she is more than just a pretty face and a pleasing figure. However, for many years I have bemoaned the problems of the literary world brought on by its lack of quality line-editors and their inability to get novelists to effectively craft thoughtful endings. Obviously, similar problems are afflicting the motion picture industry as well, not that there haven’t been disappointments like this before and there will certainly be more to come. I have very high standards as a reviewer, for I am old, have seen a huge number of films, spend a lot of time analyzing, researching and trying to apply intellectual discipline to my understanding of cinema. It is likely that persons with lower standards and who are more forgiving may look past the weaknesses of this movie. If you can do that, and appreciate the great strengths of THE ALPHABET KILLER, then you will probably have a wonderful viewing experience. If you are a tough sell as I often am, you may not be willing to give this flick a chance. I would endure its failings just to see a superb acting effort that will probably not receive much notice, but it should. At least my written record will be a lasting testament to the best qualities of THE ALPHABET KILLER.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

YETI (2007) d. Paul Ziller

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

From their very beginnings, “creature features” have been plagued or one might also say saved by the strange dichotomy of being both occasionally creepy and most commonly cheesy. Creating a degree of threat and menace was easier in the early days of “monster films” during the 1930s, 40s and 50s before thematic audience saturation, higher levels of production quality and lower thresholds of sleaziness made it so that “cheese” began to outrageously overshadow “creeps”. Of all the “creature features”, none was more ludicrous both as a story and visually than Bigfoot/Sasquatch/Abominable Snowman/Yeti films no matter how serious the attempt to create a sincere horror or action movie. Perhaps it is the unconquered cynic in us that truly understands that no such creature can exist in today’s world, but be that as it may, giant man-ape flicks are still being made, have actually seen a renaissance over the past ten years, and they can still be entertaining. Likely, it is the still unresolved fear man retains in some of the most primitive corners of his brain that continues to recoil over “hominid” competition, something that was once the case more than 100,000 years ago. Whatever the reason for their unrelenting success, YETI is another installment in a long line of illustrious and/or infamous “Bigfoot” motion pictures and by borrowing from its cousins and a few other distant cinematic relatives, it becomes the newest addition to the “Maneater” Series to hold up its head with pride at being an enjoyable viewing experience.

YETI is the story of the “State College Grizzlies” football team, traveling by jet to Japan for the first-ever Bowl Game in that country. An electrical storm over the Himalayas causes the plane to lose altitude and then it crashes into the side of a mountain, stranding a number of survivors in the most inhospitable of environments. Forced to battle the elements and growing hunger, “sportos and bimbos” struggle to find a way to cope with challenges, not the least of which is working together in a race against time before they either freeze or starve. To make matters worse, it becomes increasingly obvious that “something is out there”, dragging off the corpses to its lair. Once the supply of dead meat is exhausted, the “creature” turns its attention to live prey and the last survivors of the plane crash are forced to dodge the teeth and claws of a ferocious yeti, or end up another gnawed set of bones adorning the floor of a dank mountain cave.

Anyone going into a film called YETI sporting a tag line “It kills in Cold Blood” has to know what they may be getting themselves into, and this movie is no PHILADELPHIA STORY or CHARADE for that matter. However, it does openly sample two older and classic storylines and then heavily makes use of another entire genre, all of which helps YETI to be proficient and occasionally absorbing. Much of the most intense drama is created by using the basic premise of the film SURVIVE (1976), based on the 1972 book ALIVE, both dealing with the topic of a men’s soccer team’s plane crash in the Andes mountains and the survivors having to come to grips with the grim realities of starvation. Added to that is the age-old tale of castaways having to battle among themselves and with their inner demons, all the while struggling with the taxing nature of their surroundings, something akin to LORD OF THE FLIES. When you add to that the elementary foundation of “creature feature” films like SNOW CREATURE (1954) or SNOWBEAST (1977), you’ve got a recipe for a surprisingly engaging narrative. What is somewhat of a bolt from the blue is that the greatest degree of conflict derives from the misfortunes and melodrama produced by character interplay and the emotional trauma therein. Each major character is an archetype that has been used in similar cinematic circumstances before, but they are none the worse for wear, and in this case their tussles, squabbles, skirmishes and all-out battles are far more compelling as story drama than anything else. The Yeti itself is not a great source of terror and exists more as a vehicle for creating shock, which it does nicely. For being a TV Movie, there is a surprising amount of gore in this flick, some of it gruesome and some of it quite comedic. There are burned bodies and bloody stumps galore in YETI, but there is also a scene where a character uses a severed arm as a splint for a broken leg, and in another scene the Yeti beats a man with his own leg that had just been torn off. In the end, we get a real “creepy” story when it comes to the character’s fight for survival and a real “cheesy” story when the coeds battle the Yeti to keep from becoming just another snack.

None of the actors are the next Lawrence Olivier or Olivia De Havilland, but they don’t have to be. All that is required of these thespians is that their performances match the roles that were scripted and that is done very competently. Whether it is “the leader”, “the troublemaker”, “the moralist” or any other character standard, inexperienced or fairly experienced the actors of YETI are able to provide workman-like portrayals that do this film proud. In fact, despite the youth of the roles and the performers, many of the characters of YETI were appealing and could be related to; while those who weren’t likable were written in such a way that they weren’t suppose to be. What isn’t something to be as proud of was the use of the monster itself in the story and in visual terms. One of the qualities of most “Bigfoot” films is that you either see little or nothing of the creature and what little you see isn’t revealed until late in the movie. In YETI, it isn’t long after the airliner crash that we see the beast in all its albino glory and while the monster makeup isn’t half bad, by seeing the snow ape so soon much of the potential suspense and menace is immediately erased. Then the primary hirsute antagonist is rendered even less frightening by pretty bad CGI that is fortunately not used too often, but it is applied just enough to spread an extra thick layer of “cheese” onto a film that was going to be pretty campy anyway. To make matters worse, the Yeti can leap tall larches at a single bound and is more powerful that a speeding avalanche. While not utterly derailing YETI, it was far more “frightening” or maybe “endearing” is the right word when a viewer could see a man in a Yeti suit lumbering or half-jogging across the snowy landscape instead of doing an anthropoidal imitation of the Six Million Dollar Man. Fortunately, the rest of YETI was “by the book” TV Movie charm. The sets and locations looked convincing and gave off a “snowbound wilderness” feel. The accompanying and incidental music was very “old school” in its orchestral feel, which was a great revelation. Since this was a film about 20-somethings, I fully expected a lethal dose of modern musical cacophony that would have added an irritating element to a film that would not be able to sustain any major detracting characteristics. Luckily, such was not the case.

While not having a true “extras menu”, YETI does have a few more crumbs than your average “Maneater” series DVD. An autoplay “Maneater” promo comes up before the main menu, followed by four other Genius Products trailers, all of which I’ve seen and three of which I can vouch for as being reasonably good experiences. The actual film trailer for YETI is included on this disc and while not a true “bonus”, it is more than I’ve seen for most of the “Maneater” series. Possibly this is the first foray into real extras on future discs? That is probably not likely as the inspirational seeds for other “Maneater” films must have just about all been sown, but who’s to say? Perhaps there is some awe-inspiring bonus feature waiting in the wings in the future that will leave me shell-shocked by its fascinating beneficence.

YETI is not the finest of the “Maneater” series and it isn’t even close to the best of the “Bigfoot” sub-genre, but it is enjoyable, you have characters to hate and others to root for. There is gore aplenty if that floats your boat and you’ll feel like you’re sitting down with an old friend you’ve missed since the general story-line should be pretty familiar. I’d say that YETI could be perfect fare for a gloomy February afternoon with the wind howling outside, snow drifts piling up and the mercury dropping fast. Make a few grilled cheese sandwiches, brew a mug of hot cocoa, pull a few blankets onto the sofa and then curl up with a film that really does feel like it is the cousin of so many other Saturday afternoon monster movie offerings on independent UHF TV from long ago. Go in knowing you are not getting award-winning cinema, but know that you might get a few laughs and a few groans (for a variety of reasons) and know that you could do a lot worse. In fact, it’s pretty hard to do better in a lot of cases nowadays.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1967) d. Damiano Damiani

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

“Ballots not bullets” has long been a saying describing the democratic philosophy of American politics, but that has not always been the case in this country nor is that statement sovereign for most of the rest of the world. When it comes to Westerns, bullets are often the deciding factor when it comes to choosing a leader, solving a dilemma, answering a question or even having fun. While the appeal of the American Frontier has long been the siren call for film makers, Mexico and its turbulent culture and history is sometimes more fertile ground for a truly ripping western tale. John Huston’s TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE is just one of dozens of classic tales of the passions and lawless savagery of life in the Mexican hinterlands. When you take a story cut from Mexico’s garish cloth and mingle it with the unmistakable flair of Italian film making, you have an undeniably powerful combination. A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is a film that succeeds brilliantly on many fronts and should please even the most finicky of connoisseurs of the “Western” cinematic genre.

Set during the bloodiest days of “The Feast of Death” (aka The Mexican Revolution) of the early 20th Century, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is the story of a band of revolutionary cutthroats who are somewhat more powerfully motivated by greed as much as they are by political conviction. Led by “El Chucho” who raids Federal trains to steal weapons for Senor Elias, Chucho makes the acquaintance of a young American whom he dubs “Nino” and who joins this gang of bandits. It is not long before “Nino’s” ideas permeate Chucho’s band and one bloody but successful raid after another nets a large cache of rifles, ammunition and even a machine gun for Senor Elias, all of which should bring a colossal reward. It is at the height of their achievement that members of Chucho’s bunch of hooligans begin to have different thoughts about their aims and their futures, even as it becomes obvious that “Nino” has his own unfathomable plans. Deception, murder and avarice combine to tear apart El Chucho’s mob even as the big payday approaches.

From the very first musical strains and shots of a locomotive chuffing through a desolate Mexican landscape, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL feels as authentic as any western I have ever seen. Excellent dubbing, a superb cast of principal characters supported by dozens of extras that look like they were pulled from the hills above Vera Cruz, startlingly genuine looking costumes, sets and props and a fantastic score blend together inexorably to paint a rich and amazingly flavorful repast of Revolutionary Mexico replete with poverty, passion, violence and venality. While A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL lacks some of the panoramic beauty more typical of most “Spaghetti Westerns”, there are some sweeping vistas and sun-drenched scenes in the last one-third of the movie, but that is not what makes up for the landscape-art deficiency. Each scene is carefully composed and sports a mix of expressive close-ups, balanced group shots and energetic action sequences that evoke a wide variety of emotions. Even though the imagery seems at the onset to be the greatest strength of A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL and is a constant force throughout, it is the story that sneaks up on the viewer and leaves a lasting impression by the end.

Over the first half of A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, there is a curious mix of light-hearted humor in the actions and dialogue of the characters, bloodthirsty violence laced with an odd feeling of a romp, and a deepening undercurrent of political commentary. The pace of the narrative begins slowly but with clear purpose and as each raid progresses and the character interplay intensifies, the momentum increases irresistibly, developing an undeniably savory stew of daring, dirty deeds, exuberance and primal energy. Even as the plot begins to progressively coalesce and gain power, the mood begins to subtly shift in such a clever and infinitesimal fashion that it is hard to catch the darker tones that are woven into the tale at first, but they are there all the same and finally begin to forcefully assert themselves. Before long, an unquestionable streak of seriousness has arisen and it takes A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL in an unexpected but deeply satisfying direction. There are clear dollops of foreshadowing that allow any alert viewer to guess some of what is coming, but other elements of the story are carefully hidden until they are brought forth to move the plot through twists that keeps the story fresh and full of life.

Another engaging trait of A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is the fabulous admixture of well-scripted characters supported by excellent casting and fine performances. Gian Maria Volonte steals the show as the mercurial, wacky and yet murderous trickster “El Chucho” and the depth and complexity of a character that starts out as a seemingly stereotypical “Mexican Bandit” turns into a human force that helps to propel the intricacy of the entire motion picture. While not a sizable role, Klaus Kinski gets to portray Chucho’s brother “El Santo” and he adds his own inimitably blended veneer of intensity, creepiness and acting expertise that has never quite been surpassed. No one can ever say that they left a film in which Klaus Kinski played a part and did not exit that movie with an icy blue gaze stabbing daggers into their soul. Lou Castel is the baby-faced, cold-blooded “Nino” and plays his part with an understated, rapier-thin impact that is a perfect foil for the unpredictable and childlike mayhem of “El Chucho”. Finally, there is the dark and intoxicating beauty of Martine Beswick as Adelita, whose barely suppressed emotions seethe and simmer under the more maniacal and masculine capering of the thugs. Despite the peasant clothes and “bandita” facade over her lethal loveliness, Ms. Beswick’s presence is like adding crystal stemware to a fried chicken picnic, and the amplified elegance only aids the overall outcome.

As is typical of older European fare of any genre, bonus features are not always easy to come by. Whether it is due to many of the cast and crew not being well known to Americans, or not being terribly easy to locate and assemble for reminiscences, and/or having gone to their heavenly reward, there are no interviews or old promotional clips to be had. All that is available are the original international and U.S. theatrical trailers. When dealing with a film that is more than 40 years old, such lacks are almost always unavoidable, but also deeply sorrowful, for Lou Castel and Martine Beswick are still alive and at least in the case of Ms. Beswick, still available for comment as she has been on some of the MGM releases of the older James Bond films. While probably a costly tidbit to add, her recollections of working with Gian Maria Volonte and Klaus Kinski are likely to be priceless as would be her anecdotes about filming a western in Italy. As each year passes and we lose first-hand accounts of such experiences, a little more of our precious cinematic history is lost. At least Blue Underground has brought us this inestimable jewel known as A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL so that others can enjoy it too.

When I look at the children in my classroom each year, I wonder how many of them will eventually come to embrace the splendor of “The Western” and I worry that it may be few or none. I was lucky enough to have essential training on the subject in the form of television shows like The Rifleman and Have Gun Will Travel, which led me to graduate from the school of gun fighting and then move on to upper level studies in American and then European “westerns”. I can’t imagine a world where generations of children will not know the joy of sitting down to watching dirty, dusty degenerates disagreeing violently over land or water rights, or cattle or other commodities on the frontier and then settling their differences with gunplay. That may seem barbaric to modern audiences, but after watching A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, I am fairly certain that sitting through Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Simple Life is a far more primitive way of spending time than seeing a beautifully crafted film from a genre that deserves our glorification.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

KEOMA (1976) d. Enzo Castellari

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

On the surface it would not seem that a DVD review site that specializes in horror films would have any interest in Italian Westerns, but after careful reflection it can be seen that the two genres have a great deal in common. Both horror and “Spaghetti Westerns” depend on very careful development of imagery and both must have actors/actresses that can convey powerful emotions through their facial expressions that will engage the feelings of the viewers. Both film genres are often intensely violent and have grisly scenes of depravity, exploring the basest of human motivations. For all these reasons and many more, horror and Italian Westerns are distant cousins linked by the strange and wonderful heredity of being exploitation movies that cash in on mining the themes and subjects we love to watch but often won’t admit our devotion to. One can’t watch a “Spaghetti Western” and not be transfixed by the repugnant brutality and bloodthirsty villains, fought tooth and nail by heroes just as willing to trade their souls for hard-won victories. If that isn’t the essence of what attracts viewers to horror, nothing is and those very ideas are the quintessence of KEOMA, an Italian-made “western” bringing together the fabulous tag-team of actor Franco Nero and director Enzo Castellari, two men who worked together often and successfully.

Set in the post-Civil War “West”, KEOMA is the story of a half-breed fighter who returns to his boyhood town after many years to find it consumed by plague fears and ravaged by violence, villainy and letchery. In an effort to pay debts to those who raised and sheltered him as an unwanted child, Keoma decides to help a pregnant plague survivor and the remaining plague victims who have been concentrated in a refugee hamlet. Keoma is eventually forced to take on the town’s boss to break his control of the village, while at the same time settling old scores with his three half-brothers. Keoma measures out justice with every bullet, knife stroke and body blow he delivers in an effort to bring freedom to a place he once called home.

Despite being made at a time when westerns, both in the U.S. and in Europe, were on the decline, KEOMA has all the attributes of a classic of the genre. Like most of the Italian westerns, it is shot incredibly wide so as to provide any viewer with a panoramic experience of sweeping vistas of plains, hills, cliffs, valleys and other features that calls forth a wild and bleak beauty. The set design is outstanding in a miserable fashion, with Keoma’s town looking as desolate, dingy, dark, dirty and disgusting as possible, creating an air of threat and menace right from the beginning. Typical of Enzo Castellari’s fabulous directorial work, shots are composed with a great deal of artistry and consideration, focusing on the powerful and deeply expressive looks on character’s faces, but also taking in the drama unfolding all around them. Mr. Castellari never skimped on action sequences that will impress and all through the film there are bullet-ridden, arrow-impaled and knife-gored bodies flying through the air in slow motion, from great heights, at full speed and smashing through wooden props, helping to intensify the sense of murderous mayhem and gruesome ghastliness that pervades much of the film.

What makes KEOMA better than your average “shoot-em up” is the patient story that builds on many wonderful elements. The tried and true mythos of a reflective, haunted gunfighter is carefully woven into the plot, even as the narrative gains steady momentum as dramatic stretches are more steadily punctuated by violent action and eerie, nostalgic flashbacks. As the film moves ahead, just as a river it gains velocity and power, rushing towards a thunderous conclusion, and KEOMA does not hold back on on titanic clashes over the last one-third of the motion picture. Throughout this archetypal story of vengeance, there is the piercing blue-eyes, suavely accented voice and hirsute masculinity of Franco Nero. Dirty-faced, ratty-haired and flea-bitten for the duration of the film, his character’s morose yet purposeful savagery propels the film forward on a tide of strange and yet undeniable charisma. Added to that mix is a cast that looks the part of each and every filthy, sadistic, gloomy, hopeless and horrifying character in this tale. What is most impressive is not always what the characters say or even how they say it, but how they react to each other and their surroundings with simple yet supremely powerful glances, sneers or looks of profound shock or sadness. Woody Strode, who was one of the most underrated actors of bygone years, is another of the cast members whose presence is stamped all over this film just by his granite chin and awe-inspiring physique, even at the age of 62 in 1976. Woven into this already rich tapestry is a very strange but effective film score that blends old-style western instrumentals with newer ballad lyrics that wouldn’t seem to work but it does. In the end, KEOMA is as enjoyable a western as anything made on either side of the Atlantic Ocean even during the “golden years” of the genre. This is just as attractive as any of the Leone films and just as tough and loutish as the Italian crime dramas that were proliferating in the 1970s, making it a film that works on many levels and taps into all kinds of internal avenues of cinematic enjoyment.

Most people don’t think of “bonus features” when they think of westerns, but KEOMA has a small but exceptional cache. There is an excellent audio commentary track with director Enzo Castellari and journalist Waylon Wahl. There is also an outstanding 10 minute interview with Franco Nero called “Keoma: Legends Never Die” that is highly entertaining and equally as informative. There is a pair of text “Talent Bios” of Enzo Castellari and Franco Nero as well as the theatrical trailer, which is worth its weight in gold. It is probably a good idea to watch all of the extras after watching the feature, for although there aren’t many spoilers, the aura of KEOMA is not knowing what to expect along the way, which is made even more interesting after hearing what Franco Nero has to say about the way this motion picture was written and filmed.

For some strange and deeply sorrowful reason, despite many attempts to revive their lost glory, westerns continue to disappear from the cinematic landscape. Recent efforts like 3:10 TO YUMA, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, YOUNG GUNS and TOMSTONE, to name just a few, have tried to breathe life into this once-mighty genre. Instead of resuscitating that which cannot be saved, what makes more sense to the true movie-lover is to travel back in time via your DVD player to when greatness was all around us. Watch KEOMA, which is the real thing and revel in the manliness and malevolence, just as you thrill to the lust for blood in an era when life was cheap and a six-shooter was the law. Sit back and let your eyes be saturated by KEOMA and see for yourself why Italian Westerns and classic horror movies have that spark at the core of their beings that are akin and should be enjoyed by fans of either film genre.