Wednesday, February 25, 2009

THE MANIACS (1964) d. Lucio Fulci

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the reasons readers enjoy short story collections is that it’s a little like going to a wine tasting party, you get lots of small sips of fine vintages that give you a sense of the splendid flavors and the bouquet of each bottle. Short stories are a lot like that, for they provide the literature lover a brief glance at a concept or a fleeting surge of emotion. Most of the time, motion pictures do not cross into such territory for a wide variety of reasons, most commonly that film is expensive and telling a series of brief tales is not always a successful commercial choice for a movie. Horror anthologies proved that such a cinematic style can be financially successful, but even then the vast majority of anthology installments are lengthier in proportion to what a film-version of a short story would be. THE MANIACS (I MANIACI) is a notable exception in many ways. To begin with, since it was directed by Lucio Fulci, one would expect a series of horror vignettes, but that is not the case. Still very early in his career, Fulci was making just as many action flicks, westerns, secret agent movies and comedies as he was any other genres. The other surprise is that THE MANIACS is a series of very short features of the comedic category and if you are going into these expecting creeps, gore and scares, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you pass over THE MANIACS you’ll disappoint yourself even more, for this is just like a wine tasting party, there something for everyone and a myriad of flavors worth sampling.

THE MANIACS is composed of thirteen vignettes running the gamut of exceedingly short and extremely focused “concept stories” to somewhat lengthier narratives with a more conventional style, but no one segment is longer than fifteen minutes. Each chapter is titled as a short story would be, moving from the introduction called “The Elaboration”, to “Sport”, “Overtaking”, “The Hobby”, “The Advice”, “The Protest”, “The Antique”, “The Swear Word”, “The Strip-Tease”, “The Interviews”, “Hitchhiking”, “The Bill of Exchange” and the concluding tale, “The Weekend”. The vignettes are a wide mix of subjects dealing with tyrannical office bosses, “philandering” husbands and/or lonely men and their pastimes, shrewish and talkative wives, shifting political ideologies, wasteful spenders and shrewd wheeler-dealers, people from the opposite sides of the societal tracks, affluent social climbers, as well as randy and amorous adults. While most of the cast would not be recognizable to the average American, there are a few faces that seasoned viewers of Euro-cinema might recognize like Raimondo Vianello and Walter Chiari. Of course there is also the inestimable presence of Barbara Steele in two of the shorts, lending her glamor, talents and consummate beauty to this charming set of tales and being the primary reason why I was interested in viewing this disc. Beyond Ms. Steele’s presence, there is also a lot to like about THE MANIACS.

Stitched together by the common thread of “manias” or neurotic, possibly psychotic behaviors in everyday Italian society of the 1960s, THE MANIACS is a subtle mix of gentle madcap humor, sharp but delicate jabs of satire, ribald swipes at daily life and some very wacky slapstick in the conclusion. While not as razor-sharp in its dissection of the foibles of Italian mores, customs, religion and politics as was THE EROTICIST, THE MANIACS is still witty, charming and delightfully tongue-in-cheek. Each story has a very clear concept that rapidly rises to the forefront, giving the viewer the chance to revel in the thoughtfully constructed character interplay, the clever and pointed dialogue and before the tale gets too old, it shifts gears and develops its finalized theme, seamlessly transitioning to the next comedic target. Unlike so many modern films where inexpensive and/or unseasoned actors are utilized, THE MANIACS is replete with veteran performers who give highly stylized, quirky and thoroughly enjoyable portrayals of citizens spanning the entire class structure and social ladder. Whether they are well dressed and elegant, dirty and uneducated, pious yet unscrupulous or simply curvaceous and partly clothed, it seems as if the many writers of THE MANIACS spare no one. What may be one of the most interesting qualities of this film is its very fast pace moving from one tale to the next. In 1964, this pace must have seemed quite frenetic to movie-goers who were use to far more patient narratives. While the structure of THE MANIACS will seem absolutely novel to most viewers today, the cadence is right up the alley of the modern “computer game”, “cell phone” and “music video” generation. Before any attention deficit-inspired boredom can set in, we jump to the next cinematic account and lampoon another cultural construct or icon. I have been a devoted lover of short stories since my earliest days of reading and my passion for Italian cinema is legion, and I found the hybridization of these seemingly incompatible species wonderfully creative. I may not have guffawed and didn’t expect to, for 1960s European humor tended to be far more effete, but I thoroughly enjoyed the delicately satirical nature of this film.

When it comes to satisfying the senses, THE MANIACS has a number of positive characteristics too. The transfer of this black & white motion picture is outstanding. The images are wonderfully crisp and clean, making every scene look as if it had filmed yesterday. The interior and exterior sets in each vignette are a very diverse mix of day to day Italian life so that on one hand you see mundane streets, but the next images are of compelling cosmopolitan urban views or delightfully attractive parks or villas. There are stark offices, ornate and stylish rooms and there is artistic and cultural beauty so typical of Italy and its environs. As always, the cast is dressed in the chic fashions so very emblematic of what Americans imagine these insufferable and splendid trendsetters to be wearing. Even though THE MANIACS is a black & white movie, there is a lot to please the eye, but the ear is not deprived. Ennio Morricone and Carlo Rustichelli created a whimsical, jazzy and playful soundtrack that comes and goes throughout the film, but complements the ebb and flow of this motion picture brilliantly. On a final auditory note, one of the other benefits of THE MANIACS is that the audio track is in Italian and subtitled in English. While some people may not enjoy reading the rapid subtitles, I ALWAYS find this a superior presentation. To listen to such a beautiful language and to hear the nuances of emotion in synch with the facial expressions of the actors is invariably preferable to a bad dubbing job.

THE MANIACS is a fairly obscure film released by a “new” company (MYA Communications) through Ryko Distribution, so I went in expecting no bonus features and while that was the case to a degree, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the theatrical trailer was included. While it might have been nice to hear Ms. Barbara Steele’s reminiscences of this project and especially her collaboration with Lucio Fulci, it isn’t easy to arrange such opportunities and they don’t come cheap. Between the trailer and a pristine visual and audio transfer, I felt more than compensated for a lack of “extras”. Perhaps MYA Communications will unearth another “long lost” Barbara Steele gem and get her to discuss it, much as I have heard that we will hear Ms. Steele’s thoughts on NIGHTMARE CASTLE, soon to be released by Severin Films. Keep that in mind for the future folks!

I once read an introduction to a collection of novellas by Dan Simmons where he discussed how loath most publishers were to deal with shorter fiction as it “did not sell” as well as an ordinary novel. I imagine that films like THE MANIACS were a tough sell with producers, financiers and releasing companies of motion pictures. While I can’t say that I would want to see dozens of movies like this, I am very glad that THE MANIACS exists and that I have viewed it. Just as an educated literature lover delves into the lesser known works of a great author to find the extraordinary jewel, a cinema devotee tackles atypical presentations and styles of film making, for when they do, rewards are inevitably bestowed. THE MANIACS is the reward for patiently sipping your way through all the wines at a party, waiting for that one, rare and special vintage you’ve never had before.

Friday, February 20, 2009

CYCLOPS (2008) d. Declan O’Brien

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Roger Corman has had a long and illustrious career, bringing to the movie-loving public a wide variety of film fare, from silly but marvelous Sci-Fi stupidi-thons like IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, lavish and lurid Poe adaptations like THE RAVEN, surprisingly sophisticated spoofs like A BUCKET OF BLOOD and mayhem-minded action assaults like DEATHRACE 2000. He has been a director, a producer, an actor and a showman of unparalleled productivity and achievement, displaying to the world a sense of entrepreneurial artistry that may never be equaled. While the amount of influence the 82 year-old modern-day PT Barnum wielded on the New Horizons TV movie CYCLOPS would be interesting to discover, one thing is certain, whoever pulled the strings certainly knew how to make an all-Corman flick. That doesn’t mean that CYCLOPS is any good, but it has a feel to it and a way of being entertaining that smacks of The Master, and for that I am willing to forgive CYCLOPS several of its faults, only some mind you.

CYCLOPS is a story of Ancient Rome during the days of Tiberius. A ravening beast is loose in the wilds around The City and its penchant for eating helpless citizens forces the Emperor to send soldiers to deal with it. The beast is captured and returned to Rome in chains, where it is slated to take its place as the central attraction in The Arena devouring unfortunate slaves and bashing hapless gladiators. Despite several Cyclopean attempts at escape where the monster wreaks havoc and runs amok, its menace cows much of Rome’s unrest, but a slave revolt occurs, threatening the safety of the Empire. The slaves find a leader in the disgraced military hero of Marcus, the man who captured the Cyclops and who now has forged an alliance with the creature. Their combined might and crafty intellect bring down the mighty Tiberius and set free the citizens of Rome and its Empire.

CYCLOPS is almost classic Corman with one surprising exception. It is a film that borrows heavily from a more successful predecessor, Russell Crowe’s GLADIATOR and then spices up the old story of jealousies, intrigues, duplicity and power-plays with goofy Cyclops-spawned bloody violence and a variety of fight scenes sprinkled somewhat liberally throughout the narrative to keep the natives happy. If you go into CYCLOPS expecting a movie that is 100% rampaging, smashing and thrashing, then you don’t know the Corman formula and will be disappointed. This is more a tale of the cruelty of Roman rule and a melodrama about plebeians and patricians caught up in the trials and tribulations of its impending Downfall as it is a Big Beastie motion picture. The Cyclops is used as a tool to spread stamping ruin and gory goodness throughout the on-screen extras and even a few minor characters whenever the “story” trends too far in the direction of being a historical drama. To add even more “bread and circuses” there are more than enough battle sequences of the military and gladiatorial nature to please those looking for spear and swordplay. If you’ve ever seen BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (1961), the idea is the same. Tell a tale that will catch people’s attention due to its use of character interplay, conflict and romance, then intersperse the threat of something “out of this world” creating disaster and you’ve got a good sense of how the drill goes from there. Unlike BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE where the “creature” isn’t seen much until the very end, CYCLOPS treats us to the visual “splendor” of a CG atrocity that is pretty bad looking, but not any worse than the monster in CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. Corman was known far and wide for effects that were usually pretty dismal in his “B” pictures and usually induced more smirks than scares. Other than the ridiculous looking Cyclops, that is where this film is different from “typical” past efforts.

On a visual level, there is a lot to like about this picture. The exterior sets of sylvan woodlands do give a legitimate feel of Long Ago and when mixed with the CG models of Rome and smaller scale exterior building sets, there is a startlingly engaging feel to CYCLOPS. The interiors were also either nicely opulent rooms of the Rich & Powerful or dingy dungeons filled with dung and when coupled with the shockingly attractive and authentic-looking costumes, one scratches their head and asks “this is a Roger Corman film”, but then one must remember efforts like PIT AND THE PENDULUM and recall that many of his “bigger budget” films really did look great and were not all like THE WASP WOMAN. Being that this was a TV movie, the amount of blood and violence was rather surprising but what was in short supply, actually totally absent, was nudity. A few exceedingly scantily clad slave girls jiggling their enticing wares or lovely female villagers running naked across the market square chased by randy centurions might have helped to relieve some of the dramatic stretches where the story was a bit too earnest, for much like The Games of Rome, most people entering into an Entertainment Contract with CYCLOPS would hope for spectacle, and some skin would have been a nice addition. At least we are treated to Frida Farrell (Barbara) in gladiator gear at the very end which displays her comely figure a little better than her pretty but boring peasant gowns.

On an acting level, CYCLOPS is exactly what one might expect from a Corman film. There is a fair number of older, more experienced actors in various roles in this movie, and they are able to deliver their somewhat overblown lines like “There’s a Cyclops out there” with a degree of panache. Most of the younger folk are less experienced and as a result tend to resort to overacting and are not always able to portray their characters as being people of 2000 years ago, but there was no performing effrontery and the cast was able to do their jobs competently. CYCLOPS is fortunate enough to bask in the company of Eric Roberts, who plays the role of The Emperor Tiberius. While not the shudder-inducing presence of an actor like Peter Stormare, Mr. Roberts has a haughty indolence and a debauched, but laconic insouciance that is perfect for the part, leaving most of us just waiting for the inevitable payoff. Kevin Stapleton plays the ethical and caring Marcus with some unintentional humor, for his “friendship” scenes with the Cyclops are almost side-splitting in their silliness. Add to this mix of actors with limited skill, a musical score that feels like classic canned orchestral “Wonder Bread”, and the old “cheese factor” is alive and well and serving CYCLOPS fruitfully.

Unlike the vast majority of Anchor Bay DVDs I’ve dealt with, CYCLOPS is a bare-bones disc with no extras to be had. While I am never in favor of such a thing, especially during an economy where every dollar spent needs to feel like it was $1.50 spent well, in this situation the lack of extras seems to hurt even more. Roger Corman is generally not too camera shy and his ruminations on his involvement in this film, even if he stretches the truth would be a lot of fun. Then there is Eric Roberts and his thoughts on being the dissolute and dispassionate Tiberius. While he didn’t sleepwalk his way through the role, ala Basil Rathbone in HILLBILLIES IN A HAUNTED HOUSE, Mr. Roberts’s thoughts on being accosted by a CG Cyclops would also be humorous. Bonus Features are always a good idea on any DVD, even if it is of the TV variety. While such extras are a bit more rare on TV Movies, it is not like you never see them, and my suggestion is find something to spice up discs like this, even if it is a gallery of lovely Roman slave girls doing “the funky chicken”. Remember, “bread and circuses” keep the angry masses quiescent.

CYCLOPS was neither directed nor written by Roger Corman, but either Declan O’Brien and Frances Doel had a profound respect for The Man, or Mr. Corman controlled them with his legendary telekinetic powers, for this feels a lot like something he would have done during his Glory Years. CYCLOPS is not a good film, but it is entertaining after a fashion and was able to keep my attention better than a lot of “bad” films that are so common today. If you go in expecting a masterpiece or raucous exploitation fare, you will be disappointed. Go into CYCLOPS with the understanding that this is classic “sleight of hand” and that what the magician is doing is keeping you spellbound with one trick while you wait for the other. I use to like such displays at fairs, and if you did too, CYCLOPS is for you.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

AMERICAN SCARY (2006) d. John E. Hudgens & Sandy Clark

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

There are moments during our young lives where enjoyable events transform us permanently and leave us yearning for more. No one ever quite forgets the first time they went to an amusement park and took part in the excitement and exhilaration of sounds, sights and scary rides that left such a lasting emotional impact that for ever after, you tried to replicate that glorious day. The first time you rode a bike is probably right up there as another of the transfiguring experiences for its thrilling mix of danger, the heady draught of freedom and the whirling intoxication of being “a big kid” for the first time. Most people would probably not list watching a “horror host” television show as an event that left them forever changed, but it is likely that they are not really remembering the past as well as they should. Many folks probably stopped briefly on a channel that carried one of the old Creature Feature, Chiller or The Ghoul inspired shows and were either so terrified by the macabre imagery of the sets and costumes, so astounded by the sophomoric humor of the host or so repulsed by the low budget nature of the films that they vowed never to return. Certainly, that could be called a defining moment, though those folk will likely never own up to it. For those of us who were conquered by the mesmeric nature of the “horror host” show and succumb to its seductive siren call, we have spent our lives in search of other experiences just as holy and spiritual as that first time when we stared transfixed into the screen of an old Motorola black & white TV set and battled with the rabbit ears to see the grainy images just that much better. AMERICAN SCARY is a documentary that takes a look at the horror host phenomenon, past and present, and provides the viewer with one of the most loving and reverential tributes to this quintessentially American cultural icon that I have ever seen.

AMERICAN SCARY is a thoughtful historical look at horror hosts starting with their beginnings in the 1950s with Vampira and Zacherley, moving through the 1960s with Marvin, Chilly Billy and Ghoulardi, then moving through the 1970s and 1980s with Svengoolie, The Ghoul, Bob Wilkins, Son of Ghoul, John Stanley, Crematia, Stella and Elvira to name just a few and then ending in the present. While AMERICAN SCARY does not follow a purely chronological order and also does not have a rigid narrative structure, it does weave back and forth between exploring a particularly iconic celebrity and then analyzing some of the forces and changes at work in the horror host world such as concept generation, writing and scripts, the impact on viewers, the evolution of television and the internet and the nature of the films broadcast on the shows. AMERICAN SCARY is presented as a mix of old film/video clips of the masters at their work with many interview clips of the hosts themselves augmented by the anecdotes and analyses of authors, film historians, actors and pop culture mavens. What emerges is a panoply of images and sounds that is remarkably accurate in presenting the essence of the horror host movement during the last half of the 20th Century all the way up to today.

Anyone who enjoys watching our TV Show, Saturday Fright Special, or thrills to other horror host broadcasts like Shilling Shockers, or has deeply cherished memories of the horror hosts of old MUST get their hands on this DVD and watch it. There aren’t many chances to really go back to some of your happiest moments, but this is one of them. One reason AMERICAN SCARY is such a rousing experience is that the lineup of luminaries who ruminate on this sublime subject is simply staggering. There are dearly departed, glittering stars of the past like Maila Nurmi, Ernie Anderson, Bob Wilkins and Forrest J. Ackerman mixed with veteran stars of celestial gravity like John Zacherle, Billy Cardille, Tim Conway, Leonard Maltin, Tom Savini, Joe Bob Briggs and Jim “Commander USA” Hendricks. There are modern masters like Joel Hodgson, Kevin Scarpino, Michael Monahan and Richard “Count Gore de Vol” Dyszel just to drop a few names. The list of personalities and talents lined up for this horror host homage is nearly endless, impressively exhaustive and outrageously opulent. Many of the dignitaries can be seen in full costume and with makeup amply applied. Others are revealed in all their human normalcy, but the effect on the soul is still the same, INCREDIBLY PLEASING. Clips of the glory days are brilliantly blended with modern macabre mayhem so as to keep all ages happy and to acquaint those not fully aware of the diversity of this wide shadow realm with its splendor and majesty.

What can often happen with these kinds of “talking head” documentaries is that they can become snoozy talk-fests or messy and blathery mutual admiration society meetings, but a spectacular balance is attained in AMERICAN SCARY. There is a deferential seriousness to the historical inquiry that will satisfy even the most earnest of academicians. While there is no way to make a 93 minute documentary as comprehensive as true fanatics would like it to be without stretching the run time to 11 hours, AMERICAN SCARY hits nearly all of the bases. What also works wonderfully is the liberal dose of gentle and occasionally rollicking humor. There are subtle snickers and quiet chortles to be had right alongside full-scale belly laughs and a few pulled muscles from comedic hysterics. In addition, the incredibly various cast of characters makes AMERICAN SCARY like stepping into a joke shop run by a pack rat with a an eye for the garish and ghastly but equally gorgeous. Whether it is lavish sets, wacky wigs and gaudy garb, overdone accents and painstakingly applied piles of makeup, the eye is kept moving in ever-increasingly enjoyable circles. There are even a few scenes here and there where the loveliness of the female form is paid preferential worship. Women too have had a clear and powerful impact on this ghoulish phenomenon, and just because they also looked tantalizing while doing it speaks highly of their marketing savvy as well as their artistic creativity, showmanship and panache. One can’t help but be left with the feeling that you have watched pioneers and legends parade across your TV screen, people who brought to the world a form of entertainment that mines some of the wildest and most untamed corners of our collective psyches and for those who appreciated what they did, we were left immeasurably happier folk as a result.

AMERICAN SCARY is replete with a fascinating and deep extras menu. There is a very worthwhile audio commentary with the directors John E. Hudgens and Sandy Clark. Next is a segment called “Additional Interviews” which is a 15 minute block of five supplementary mini-features of much the same style as the documentary and providing even more pleasurable fodder for viewing. A 4 minute segment called “Nashville Horror Hosting” follows, which looks at this particular city that may be a smaller market than the Horror Host Mecca of Cleveland, but is second banana to none. There is a 6 minute “Horror Host wedding” which is exactly what the title suggests. At a horror convention, murderous mavens were united in matrimonial bliss. There is a 5 minute “original test reel” which is somewhat unique. Finally there are two trailers for the film. After watching the main feature, this excellent set of extras helped to prolong the joy and kept me feeling for a short period of time that my trip back to halcyon days may not come to an end by a return to reality.

AMERICAN SCARY is the real thing, a documentary for “fan-boys” of this specialty that we can truly revel in and be uplifted by. It looks at the evolution of horror-hosting from its dawn during the days of President Eisenhower, the Buick Roadmaster convertible and Willie Mays and flows seamlessly across nearly 60 years of American history, never crossing into the turbulent streams of the Vietnam War, Watergate, Middle East violence or economic upheaval, to leave us in that ever-comfortable womb of television inspired paradise. We are left cleansed by irreverent humor, cheap costumes and props and dubious quality motion pictures, but it is Holy Water cascading down from on high all the same. Some of us just like it bestowed by madcap folk known as Ghoulardi, Zacherley and Vampira, but it is nirvana nonetheless. Watch AMERICAN SCARY. You won’t be sorry.

Friday, February 13, 2009

ALIEN RAIDERS (2008) d. Ben Rock

Reviewed by Richard J. Trottier

Perhaps it is the still unconquered fear of competing tribes of hominids from our pre-homo sapien history that leads us to still find “alien invasion” films frightening, compelling and entertaining. Maybe it is also the left over hysteria of the Communist Infiltration suspicions of the mid-2oth Century that heaps even more fuel on an already raging fire of fears. For whatever reason, since the advent of the motion picture, but especially after the original “invasion” films of the 1950s, monsters from outer space continue to terrify movie lovers, and the kind that can take over you from the inside and change the essence of your humanity are particularly effective and unsettling. ALIEN RAIDERS may be a brand new addition to this exceedingly robust and celebrated canon of the science fiction sub-genre, but it does just about everything correct that it needs to and comes out in the end to be a startlingly effective film that taps into horror, sci-fi and drama at all the right times and in all the right ways.

ALIEN RAIDERS is the story of a small group of Buck Lake, AZ residents who find themselves trapped inside the Hastings Market grocery store one night before Christmas. At first, their captors appear to be thieves and murderous thugs, but before long the identity of this well armed and even more impressively organized group is clearly just the tip of an iceberg of secrets and sinister goings-on. When the police arrive to handle hostage negotiations, they have no idea of the drama unfolding inside the market, as a search for a deadly infiltration of the very bodies of the Buck Lake unfortunates leads to the realization that terrible things have taken place and that even more horrible events are likely to occur unless Aaron Ritter and his team can root out dark monsters masquerading as civilians and stop their insidious plans.

When I looked at the box art, both front and back, I was immediately wary of what ALIEN RAIDERS had in store for me, but I also noted that Daniel Myrick was one of the producers. My respect for Mr. Myrick’s work gave me hope that he would not allow himself to be party to something moronic and my senses and trust turned out to be well-founded. While there is little about ALIEN RAIDERS that is innovative, for it mines all kinds of tried and true story arcs, it is still a great time for anyone who likes their science fiction liberally mixed with gory horror and intensely taut drama. We walk into the narrative with events already moving at a high rate of speed, but the plot wisely slows down, builds a carefully crafted and patient sense of menace and threat and does so in a variety of ways. Throughout the entire story, there is the ever-present danger of the concealed peril lurking within an unsuspecting resident, one of the great story elements that made John Carpenter’s THE THING such a classic, and it works beautifully here as well without any feel that there is cinematic larceny going on. Instead, the use of that plot point feels like a very deferential nod and it was a good choice. Another well-chosen sampling of a theatrical thread from an older yarn is the tension created by hostage negotiations done in good faith but without the knowledge of what is really happening or what the totality of the outcome could be, ala DIE HARD. This is a central narrative aspect early on and is maintained until we are almost on top of the climax. In addition, the use of a simple setting like a market with people who are embroiled in outrageously uncanny circumstances is right out of THE MIST, another wonderful sci-fi film that mines gems out of lost years. Putting characters into extraordinary situations where their emotional and spiritual mettle is tested time and again is always great way to blend motion picture and dramatic stage performances in a manner that tends to bring success more often than not. Finally, the monster roaming the shadows, picking off its victims inexorably, bloody kill after bloody kill is right out of ALIEN and it still works better to have the half-seen terror than clearly viewing the menace unmasked. It is what we cannot clearly perceive that is always more frightening than what is right in front of our faces.

All of these narrative elements are woven carefully, driven by vivid character interaction, and stitched together in such a way that no one constituent is overly dominant. Instead, a patient and tense tale emerges where the pace intensifies and then settles at intervals, the story structure is sprinkled with blood and guts, gunplay and brutality and under all is the thickly applied dread that no one will survive this nightmare. This is classic “alien creature-feature” going back to films like FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, INVISIBLE INVADERS and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and despite the lack of originality, ALIEN RAIDERS is still a heady cocktail of scares and screams as well as spew and spray. The director talked in the extras about having less time than he would have liked to create the effects that he wanted, but in the end that might have been a good thing. The effects of ALIEN RAIDERS supported the most important element necessary for a successful film, a suspenseful story that has no fat, is well acted and delivers what we all want from a motion picture like this, entertainment. Had Ben Rock been given more time to construct impressive and outlandish effects, they might have detracted from the final product and left us with something akin to JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER, which was all effects and no story.

With the exception of the “video cam” segments which are done for an satisfactory reason and I was eventually able to accept despite how grainy and shaky they were, ALIEN RAIDERS is relatively well shot. It is not meant to be a beautiful film, but it does have moments where the tension is thoughtfully elevated by slow pans or patient holds on shadowy corners, dimly lit corridors, murky doorways and above all emotion-wracked faces. While there were some action sequences where some shots were a bit too tight and/or edited more rapidly than I might have liked, ALIEN RAIDERS was clearly created by a director who has a passion for older “B” sci-fi and horror and his respect for the past was evident. The characters were an intriguing lot, a mix of caricatures, archetypes and stereotypes, but not in every case. While most of the characters were not meant to be terribly deep to preserve the sense of mystery and ambiguity of where the story will eventually go, they are still portrayed very effectively by the performers, most notably Carlos Bernard’s depiction of Aaron Ritter, Courtney Ford’s portrayal of “Sterling” and Mathew St. Patrick’s presentation of Detective Seth Steadman. While all the performances were competent or even occasionally impressive, these three were able to form a degree of chemistry, show some dynamism and as a result viewers can relate to their circumstances. While ALIEN RAIDERS does not have a soundtrack that stood out or grabbed me, it really didn’t need one for the essence of this film’s success stems from its contemplative mixture of story ingredients and visual imagery of yore, and on those counts it was a blast.

ALIEN RAIDERS has a surprisingly deep extras menu which I thoroughly enjoyed due to what was said and who said it. Despite the fact that the 8 ½ minute featurette “Hidden Terror: The Making of Alien Raiders” was a little film clip heavy, the mix of cast and crew interviews was pretty broad and their thoughts aided me in attaining an even deeper appreciation for a flick I already liked. Next up was the 3 minute jewel “Blood, Sweat and Fears: Special Effects of Alien Raiders”, which was too short but really gave me a look inside the mind of director Ben Rock and his motivations in making this movie. The next three features are a little unique. There is “Tape 9: Sterling Explains Alien” which a 6 minute uncut excerpt from the “video diary” of Aaron Ritter, some of which was used in the feature film. The next segment, the 4 minute “Tape 12: Spookie’s Job” follows suit in a quirky and unsettling fashion and then there is the 9 minute “Whitney Cam”, which is a MySpace video blog of the character and who she really is. These last three are entertaining and well-conceived but should be viewed after seeing the main feature as they contain “spoilers” in both tone and content. Lastly, there is a Raw Feed Trailers vault containing six trailers, including the one for ALIEN RAIDERS.

It is good to see that the love for old sci-fi and horror is still alive and well in the world out there today. When I see disappointing experiments like QUARANTINE go sadly wrong, it buoys me up to see films like ALIEN RAIDERS get it right. If you remember the days of seeing EARTH vs. THE FLYING SAUCERS, WAR OF THE WORLDS or THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, whether in the theater or on TV, ALIEN RAIDERS may be a movie that will bring back some fond memories. If you are a neophyte when it comes to sci-fi/horror and want to “blood yourself”, this would be a good place to start and then you can dig deeply into the earthy loam of the past afterwards with ALIEN RAIDERS’ predecessors. Whatever you do, don’t skip over this film thinking it is a piece of “straight to video” trash, for it isn’t the case. This should have gotten a theatrical release at the drive-in where something like ALIEN RAIDERS really deserves to take its place alongside its older cousins that braved the trail.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

QUARANTINE (2008) d. John Erick Dowdle

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The rotting fingers of pestilence continue to be one of the most terrifying specters of death to confront mankind. It is possible that Edgar Allen Poe best captured the horrors of disease and its ruthless rampage in his short story Masque of the Red Death. Since then, film and television have done an admirable job at times of retelling the tale of the unstoppable microbe as it lays waste to civilization. Infection movies can have gripping plots that can conclude on somewhat positive notes like 28 DAYS LATER or they can be unrelentingly dark tales that end in an emotionally ravaged fashion like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Whatever the tone of the story and however well that story is scripted and paced, the viewer has to feel as vulnerable and as susceptible to the dangers of the plot as every character within the film’s narrative. In the case of QUARANTINE, a remake of the 2007 Spanish film REC, some key conceptual elements and methods of execution fail to create that connection between the “fantasy” of the story and the “reality” of the terror, leaving QUARANTINE feeling like a promising experiment that did not come to fruition.

QUARANTINE is the story of investigative news reporter Angela Vidal (played by Jennifer Carpenter) and her camera team, who are embedded within a city fire department, creating a story about the men and their mission. A routine call for medical service leads them to an old apartment house where a resident has phoned in a disturbance. Upon arrival, the firemen meet up with police officers on the scene there to assist in the emergency. During their investigation, one of the policemen is attacked by a resident who is drooling, covered with blood and acting feral. In an attempt to extract the fallen lawman, the building is sealed by armed government soldiers and officials, leaving the camera crew, police and fire and all the remaining residents trapped in a building where events soon spin out of control due to a spreading contagion. People struggle to get answers, dodge monstrosities and find an exit from their surroundings even as their physical and emotional conditions rapidly deteriorate. It is only at the very end of their rope that secrets are uncovered and final judgment is meted out.

For some reason, film makers still believe that they can “make a film about making a film” and have it work. Possibly it is that enthralling “marsh light” belief, much like the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola that if the film makers create as realistic a story premise as possible, it will lead to the most brutal and matter of fact presentation achievable. Much like “the New Coke” once was, this is an experiment that can be repeated again and again and it will continue to fail. Maybe there are some people who are drawn into this method of story-telling, but most of us react in the same fashion. The documentary-style approach to a fictional story takes you out of the fantasy because you are not being immersed in the characters and their circumstances; you are forced to react to entirely “constructed” stimuli, much of it totally implausible. What makes the situation worse is that most of the character interplay and dialogue exchanges are meant to pattern realistic conversation or emotional reactions, but in the end they don’t drive the story and so the conflict becomes even more dependent on what we see and how we see it. Therein lies the greatest weakness of QUARANTINE.

So very typical of most film makers today, the people who brought us QUARANTINE felt that filming the story using handheld camera techniques, steadily deteriorating lighting and equally increasingly shaky photography methods will intensify the "realism" of their motion picture. This means that we start with an introduction that looks reasonably good despite the slow, forced feel to the plot but then the downhill slide begins. As the drama starts to unfold and the pace picks up, we enter a visually dynamic interior setting that could be relatively gripping and we see potentially frightening feral humans that might end up being chilling, but it isn’t easy to truly “see” any of this, for the camera is moving constantly, shifting angles, altering focus and adopting different perspectives. As the film accelerates and the mood becomes darker and scarier, what could have and should have been a terrifying crescendo towards bloodier and more gut-wrenching imagery became an appalling slide down a muddy and miserable visual slope. What was interesting was that the decline in image quality was the mirror opposite of another movie that failed of its promise, IRREVERSIBLE. Over the last one-third of QUARANTINE, the camera motion became progressively more erratic, the light faded little by little until we are treated to “night vision” scenes or blackness or impossible angles, and between a “reality” that isn’t as absorbing as it should be and imagery that is nearly impossible to ascertain in a comprehensible fashion, we are left asking, “why am I watching this”?

The answer is simple; the underlying concept of QUARANTINE is an excellent one. Trap normal people in a dark building with an unstoppable disease laying waste to the minds of those infected, create a situation where the ultimate bad guys are the government functionaries who create lab rats out of the building residents and then build a growing feeling disaster that is inevitable and you’ve got a recipe for a potential home run. That is the tragedy of QUARANTINE, it should be a slam dunk and there are times when it does work. There is no musical score to this motion picture, which is a rare occurrence and shows some real courage, but to take its place there are legitimately frightening sound effects that are carefully modulated and accented to be that much more dreadful to the senses. There are a few scenes where genuinely unsettling and creepy mood lighting, makeup effects and surprisingly steady holds on the “monsters” produce some deeply disturbing sequences. At these moments when the onus is on developing a sense of story and narrative conflict, a degree of momentum and actual intensity develops, but this does not happen often enough. Too often, QUARANTINE depends on jump scares and very rapid shock techniques, all of which are mere cheats instead of using much more effective methods of forcing the viewer to internalize the scares. Over the last acts of the movie, the conflict is engineered around screams and shrieks, frantic dashes across rooms and up stare cases and fumbling gropes along darkened walls in even blacker rooms. While these kinds of scenes are certainly visceral, they do not tell a story, do not assist us in gaining any deeper awareness of the characters or the ability to relate to them. The characters become simple pawns in a cinematic chess game that has little or no drama and as a result, I simply endured the assault on my eyes and the affront to my intellect and waited patiently to see how the film would end. It ended on the grim note that I expected it to end on, a conclusion that was ham-handedly foreshadowed earlier in the narrative. In the end, I wasn’t angry and did not feel soiled, for QUARANTINE is not a train wreck. I felt deeply saddened by the lost opportunity that this film was. QUARANTINE could have and should have been a great set of scares like 28 DAYS LATER was, and it certainly didn’t have to go down the same path. It could have easily blended the better camera work of that effort with the simplistic dramatic elements of THE MIST and told a story about people put into an impossible situation and how they deal with defeat and eventual death. Unfortunately, the desire to subscribe to failed modern methods of film making and the need to follow that herd of lemmings over the theatrical cliff won out.

QUARANTINE has a medium-sized bonus features menu that may be of interest to those who found themselves positively impacted by this project. There is an audio commentary with director John Erick Dowdle and writer/producer Drew Dowdle. There is also a 10 minute featurette called “Locked In: The Making of Quarantine”, which is a fairly typical but still interesting mix of cast & crew interviews blended with “behind the scenes” footage of QUARANTINE. Between these two extras, I came to understand that my way of looking at what I consider to be a failed filming technique is truly a philosophical and artistic impasse with those who see that methodology as sincere and successful. I respect artistic differences just as I hope that those who create their own forms of artistic expression will respect my right to intellectually critique their efforts. The 7 ½ minute featurette “Dressing the Infected: Robert Hall’s Makeup Design” was the jewel of this set of bonus features. It was a thoroughly fascinating expose of the conceptual efforts of the effects design team and how they wished to portray an engrossing and yet slightly different take on the contagion and its impact on the people exposed to it. Lastly, there was the “Anatomy of a Stunt” featurette, which is exactly what it sounds like. Viewers are treated to a cinematic autopsy of how one of the more impressive set pieces in QUARANTINE was engineered. At the end of the extras menu is a rather extensive vault of Sony Pictures trailers, different from the auto-play trailers at the head of the Main Menu.

I once tried to make a pasta sauce without oregano and instead of just scrapping my efforts until I had procured this essential spice, I substituted double the amount of marjoram. The resulting trial was not successful and I learned a valuable lesson about what happens when an experiment fails. We should not emerge from such failures feeling down-hearted and negative, but take all such disappointments as a chance from which to grow. QUARANTINE was a film with a great deal of potential. The general premise and some of the imagery worked very well. Just as Ford Motor Company had to admit that the Edsel was not going to work, I want to see QUARANTINE’s film makers abandon hand held camera techniques, tell a story that subscribes to some of the more traditional narrative principles and then come back guns a blazin’ to do another motion picture that I can rave about. I bet it’s a possibility and I would dearly like to see it happen.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

CHOCOLATE (2008) d. Prachya Pinkaew

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When movie lovers think of “fighting” motion pictures, there are a number of powerful images that comes to mind. When people think of movies filled with combat, they often summon up scenes of John Wayne battling cattle rustlers and Indians alike on the western frontier, or of Lee Marvin fighting anyone who deserved a good “lickin’” whether it was in a war flick, a crime story or whatever. Lovers of fantastical films are quick to point to superhero movies like BATMAN, SUPERMAN or SPIDERMAN as having some of the more titanic clashes to be seen on the Big Screen. Slightly more cosmopolitan cine-maniacs might call forth memories of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan pummeling the bad guys with both fists and feet and doing so in some of the most acrobatic of fashions. Asian martial arts films have often far exceeded their Western counterparts when it comes to the intensity of the fisticuffs, but when Americans think of such fare, they usually would point to Chinese or Japanese action films as the source for high octane, face pounding pugilism. Not too many years ago though, a new entrant into the world of martial arts excellence was born as Thai movies began to make their way to the shores of the United States. For those lucky enough to have seen some Thai cinema, it has all the raw energy and brutality of Hong Kong action flicks at their height. Much like Chinese film-making of yore, the Thai movie moguls will tackle just about any concept, and as a result, you never know what you’ll get or where it will take you. CHOCOLATE is just that kind of film, combining some strange bedfellows for story ideas and introducing one of the most unlikely of action heroines and bringing them all together into a flick that is a lot of fun and will make your pulse pound as well.

CHOCOLATE is the story of a mentally challenged young girl named Zen, suffering from a disability akin to autism, whose condition makes her social and emotional interaction with those around her a difficult prospect. Born to Zin, a caring mother connected to a set of Thai gangsters and criminals, Zen is witness to the brutal retribution exacted upon her mother when she tries to leave behind this disturbing life. Beset with serious health problems needing expensive medical treatment in the years after her “escape” from the mob, Zin’s efforts to raise her daughter are fraught with disastrous financial troubles. Zen begins a quest to call in the many favors and debts that people owe her mother, but it is not her sweet face that causes these many lowlifes to pay up. From her early days, Zen has readily displayed a surprising physical dexterity, which as she grew towards adolescence manifested itself in superior marital arts ability, augmented by her interest in studying the works of the masters on TV and those in her daily life. Zen relentlessly fights her way up a ladder of corruption that ends at the rung of the crime boss who brutalized her mother, which also reunites her with Zin’s long lost husband who is also her father, and sets up a stunning confrontation that turns out to be an epic battle of special needs proportions.

CHOCOLATE has a fascinating hybrid storyline. On one hand, there is a powerfully emotional and surprisingly earnest tale of a disabled child, her physically damaged mother and her ethnically and criminally estranged father. This triangle of woe provides much of the dramatic momentum of the narrative and is the primary foundation of the plot. However, very expertly grafted onto this main branch are the sinister elements of a classic crime story of mobs, violence, money, revenge and brutality, all more intensely fueled by issues involving race and then twisted tightly and intricately around this center stalk focusing on Zen’s special needs. Add to this already heady mixture the blazing intensity of martial arts action and special effects and you’ve got a movie whose story doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does so and quite brilliantly. There are quieter, more introspective moments in the first one-third of the film that allow the story to start at a leisurely but compelling pace punctuated by moments of extreme violence. As the family drama deepens and the mob story relaxes, the martial arts components assert themselves and then like fists flying furiously, the cadence of the movie begins to steadily accelerate. While not the morality play that is the Thai masterpiece TOM YUM GOONG (aka THE PROTECTOR in the US), the complexity of CHOCOLATE’S narrative and the brilliant construction of its pace makes CHOCOLATE just as compelling as other Thai martial arts epics like ONG-BAK and BORN TO FIGHT.

In addition to the fine writing, CHOCOLATE works on a lot of other levels. The performances of the primary actors are all either consistently strong or in some cases excellent. “Jija” Yanin Vismitananda (Zen) steals the show by creating a character that is at the same time lovable, implacable and unstable. Portraying a disabled person is not an easy task, especially for such a young actress. “Som” Amara Siripong (Zin) and Hiroshi Abe (Zen’s father Masashi) are also worthy of praise for their ability to create chemistry with “Zen” and with each other. These three are able to produce dramatic intensity without overplaying their roles and do it in such a way that their talents blend with the inspiring and passionate story. One a visual level, CHOCOLATE is well shot and there are compelling and exotic interior and exterior sets, many of them quite lovely. The costuming was also quirky and thoughtfully considered. The makeup and costumes of the mob were so over the top and bizarre at times that there is a note of humor that was injected into the narrative beyond Zen’s goofy male adolescent sidekick Mangmoom. What takes the prize in this movie though are the stunning fight sequences. What makes Thai action cinema so special is the phenomenal choreography combined with classic photographic techniques. Each battle looks spectacular and you can see everything. The director has the cameras pulled back so the entire fight scene can be comprehended and ENJOYED easily. There are no obnoxious close ups and ridiculous fast edits that heinously steal all the joy out of a set piece. In addition to the marvelous cinematography, the stunt work is so very evocative of Golden Age Jackie Chan, Yuen Baio, Jet Li and all the other great Hong Kong masters. People who do these unbelievable Thai fighting stunts are clearly putting their bodies in peril and do so for the art of the shot. They may be paying a terrible price physically, but their sacrifice is our gain for like other recent Thai epics, CHOCOLATE left me saying, “WOW”! On a final positive note, CHOCOLATE is presented in an English “dubbed” version or the original Thai language version with English subtitles. Do yourself a favor and watch the Thai version and skip the silly dubbing. So much more of the actor’s emotions are conveyed through their own voices and match their facial expressions and body language so much better.

CHOCOLATE has a thin but rewarding extras menu. Beyond the diverse language and audio options (thanks for that, not everyone does it the right way), there is a 9 minute “The Making of CHOCOLATE” that is slick, fast paced, subtitled in English and wonderfully informative. It looks at the background of the film and some of the on-set construction and outcomes of the set pieces. My only quarrel with this featurette is that it wasn’t long enough. I would have liked to have seen more. In addition, there is a small “Also from Magnolia Pictures” trailer vault that has the same three trailers which automatically come up before the Main Menu. While this isn’t the deepest Bonus Features cache I’ve ever seen, it does support an excellent film successfully.

The decline of American action films into unwatchable morasses of visual diarrhea, almost taking Hong Kong cinema with them, has had one beneficial upshot. It has left the market wide open for others to try and steal. There have been some French entrants that have been eye-catching, as well as some fine efforts from South Korea, but it is Thailand that is really producing the gems of the fighting mine today. Only by supporting efforts like CHOCOLATE and its Thai predecessors can we cast our vote to American film companies and say “Do things the right way you jerks!” CHOCOLATE is fun, fast and fabulous and if you miss this movie, you will miss out on seeing some first rate film-making that should send a shiver of excitement up your spine in a way that should remind you of ENTER THE DRAGON, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX or ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. We don’t get that kind of thrill much anymore, so what are you waiting for?


Reviewed by Simon Oakland

Can anybody out there tell me what the hell this DVD is supposed to be about? Because I have almost zero frame of reference in which to judge it. There's a fairly lengthy introduction that apparently would explain all of the footage that follows to any newcomers... Unfortunately, it's utterly and inexplicably devoid of audio! So what we have here is a bunch of random footage with zero context filmed full frame with either Digital 8 or VHS Video cameras which is then framed like a portrait in the middle of a larger widescreen image. From what I can surmise, the "Nuns" are some sort of burlesque goth troupe that performs onstage whippings to some pretty generic techno/industrial music. On the surface it may sound like it could be interesting but from what I can see it's pretty tedious. S&M has never been so boring!

I assume this is meant for their fans, and clearly I am not within their target audience. Not that I am devoid of respect for goth culture (I've listened to my fair share of The Cure, Bauhaus, Skinny Puppy, and Joy Division in my day) but, come on, this is pretty ridiculous. If you're a fan of The Nuns, or a die hard fan of Goth culture in general and can stand to watch some lo-fi bootleg quality footage, then maybe you'll want to check it out. Otherwise, steer as far away from this as possible.

Redemption Films

HIS NAME WAS JASON (2009) d. Daniel Farrands

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

There are times when a first name becomes iconic in and of itself. Mention the name of “Elvis” or “The Babe” and people know exactly who you are talking about. However impressive the accomplishments of Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth were, and their achievements were legendary, there is something even more intriguing, possibly even disturbing about a fictional character attaining such a degree of “cult” status and name recognition that they become a lasting figure in the imaginations of the public. If you say “Lucy” or “Bart”, people know who you are talking about. Within the genre of horror films, there aren’t too many names that have that kind of cachet except some of the old classics like “Frankenstein” or “Dracula”, but one of the modern monikers to ring continually in the ears of fans is that of “Jason” from the FRIDAY THE 13th series of films. Jason’s unforgettable mask, brute force, creative killing techniques and implacable evil have taken root in the psyche of horror fans everywhere and whether you like the film series, dislike the movies intensely or feel a deep sense of division over this uneven franchise, an immediate visual recognition is sparked when you hear the name of “Jason”. HIS NAME WAS JASON is a two-disc documentary edition that sets down, once and for all, as much information as can be assembled about these many motion pictures, including the 2009 remake.

HIS NAME WAS JASON starts on Disc 1 with a roughly 90 minute documentary feature hosted by Tom Savini. These host segments were filmed at Universal Studios “Camp Blood” haunted house sets. Between the well-shot sequences that are reverential nods mixed with tongue in cheek barbs, Mr. Savini’s dry sense of humor that borders on “horror host” methodology and the first rate screams of the “damsel in distress”, the host links add a distinctly comedic charm to the generally informational format of the film. Broken into eleven parts, the main feature charts the history of the film from the initial concept begun in the 1970s to the modern day, and is followed by an analysis of the character “Jason” and his mythos, the successful components of the “Friday the 13th” formula, the science and art of the kills and the effects used to create the look of the films, the screenwriting background and concepts, a look at the characters who survive meeting “Jason”, the trials and tribulations experienced during filming, fan reactions to continuity problems with stories, costumes and props, “Jason’s” impact on pop culture, merchandising and marketing, the 2009 remake of FRIDAY THE 13th and finally the legacy that the actors have become a part of. On Disc 1, there is one bonus feature segment after the main feature. On Disc 2 there are other eleven extras to be found and all told, there are roughly 320 minutes of “Friday the 13th” content to be pondered on this two disc set, more than enough “Jason”-lore to thrill even the most ardent fan.

From a content standpoint, this is a richly in-depth and satisfying feature film supported by a jaw-dropping list of extras. There is an astounding lineup of “talking heads” for this documentary, from actors and actresses who played victims and survivors representing each and every movie, to the men who played “Jason” in his many incarnations. Among the luminaries are Amy Steel, Adrienne King, Kane Hodder and Steve Dash. There are all of the directors from every film in the series, as well as screenwriters, film editors and effects wizards who put in their “2 cents” including Sean Cunningham, Tom Savini himself and Greg Nicotero, but listing these few names does not do justice to the exhaustive lineup that is arrayed before the viewer. In a form of the classic “pig pile”, there is even more to be had from on-line and print journalists and editors, authors, and even directors and actors from other horror genre films. While there are moments where the parade of celebrities, cast & crew and aficionados does become a bit bewildering, it is a “Friday the 13th” lover’s paradise to see this ensemble brought together in such a comprehensive manner. All of this is packaged in a form that is dominated by classic interview clips and short anecdotes bolstered by film clips, TV promo clips and stills, newsprint stills, promotional art and photography stills, video box art, storyboard concept art, film test footage and multi-media presentation effects. The end result is a cascade and cavalcade of “Jason” nostalgia and historical footage that establishes a surprisingly high bar o informational excellence that it is likely never to be easily equaled if anyone was even so foolish as to try and “redo” this kind of documentary.

From a style standpoint, HIS NAME WAS JASON suffers from being a bit too glamorous and creative for its own good. Arranging and presenting such a daunting assortment of persons for this documentary must have been an overwhelming task and some of that can be seen in one of the largest bonus features caches I have ever observed, much of it being material that couldn’t be fit into the confines of the feature film. To keep the pace of the documentary brisk, many of the anecdotes of the varied cast & crew are exceedingly short, producing an effect of jumping very hastily from one person’s face to the next. This frantic style may appeal to younger viewers who are fans of modern music videos and their “attention deficit”-inspired structure or people who like Paul Greengrass films where the camera feels like it was strapped to a lithe and acrobatic gibbon and then chased up and down jungle trees by competing simian forest dwellers, but to the older viewers, the pace seemed unnecessarily rapid and it kept me from sinking into this documentary in the same way that I like to ease back into a leather lounge chair, comfortably and with a chance to savor what I am experiencing. To make matters less appealing, most of the fades, cuts, breaks and other transitions between scenes were often affected through the use of glitzy special effects that had a “video game” feel or at the very least a juvenile and frenetic quality that didn’t always set well. By the end, I can say that I enjoyed HIS NAME WAS JASON but my experience was much like that of a diner patron who gets an outstanding slab of meatloaf, with a mighty pile of real mashed potatoes accompanied by a towering glass of homemade root beer, all of which is satisfying and tasty but is served by a waitress whose mannerisms and style are so brusque and grating that somehow the final experience is not as pleasing as it should have been.

The extras on HIS NAME WAS JASON are simply astonishing in their variety and quantity. After the feature on Disc 1, there is the 47 minute “Men Behind the Mask” which features eleven full interviews with the actors who played “Jason” from Ari Lehman to Derek Means. The shortest segment is the 1 minute Tom Morga interview all the way up to the 7 minute Derek Means clip, which beat out Kane Hodder for the longest set of comments. For a lover of the past, having the newcomer be the longest interview segment felt a little “sell-y”, as it were. Most of the interviews were between 3 and 4 minutes and augmented the short clips you saw in the main feature nicely. On Disc 2 is the bulk of the bonus features, starting with the lengthy but fascinating 68 minute “Final Cuts”, a set of nine interviews with the “Friday the 13th” directors. While the longest of the extras, it is likely most will consider this mini-feature the most rewarding. Next up is the 31 minute “From Script to Screen”, four interview segments with “Friday the 13th” screenwriters, followed by a 21 minute section called “Dragged from the Lake”, which is 13 short segments where cast and crew relate stories and thoughts about memorable scenes and moments, both good and bad, from the film series. A segment of four “Fan Films” is next, these shorts ranging in length from 1 minute to 14 minutes and ranging the entire spectrum of creativity and quality. “Closing the Book on THE FINAL CHAPTER” is a 12 minute extended scene that goes through the entire sequence of this 4th “Friday the 13th” film location pair of interviews. The 4 minute “Fox Comes Home” is much the same idea, where we see the full segment with this actress’s location interview from Film #3. “Friday the 13th in Four Minutes” is a quirky interview summary of the basic premise of the original film principle. “Jason takes Comicon” is a 4 ½ minute 2009 remake cast and crew set of interviews on location at Comicon. The most original and creative installment in the extras is the 4 ½ minute “Camp Crystal Lake Survival Guide” which is constructed and engineered to play like a black & white educational short, complete with scratches and graininess, as cast and crew from the films describe over campy music how to survive a “Jason” experience. “Inside Halloween Horror Nights” is a 7 minute quasi-featurette/promotional for the Universal Studios Camp Blood haunted house/spook show exhibit. Finally there is the 2 minute “Shelly Lives”, which is a fun but ridiculous fake commercial starring the unforgettable Shelly character from the series. All told, there are few bonus feature lineups with this kind of weight in the horror genre and fans of the “Friday the 13th” motion pictures will most likely revel in this treasure trove of goodies.

It is hard to believe that it has been nearly 30 years since FRIDAY THE 13th first hit the Big Screen and then spawned its long lineage of sequels, serious and silly. While not the progenitor of the slasher film, since that title may be reserved for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1961 cult classic DEMENTIA 13, or even the modern version of the slasher genre since HALLOWEEN and the mask-wearing Michael Meyers preceded FRIDAY THE 13th by two years, “Jason” may have attained a loftier and far more enduring place in the pop culture collective spirit of our nation. For a mongoloid, demented, deformed monstrosity, who is a mayhem-minded murderer wearing a tattered gas-monkey uniform and a hockey mask that is a pretty incredible achievement. If you are a admirer of the “Friday the 13th” film franchise, whether young or old, you will probably enjoy this two disc set in one fashion or another, especially if you want to see a procession of people who feel pretty lucky to be part of something that has arrived at a station of somewhat mythic proportions. If I were in their shoes, I would feel fortunate too.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

MY NAME IS BRUCE (2008) d. Bruce Campbell

Reviewed by Mark Nelson

MY NAME IS BRUCE stars Bruce Campbell as Bruce Campbell, a character not dissimilar to Bruce Campbell. If not THE Bruce Campbell, certainly A Bruce Campbell based on Bruce Campbell, or at least a Bruce Campbell that Bruce Campbell and fans of Bruce Campbell will recognize as resembling an exaggerated version of Bruce Campbell.

The story goes a little something like this: a Cambpell and horror film-obsessed teen in the sleepy Oregon town of Gold Lick knows that there's only one man to call when your town is menaced by an ancient Chinese protector of bean curd with a sharp weapon that's handy for beheading townsfolk -- none other that the star of CONGO, ALIEN APOCALYPSE and SERVING SARA (not to mention the EVIL DEAD films and BUBBA HO-TEP), Bruce Campbell. Trouble is, he's not quite the hero in reality that his films make him out to be. Actually, he's kind of a drunken, skirt-chasing, foul-mouthed lout, a cad and a masher, if you will. Campbell heeds the teen's call, believing it to be an elaborate prank played on him by his agent (Ted Raimi), only to find the threat all too real. Will the real Bruce Campbell stand up and be counted, or be counted on turning tail and running away?

While the premise of MY NAME IS BRUCE is essentially the same as THREE AMIGOS (film stars are called to a backwoods town by citizens who believe them to be the heroes they portray onscreen to save the town, the stars believe the danger to be a publicity stunt, find out its real, then summon up whatever courage they have to fight the foe and save the day) , Campbell fans should eat this up. He pushes his image as a smart-mouthed, washed-up B-movie star to the nth degree, with hilarious results. Sort of like Ash with a perpetual hang-over and case of priapism. I do wonder if those who aren't fans of Bruce Campbell would get as much out of it, as so much of the film's humor is based on a spoofing of his image and filmography. For those who dig he who was the Jack of All Trades, however, it's an absolute blast.

The film itself plays very much like the early Sam Raimi and Josh Becker's Super-8mm films, with a goofy Three Stooges-infused sense of "anything goes", mixed with the out and out gore of EVIL DEAD 2. The gore here, while graphic, comes off as cartoony and over-the-top, as it's generally surrounded by silliness. The cast is made up primarily of local Oregon stage actors who handle their roles as simple townsfolk well (Grace Thorsen as the mother of the superfan teen and target of Campbell's amorous intentions is a particular stand-out, balancing her role's levels of humor, heart and hubba with the greatest of ease), along with EVIL DEAD series alumni Ellen Sandweiss, Ted Raimi (playing three very diverse and silly roles), Dan Hicks and Tim Quill. Location filming took place in and around Campbell's Oregon property, and appropriately takes Bruce and company within the woods once again for a return to the type of setting that launched his career, only without any desolate cabins or evil books inked in blood.

As can be expected of most Campbell productions, the DVD of MY NAME IS BRUCE is loaded with supplements that bring fans more goofy Campbell charm, as well as plenty of nuts-and-bolts behind-the-scenes information. It's quite impressive to see how much production value was brought to the screen simply by utilizing the local Oregon resources at Campbell's disposal, and made me appreciate the film all the more. Extras include an audio commentary by Bruce Campbell and producer Mike Richardson, "Heart of Dorkness: The making of MY NAME IS BRUCE" hour-long documentary, five featurettes, Poster art gallery, props art gallery, photo gallery, CaveAlien 2 trailer, MY NAME IS BRUCE TRAILER, and 2-3 easter eggs on every menu page. Yowza!

Cinematic junk food of the highest order, MY NAME IS BRUCE is a great film to watch with a bunch of similarly Bruce-loving friends, plenty of pizza and orange soda. Appropriately presented by Dark Horse Comics, the film feels very much like a comic book (and indeed a min-comic adaptation of the film is included inside the DVD case), taking nothing too seriously as it rockets along its silly way.

RED MIST (2008) d. Paddy Breathnach

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Most artists will tell you that having a good idea and some vivid colors are not enough to make a painting great. In addition to generating an interesting concept and utilizing vibrant hues, your painting has to evidence strong composition, tell a compelling story, create a sense of mood and eventually engage a viewer’s emotions so that they are left with a visceral reaction to the imagery in front of them. Since film is a visual media too, a lot of the elements of greatness are much the same and if a motion picture can’t say that it does most of what a painting does to achieve outstanding success then it will ultimately fall into the categories of mediocre or that of a failure. RED MIST is not a failure and has some praiseworthy qualities, but like a simple painting, it just wasn’t profound or original enough to be a transcendent cinematic experience.

RED MIST is the story of two very different people, Catherine Thomas and Kenneth Chisholm, brought together by their involvement in Forthaven General Hospital. Catherine is a talented and caring medical student at Forthaven, while Kenneth is a mentally challenged custodian with a troubled past and even more disturbing present. Catherine’s young, hip and insufferably amoral friend group goes out for a night of kicks and after a fateful run in with Kenneth, cause an accident that leaves him in a vegetative state, bed-ridden and on life support at Forthaven. Overwhelmed by guilt, Catherine eschews her usually lofty ethical standards to take a chance at saving Kenneth using a risky experimental narcotic compound that produces incredibly bizarre and deadly consequences for Catherine’s friends who begin turning up dead under the most grisly and alarming circumstances. Catherine must struggle with forces beyond her control to convince people of the terror that stalks the night before she too becomes a victim.

On the surface, it sounds like RED MIST would be a home run as a movie, for it seems to have all the elements; a morality play, suspense, murder, gore and a supernatural element added in for good measure. In addition to this promising plot concept, RED MIST has a young and attractive cast and is shot in Northern Ireland, which would sound like a pretty interesting and exotic location to create an engaging film. Like a painting with a good idea and cute colors that turns out to be somewhat unexciting, RED MIST has its good thought behind the plot and some pretty people to add a layer of decoration but it is missing or misuses much of what it needs to work effectively.

One of greatest weaknesses of RED MIST is its predictable and overused plot twists and construction. We start with a group of hot, self-centered young people who are cruel and thoughtless to a disabled person, all of the melodrama dependent upon a feeling of emotional discomfort in the viewer rather than true suspense or menace for it is obvious what the outcome will be. This initial kernel for conflict germinates into a larger seedling of drama built around an equally tired storyline dealing with the one character with a conscience who struggles to make herself heard in a sea of friends without ideals and who apply enough peer pressure to get her to accede to their demands. Sprinkle in remorse and guilt and you’ve got a narrative that has been done a thousand times before, whether it is summer campers and the prank that went wrong, ravers who drive drunk and hit the old man crossing the street or scientists experimenting with energies beyond imagination who let lose powers unrelenting. Grafted to this already hackneyed yarn is a paranormal revenge/slasher component that is just as predictable, so that nearly every moment in this motion picture can be seen coming a mile away. Adding to the troubles of the screenplay was a series of implausible “escapes” from harm that Catherine engineers as we approach the climax and then we return to a predictable and clich├ęd set of ideas for the conclusion. In the end, it is too bad because some competent and even mildly impressive performances are badly wasted. Most of the cast give steady, workmanlike portrayals of their characters that help to create a degree of intensity in the first half of the film, which was more drama than horror movie. Arielle Kebbel, who plays Catherine, gives the best performance and does a very good job selling her character’s struggles with her conscience and the even greater trials she endures when she is forced to abandon her professional ethics. Had there been more compelling twists and turns and more absorbing moments in the story, the efforts of the cast may not have felt quite so futile.

What also didn’t help the story was that its generally patient pace, a potential benefit, was canceled by the total lack of a spellbinding atmosphere. Being that this was a European production, it is entirely unsurprising that the story took its time, which is one of the reasons that modern European horror is usually superior to American horror. If the narrative is predictable though, a slower cadence can hamstring a film and create a degree of apathy or even boredom in a viewer. A potential savior is spectacular imagery. One of the best examples of a motion picture that was partly rescued by its richly atmospheric aura and how good it looked was Dario Argento’s INFERNO. INFERNO struggled with most of the rest of what makes a film great but its visual impact was thunderous. RED MIST is competently shot and has only a few instances of rapid editing, obnoxious handheld techniques and trendy “scare effects”. Most of the time, it is shadowy, albeit a tad gloomy, but you can see what is happening and the character’s expressions are conveyed efficiently. There are even some moments where interesting camera angles and some photographic techniques were employed, but that didn’t happen nearly enough to create a novel feel to the cinematography. One of the most pressing problems is that there isn’t much for eye to be challenged by architecturally, stylistically, artistically or even metaphysically. We are treated to a typical hospital and its environs, a few bar and dorm interior sets and a few uninteresting exterior sets when we usually get to see Arielle Kebbel jogging in a fairly unimpressive manner. The most compelling visuals are Miss Kebbel’s fathomless eyes and her trim, attractive figure displayed during non-jogging sequences. The death scenes were bloody and grisly on occasion, but they lacked panache. Only the death of Harriet was visually engaging but it was one of the shortest of the macabre segments, and most of the rest of the gore used old-hat slasher techniques or a style that bordered on “torture porn”. Fortunately, that repugnant angle was not overdone and this film was not overly gratuitous. For RED MIST’s patient storyline to be its strength, there needed to be a riveting plot and loads of atmosphere, and both were in short supply.

Where RED MIST does achieve a degree of greater triumph is in the bonus features menu. The first segment is a 21 minute “Making of Red Mist” featurette that is a fairly thorough and engaging blend of “behind the scenes” footage and cast & crew interviews. For those of you who found Miss Arielle Kebbel as appealing as I did, both as an actress and for visual reasons, there is a 9 minute segment called “Extended interview with Arielle Kebbel”. The lone American cast member, Miss Kebbel comes across as more than a pretty face and her ruminations on the RED MIST experience are relatively thoughtful. Finally, there is the most enjoyable segment of the entire disc; a 4 minute mini-feature called “Red Mist cast in Northern Ireland” that is a mix of travelogue and cast anecdotes about their days spent in the Emerald Isle’s northeast corner. What was somewhat frustrating about this last section was its short length and excellent landscape photography. I certainly could have used a much longer look at this beautiful region of the United Kingdom and the film RED MIST would have benefited from the imagery we were treated to in this too short but delightful extra. While not an overloaded and bursting at the seams bonus features menu, there is a lot to like about what was included and it made my viewing experience a little better than if it had been a bare bones disc.

RED MIST leaves an impression rather like the paintings that people see at one of those “starving artist” shows at the local Expo Center. The reason those artists are starving is their lack the inner fire, deficiency in brilliant insight or shortage of artistic integrity to create awe-inspiring masterworks. Much like a Three Musketeers bar, those paintings are sweet but the pleasure isn’t lasting or transfiguring. RED MIST may very well appeal to those who like tried and true narrative formats and don’t mind being taken down an excessively familiar road or those too young and inexperienced to know that it has all been done before. Others may enjoy RED MIST because visual imagery isn’t all that important to them or they don’t really have the schooling to look for something stirring in the camera work, so that to them “a kill is a kill”. RED MIST isn’t a bad movie, it just didn’t do anything to differentiate itself from all those who came before and have done it with more style, or in a schlockier fashion or with so much offensiveness that the “yuck-factor” was unforgettable. The people who wrote and filmed RED MIST need to brave their own trails, take chances in hopes of doing something original and leave old and worn out ideas in the pasture, waiting for their time to be taken to the glue factory and put down, making room for the fresh young studs who will bring renewal.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

DEMONIACS d. Jean Rollin (1973)

Reviewed by Tracy Hook

I recently viewed DEMONIACS for the about the 5th time, but his time I viewed sans Jagermeister and I found the film to hold up well even without that liquid demon with the cough syrup taste. Though the film is not for the squemish it does have beautiful cinematography and wonderfully surrealist imagery. The acting is somewhat overdone, but it fits the film. It's about obsession, hallucinations, black magic and good old fashion sadistic insanity, so the actors are bound to act a little kooky.

The film starts out with an introduction to "the wreckers": the Captain, Tina, Paul, and Bosco. The group pillages a ship they had lead to the rocky shore. (Thus wrecking the ship). Two teenage girls are found by the wreckers and are brutally raped and tortured by them. The ship's crew go to the local pub/whorehouse afterwards to celebrate the treasure they have acquired, then the Captain cannot get the girls out of his mind. After meeting up with a psychic madame the Captain goes insane with guilt. The madame rants on about the ship that has crashed to the rocks. The Captain smashes chairs, yells, smashes more things and then sweats profusely. As film moves on, he progressively falls futher into a pit of insanity. To make matters worse, a sailor storms into the pub and tells the tale of two female ghosts roaming the town. The crew set out to find the girls and kill them, knowing they're still alive. They do not want any witnesses. The girls escape to the much talked about cursed ruins and discover the dark secret there. The girls are then transformed and take their revenge on the wreakers.

This film is full of everything: lots of smashing up things, burning up things, boobs, creepy clowns, cat fights with hair pulling and slapping, boobs, barroom brawls, sweaty old men, and more boobs. It's truly not for the faint-of-heart. The wreckers (or "Demoniacs") are shown as true sadists. We see that the Captain and Tina are a match made in hell. Both encourage the other sailors to rape and murder. As the film progresses we see that Tina is the actual leader of the group. The Captain can't handle the outlaw life anymore and loses his mind. He's haunted by the girls and goes insane. The other sailors, Paul and Bosco start to fall apart as well. They fear the girls when they learn of legend of the ruins. They even go so far as to consult the resident psychic at the whorehouse they're staying at. Tina on the other hand has no guilt whatsoever. She wants the girls dead, she screams she wants them crushed.

I suppose I should be offended by this film and at some points it is a bit nauseating, but I do actually enjoy the other parts quite a bit. This film is full of raw emotion on the parts of Joelle Coeur as Tina and John Rico as the Captain. Tina's evil laugh still is ringing in my ears!

The Demoniacs are brutal, but it makes for a lot of cheering on the two girls when they take their revenge on them. The Demoniacs so deserve it. And with the help of the secret evil that's in the ruins they do so, but with a twist. I won't give away the ending!

I had seen the original release of THE DEMONIACS by Redemption which had better packaging, but the new release has extras galore. Lots of naughty deleted scenes that would have really added an extra "X" if they were not cut. Also included is a theatrical trailer, stills gallery, and other Redemption trailers. If you dare, check it out with or without Jagermeister.