Sunday, March 29, 2009

TOKYO ZOMBIE (2005) d. Sakichi Sato

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The writers, directors and producers who came up with the idea that zombies could be more than just frightening fiends were geniuses. Whether it was the social commentaries of George Romero’s films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or DAWN OF THE DEAD, the absolute wackiness of Ray Dennis Steckler’s THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED UP ZOMBIES, the punk-rocker slapstick and salaciousness of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, the tongue-in-cheek hilarity of SHAUN OF THE DEAD or even the irritating foolishness of CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, zombies have and can come in many wonderfully entertaining forms and the diversity of their manifestations is what makes the zombie subgenre especially terrific. Sadly, some zombie films, like the living dead themselves, can shamble aimlessly, occasionally showing bursts of energy, only to sink back into a sedentary shuffle that turns out to be no more exciting than going to an Alzheimer’s Ward Jitterbug Contest. TOKYO ZOMBIE is a nearly perfect example of the prior statement. It is a film that has some very entertaining moments and reaches for an assortment of comedy styles, but in the end it is like a trip across the Great Plains, where there are moments when the starkly beautiful landscape can bore you to tears until all of a sudden something appears on the horizon to relieve the monotony for a spell, only to return to the weary trudge through sameness once again.

TOKYO ZOMBIE is the story of two peculiar laborers, Mitsuo (Micchan in the English subtitles) and Fujio, two men who are not terribly motivated unless it is something to do with Ju-Jitsu. After a brainless accident involving their boss requires them to ascend the slopes of the awesome Mountain of Rubbish and toxic waste Matterhorn known as “Black Fuji”, our heroes witness the genesis of an army of zombies. Stumbling down the sides of the trash peak and devouring all manner of citizens in their path, the zombies spread death and chaos through a city of people who seem equally as brain-dead as their attackers. Mitsuo and Fujio make awkward attempts to dodge these nightmarish locomotion-challenged flesh-eaters and try to subsist to the best of their limited abilities. After a number of accidents, personal setbacks and years pass, the zombies are triumphant and the surviving members of Tokyo’s human population are forced to live a life of even more mindless entertainment and boorish behavior. At the center of this bizarre travesty, our heroes are forced to come to terms with their meaningless existences in a ridiculous showdown reminiscent of something like a mentally-challenged hybrid version of HIGH NOON and LAND OF THE DEAD.

One of the most troubling aspects of TOKYO ZOMBIE is that there are many facets of this film that are praiseworthy, but in the end it is an exercise in endurance to reach the conclusion of this 104 minute partial snoozer. From a purely technical standpoint, TOKYO ZOMBIE looks and sounds quite good. It is shot well and the exterior and interior sets are effectively utilized, whether they are real or computer generated. The zombie make-up is creative, professional and looks authentic; there is just the right amount of gore, the living dead stagger about and snarl semi-menacingly in occasionally scary but usually comical fashion that reminds me of an interpretive dance troupe. When it is being used and that is not the case often enough, the soundtrack is quirky, jazzy and sets a fun and light tone. The characters are likable and their eccentricities do not grate and cause revulsion, rather the reverse. Despite the problems that beset TOKYO ZOMBIE, the main characters grow on you after some time and the primary actors, Tadanobu Asano (Fujio) and Sho Aikawa (Mitsuo) do a very good job in their portrayals of these asinine and yet somehow lovable buffoons. Even the story has its strengths. When the narrative is focused on being off-beat, unpredictable and totally twisted and the humor is a steady mix of well-timed, brisk physical wackiness with some thoughtful social commentary, TOKYO ZOMBIE succeeds brilliantly. There are heads being whacked off in some wonderfully irreverent ways and a “Calpis Commando” with an excrement Gatling gun. Sound moronic? It is, but in the best sense of the word. Why can’t I give a film with such obviously bright moments a hearty slap on the cinematic posterior and say I loved it? The reason is to be found deep in the inner reaches of Japanese movie psychology and film-making “nuts and bolts”.

TOKYO ZOMBIE suffers from a problem that often besets Japanese movies, they can be “leisurely” paced and wander aimlessly like a five year old set adrift in a carpeting warehouse. I have seen many Japanese live-action films of the horror, action, comedic and dramatic genres and far too often they feel like they should be ten to twenty minutes shorter at the very least. This is harsh criticism from a man who tends to like European motion pictures for the reason that they are more “patient” than there American brethren. I like Asian movies of all types, especially those from Japan, but the pacing of their flicks can be a deadly weakness and in the case of TOKYO ZOMBIE it is a fatal flaw. Every time the humor intensified or the action got going, jokes were held just a bit too long, sometimes far too long. In addition, the plot sharply veered off course, taking the story in unneeded and unwanted directions that slowed the tale down considerably. The unpredictability of TOKYO ZOMBIE was often its greatest strength, but when one minute the main characters are fighting zombies while trying to find their car keys and the next there is a lengthy and dull interlude in an abandoned night club that drags like ice melting on a pond, precious opportunities are being lost. Character exchanges and interplay were often far too involved over meaningless points. At times it felt like the theme of the citizens being no less dim and inane than the zombies was being carefully developed, but at other times the story just felt like it was an experiment in being odd and hopefully funny. Certainly odd was achieved but funny was less consistently attained and that was a shame because there were times when TOKYO ZOMBIE surprised me with how madcap it could be and how much I liked it for its goofiness. If TOKYO ZOMBIE had been tightened up a bit more in the editing process and had the pace of this film been just a bit more lively, it might have been a real pleasure to watch.

One of the great benefits of this disc is its rich collection of Bonus Features. There is a 53 minute long and very comprehensive “Making of the Dead” documentary filled to the brim with cast and crew anecdotes and recollections as well as “behind the scenes” footage. This is one of the more extensive “making of” featurettes I have seen in some time and I thoroughly enjoyed my journey into the back story of this project. There are two “Actor Interviews” segments, one that is 10 ½ minutes long set on a TV show right around the 2005 Tokyo premiere of the film and focusing on the two male leads. A 4 minute sit down interview follows it. Both are excellent and in-depth despite the difference in style and length. There is a 10 ½ minute “Cast and Crew Q & A Session” with five cast members at the 2005 Opening Day. Set on a stage, the repartee of this featurette is especially enjoyable. A 10 ½ minute “Actor In-Store Appearance” at a special event at HMV with the two male leads is very different in style from the usual interview segment. Finally there are three TOKYO ZOMBIE teasers and two full trailers, rounding out one of the most feature-centric extras caches I’ve had the delight to delve into for some time. Even though I couldn’t rave about TOKYO ZOMBIE as much as the film makers would have liked, my amblings through the supplements made my experience a little more enjoyable. For all those who don’t have the foresight to load up a disc with goodies, let this be their object lesson on why bonus features are ALWAYS a good idea and a “bare bones” disc is ALWAYS a mistake.

TOKYO ZOMBIE is not a bad film and there are likely to be many people who will like it. It is a little naughty at times, looks and sounds good and hits the mark on occasion with both slapstick and sarcastic comedic thrusts. It may be that I am just a jaded old man equally as bald and bitter as Mitsuo and a bit too worldly. I have been fighting off zombies in my own arena of mortal combat for too many years and possibly this film hit a nerve that wouldn’t have been the case with another reviewer. I think not though, for I can sense a slow mover early on and have learned to sniff out snoozers in all their forms. TOKYO ZOMBIE was not a total bore nor was it a narcolepsy triggering movie, but I was thankful I had gotten a good night’s sleep for I hate it when I doze and my head strikes the remote sharply. That old remote can’t take much more punishment.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SWAMP DEVIL (2008) d. David Winning

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Swamps are vitally important habitats that are absolutely essential to the health of regional and global environments. They are also places of mystery and sinister imagery. Whether it’s the moss-covered trees, laden with living and dead leaves or the gloomy and greasy pools of murky water, swamps are not usually high on most people’s lists as places they’d like to vacation. What makes a swamp even more darkly compelling are the secrets that lie just beneath the surface of its sullen waters. Below the muddy and viscous liquid that looks like grimy, glazed glass are layers of ooze and muck into which bodies of animals and people can sink, never to be seen again. SWAMP DEVIL, the 13th installment in the Maneater Series, trades on that fear of bogs and marshes, and while it has more to do with other movie elements than horror and marsh tales, it has a degree of success in weaving a yarn that will keep you glued like swamp slop to your seat.

SWAMP DEVIL is the story of young Melanie Blaime (played by Cindy Sampson) and her father Howard (portrayed by the venerable Bruce Dern). After a long estrangement from her father for reasons not entirely clear, Melanie returns to her childhood home of Gibbington, Vermont to confront the realization that her father is wanted for murder. As Melanie digs a little more deeply into the stories of the past, she uncovers a tale wound about the town like Spanish moss, that is composed of secrets and lies, murder and revenge. As Melanie is drawn deeper into the story of Gibbington, she becomes closer friends with the enigmatic Jimmy Fuller (played by Nicholas Wright), even as she discovers more about her father and his connection to Jimmy. In the end, it comes to a showdown between sides that each have a profoundly vested interest in vengeance with Melanie as the prize laid out between them.

SWAMP DEVIL is pure TV Movie and if you’ve seen any of the RHI-TV relatives of this flick, you know exactly what to expect, but it in the end it doesn’t matter that this flick is predictable, has a few plot holes and has some serious visual flaws. SWAMP DEVIL delivers on that most important of properties necessary to a cash-strapped TV Movie; character interplay and melodrama. The vast majority of the narrative is centered upon Melanie, her reluctant return to her roots, her emotional issues revolving around her relationship with her father and the mysterious death of her mother, her friendship with Jimmy and his idiosyncratic nature and her response to the vigilante mob of townsfolk who wish to bring her father to justice. Thrown in for good measure in the earlier stages of the plot are some moments of “monster mayhem” that help to firmly anchor this film in the horror canon and even more effectively used are lightly sprinkled scenes which assist a steady development of suspense and mood bordering on menace. SWAMP DEVIL is not Hitchcock or Argento, it is classic TV Movie fare that is just as much akin to a Soap Opera as it is the theatrically release horror or even “creature feature” films of yore. As the story progresses, the pace picks up and over the last one-third of the film, the action begins to step up. In some ways, this is where the movie declines ever so slightly for just as we are treated to longer scenes with Bruce Dern who was fairly absent in the beginning, he is asked to be just as much an action hero as he is an actor and that is too bad. The man is a gifted and experienced thespian and the more of his presence we could have enjoyed the better I would have liked SWAMP DEVIL. As the action intensified, we were also forced to endure the great fault of SWAMP DEVIL.

From a visual standpoint, there were alternating strengths and weaknesses to this film. The greatest failing was the CGI swamp monster and its fake tendrils. Computer Generated Imaging must be getting both easier and far cheaper to utilize for I see it more and more, especially in TV Movies like SWAMP DEVIL. At times it can be effectively used, like in VIPERS or HIVE, but at other times like EYE OF THE BEAST or YETI it can be a distraction and a failure. In SWAMP DEVIL, the exterior sets chosen to create a sense of Vermont, but that were actually in and around Montreal, were attractive, verdant and created a very persuasive aura of sylvan beauty and forested threat. Unfortunately, the swamp monster looked a lot more like a badly crafted piece of silly topiary. As a result, the action sequences with the beast were just not convincing. In the end it is too bad for SWAMP DEVIL was effectively and competently shot under the guiding hand of David Winning who was at the helm for SOMETHING BENEATH and BLACK SWARM. It was Mr. Winning’s effective camera work that led to one of the great strengths of SWAMP DEVIL, the focus on the faces and expressions of the characters. Franco Nero once said that Italian Westerns were great because the emotional impact of the films was carried in the cinematography of the actors’ countenances. It was the eyes and other facial elements that “have it” in SWAMP DEVIL, especially those of Cindy Sampson. Beyond the fact that Miss Sampson is incredibly lovely, with a torrent of glossy, dark hair and a trim, comely figure it is her soul-piercing eyes and the tough but vulnerable expressions on her face that carry a great deal of force. Add to that the insouciant looks of Nicholas Wright, the revenge-crazed gaze of Bruce Dern and the myriad of other emotions conveyed by the expressions of the cast and more of a palpable feeling of atmosphere was created by the performers than was by the garden ornament of a swamp monster. Kudos must be given to the camera team, the director and the actors for their efforts in propelling the narrative of SWAMP DEVIL. It was a fairly predictable story and the pacing was a little uneven at times, but the drama was effectively energized by the portrayals, interactions and responses we see on the screen, making SWAMP DEVIL a lot more like its low budget horror movie cousins of long ago like MONOLITH MONSTERS or DIE MONSTER DIE.

Like so many other Maneater or RHI-TV TV Movies brought to DVD, SWAMP DEVIL has no bonus features menu. There are two trailers that come up before the main menu, both of which are action film trailers and have nothing to do with the horror genre. While I applaud the people who authored this disc for not bathing us in more overused Maneater imagery and that is probably because there is a newly launched Maneater website, when you’ve got a horror movie in peoples’ hands, you probably want to put horror trailers on that disc. After the trailers, there are two film company ads for Dragon Dynasty and Dimension Extreme, both of which made me even more irritated, for I don’t want the sell-job when I watch a disc, I want to be inundated by a good story and even better visual components, and then I want to learn more about the project I just experienced. With a director like David Winning leading the pack, an actor of the caliber of Bruce Dern, an actor playing Sheriff Nelson who looks suspiciously like Ed Lauter but isn’t and a stunning beauty like Cindy Sampson, there is more than enough fodder for cast interviews, a “behind the scenes” featurette or some kind of tidbit. While I enjoyed SWAMP DEVIL to a greater rather than lesser degree, this lack of supplemental features left me more than typically indignant. I have had the pleasure of seeing some SUPERB extras on quite a few discs recently, most of which are connected to small releasing companies and even more obscure titles. For a company as large as RHI-TV to not put some kind of bonus features on this disc simply stinks. Probably RHI-TV or whatever entity made SWAMP DEVIL is and/or was profitable, but not having the chance to enjoy something more about this flick made me feel a little soiled, as if I had taken a tumble in the bog.

SWAMP DEVIL is the kind of film you watch when you really just want to get away from reality and get involved in a drama of simplistic but still appealing proportions. It isn’t what I’d call classic “turn off the lights late at night” fare, more of a late Saturday morning, low budget “creature feature” kind of movie. It had a capable cast who brought to life characters I liked and grew to care about. When I cheer for characters and don’t want them to get the chop, something is being done right. While it wasn’t as scary as it was just generally fun, I still felt entertained. Just as a grilled cheese sandwich isn’t the summit of culinary delights, it is still a meal that can satisfy, so I suppose one can say that SWAMP DEVIL is a little like sitting down to a tried and true favorite like grilled cheese. You know what you’re going to get and there won’t be any surprises, but you’ll like the outcome just fine. I’ll take that.

Monday, March 23, 2009

THE SINFUL DWARF (1973) d. Vidal Raski

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the most endearing qualities of independent cinema is that there is no limit to what can be tainted, debauched or twisted to become absolutely loathsome. Just as we saw in great literature written by masters like Ray Bradbury, the simplest and most innocuous things can be made to be utterly terrifying, as Mr. Bradbury did in stories like The Long Rain and Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in your Cellar. While indie-film makers have been creating flicks that exploited or lampooned all manner of charming icons or heart-warming imagery since the earliest days of The Silver Screen, the pinnacle of excess was reached in the 1970s when the boundaries of censorship and decency were rolled back consistently during that epoch of permissiveness. The people who benefited were movie lovers, for the world was treated to tales of dope fiends, sex addicts, perverts and maniacs. THE SINFUL DWARF (aka DVAERGEN) must be recognized as one of the Pillars of the Depraved Exploitation Temple, for it mines just about every possible vein and just like a sadistic dentist, it finds as many sensitive nerves as it can and plucks at them viciously throughout its duration.

THE SINFUL DWARF is the story of drunken and dissolute Lila Lash and her diminutive and degenerate son Olaf. Lila owns a rooming house that was once the nightclub where she performed as a singer/dancer in her more successful youth. The house and Lila have fallen on hard times and now, with the help of Olaf, she must peddle the flesh of young women she keeps enslaved to heroine in her attic. When a young newlywed couple named Peter and Mary rent a room at Lila’s, they step into more than they bargained for. While Peter spends the day trying to get writing gigs, lovely Mary allows her active imagination to run wild and then gives into the powerful lure of curiosity in an attempt to find out why there are strange sounds coming from the attic. As has almost always been the case in such a situation, “curiosity kills the cat”, and Mary lands herself in a very harrowing predicament.

If you are a fan of wildly entertaining, low budget but still “thoughtfully” composed exploitation cinema from pioneers like Dave Friedman, THE SINFUL DWARF will probably delight, not that there aren’t problems with it. When I first saw the Harry Novak logo come up at the beginning of the film, I was nervous due to my many disappointing experiences with Mr. Novak’s “motion pictures”, but then my prior research asserted its contemplative self, commandeered my emotions and helped to calm my fears. Knowing that THE SINFUL DWARF was a Danish production, I assumed Mr. Novak’s influence would be less pronounced and to some degree I was right. The story of this flick is absolutely typical exploitation gold, for it is a mix of a very good plot concept, very lecherous and licentious moments of ‘skin-tastic” salaciousness and loads of slower narrative components, some added in to intensify the “creepiness” factor, others added in to develop a sense of atmosphere and many were just good old padding used to lengthen the runtime of the film. If you go into THE SINFUL DWARF expecting a rocket ride of nonstop sleaze from the opening titles to the closing scene, you will disappointed and should be slapped for your stupidity, for this is an early 70s softcore/exploitation flick and as such it is going to be a mixed bag. Certainly there is nudity aplenty and we are treated to the beautiful Anne Sparrow (Mary) in wonderfully form-fitting fashions and often times out of her garments as well. While all the girls in THE SINFUL DWARF are comely, most are a bit slender, but Ms. Sparrow steals the show with her striking face, intensely expressive eyes, luxuriant blond locks and outstanding figure. For those hoping for some naughtiness, there are numerous sex scenes shot with the usual Harry Novak energetic style that lacks panache and skill, but still delivers the goods, especially just as much “man-ass” as it does the female form. There are drugs, sex slaves and bondage, but what carries the weight of THE SINFUL DWARF are the facial expressions and guttural verbiage of Olaf (Torben Bille) and the utterly horrifying visage and singing/dancing of Lila (Clara Keller). Not since Arch Hall Jr. in THE SADIST has there been a face as disturbing as that of Olaf. Watching his creepy countenance for 90 minutes could give you nightmares if not thoroughly unseat your sanity, but he is completely entertaining none-the-less and I found myself wishing there was more of his presence. Ms. Clara Keller does the most outstanding job of creating a female equivalent to Klaus Kinski or Udo Kier that I have ever seen. If you have ever had the privilege of observing either of those actors in one of their more unsettling performances like CRAWL SPACE or MARK OF THE DEVIL, you will know exactly what I mean. Her liquor besotted and makeup besmirched appearance sporting “Roaring 20s” garb is truly distressing to say the least. These two combine to create the most unpleasant dastardly duo since Bonne and Clyde. While they may not be as active as the afore-mentioned bank robbers, they are undoubtedly more fun.

THE SINFUL DWARF benefits from Severin Films’ very sincere efforts to restore this motion picture. Found in a Danish Film School’s closet, the 35 mm master was probably in rough shape and was likely to be of poor film stock to begin with. Dark and grainy at times and with some relatively hollow audio, we are still treated to a colorful and strikingly attractive film despite the low budget efforts of the original film makers. The interior sets are such a bizarre mix of compelling images of baroque beauty that has “gone to seed” mixed with repellant scenes of gloomy hallways, filthy attics and scabrous bathroom fixtures. The marvelous contrasts of diametrically opposed visually imagery of both the sets and the cast members makes this motion picture work in a startlingly effective manner. When added to the consistently utilized motif of children’s wind up toys and teddy bear-like dolls, the resulting admixture of childhood icons and behavioral depravity is even more delightfully sickening. The toy shots used in the opening credits stuck with me throughout the film and whenever things took a “dark turn”, the mental juxtaposition was quite forceful. The performances of the principal actors are also competent and occasionally strong. In addition to Ms. Keller and Mr. Torben Bille, Anne Sparrow is not just a pretty face, she is able to act too and does a very good job in her role. It is a crying shame that THE SINFUL DWARF was her only film, for I would have done just about anything to see her continue as an icon of the exploitation genre. Tony Eades plays the part of Mary’s husband Peter and he gives a solid performance as well. Most of the time, exploitation actors and actresses were not always that good to look at and were even less winning as performers, but in THE SINFUL DWARF, we get the whole nine yards. Finally, one can’t even escape from the music of THE SINFUL DWARF. There is an eclectic and unsettling mix of playful incidental themes, innocently classical strains and deeply disconcerting modern soundtrack elements that strengthen all of the emotional reactions that are meant to be manipulated. Sadly, the score could have been used even more consistently, but when it was, the impact was like a fist to the solar plexus.

Since THE SINFUL DWARF has such a checkered past as a “lost exploitation classic” and an infamous title of loathsome lechery, I fully expected there to be little or no bonus features to be had, and got another surprise. In addition to two radio spots (30 seconds and 60 seconds) and the trailer, there is a 10 minute faux mini-documentary called “The Severin Controversy” which looks at the “lasting impact of watching THE SINFUL DWARF”. Set in a small video store and surrounded by titles of other sordid splendor like AMAZON JAIL, “The Severin Controversy” discusses with two of the store regulars what life has been like since first viewing THE SINFUL DWARF and the many cautionary comments each “Johnny lunch pail” has for potential “dwarf-a-maniac”. This featurette is a real “hoot” and was a perfect way to bring to a close my “dwarfsploitation” cinema experience.

Watching THE SINFUL DWARF will not warp you permanently for there are far more alarming viewing options to be had in the world both past and present. Go in expecting this to be a “long, strange trip” and that the Master of Ceremonies will be pint-sized in build but mighty in mischief and you will probably be entertained. Like SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, this is not classic horror, but rather a mix of ideas blended in The Devil’s Kitchen Aid food processor and served cold, just as revenge should be, for this is The Beast’s pay back for being cast out of Paradise. If you watch THE SINFUL DWARF, you will descend just a few steps further on that ruinous path into The Void, but that’s okay. Do it for Olaf.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

SINS OF SISTER LUCIA (1978) d. Koyu Ohara

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

I once saw a comic strip about a dorky teenage boy who experienced a whopping boner during his high school math class and was asked to come to the board to solve an equation. To keep from displaying his “lodgepole” in front of the pretty and popular cheerleaders in the room, the unfortunate youth tried to quiet his tumescent Doric column by thinking about screwing the teacher, who was a withered old nun named "Miss Acidcrotch". Whether this worked for our cartoon hero, I can’t quite recall, but I know many a man who used this technique during moments of physical stress to great success. Sadly, viewing SINS OF SISTER LUCIA will erase this procedure from your repertoire, for SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is easily one of the most erotic nunspolitation motion pictures ever made and should have you rearing like a stallion by the end of the film.

SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is the story of Rumiko, the manipulative and dissolute daughter of a wealthy businessman who is discovered by her father in the midst of appalling larcenous and sexual acts. The prim daughters of Japanese tycoons do not engage in such behavior, so to correct Rumiko, she is sent to a convent. The traditional methods of “sisterly” redirection do not seem to work on the rebellious and defiant girl, even after she is indoctrinated as “Sister Lucia”. Before long punishments of all types are visited against Sister Lucia, but during one spell of restraint and confinement, two escaped convicts stumble upon our helpless heroine, they ravish her and in a fit of patient diplomacy, she convinces them to help turn the tables on her oppressors, but not for long. Eventually another turnabout is orchestrated landing “Lucia” in an even more dreadful predicament. What started as an intensely seductive cinematic affair erupts into an orgy of licentious and salaciously lewd acts that would delight any devotee of Japanese debauchery.

SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is more than just an intense Asian softcore movie, it is also a very beautiful film and for those who are willing to risk the perils of its taboo subjects, the rewards are great. Typical of most Japanese cinema, it is shot very wide and with an eye to dynamic imagery. While there are few exterior sets, those that we see are quite striking. Even more impressive are the interior sets that are rich with strong architectural features, beautiful sacramental scenery and a mix of stark black and whites blended with blazing colors. From the crisp and clean look of the nuns’ habits, to the silky porcelain skin tones of the “sisters”, to the stunning visual beauty of altars and rooms inside what is suppose to be a sanctum of worship but is something else entirely, SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is exquisitely lovely and a joy to watch from a purely artistic standpoint. Added to the visual splendor is a musical soundtrack that, while used sparingly, does add to the sense of having stepped into a sanctuary during a High Holiday. Beyond these sublime sensual strengths, SINS OF SISTER LUCIA works on an entirely different level.

A close friend who had lived in Japan for a number of years and has regularly visited that nation since once referred to Japanese film as “utterly screwed up”. How could you not make such a statement about a land that has brought us tentacle-porn epics like the “Overfiend” series? Long before such animated horror-shows were birthed, films like SINS OF SISTER LUCIA were foisted upon the world by companies like Nikkatsu and they were violent and erotic, bizarre and beautiful. One of the reasons that SINS OF SISTER LUCIA has such a potent impact is that beyond the Japanese fascination with forbidden sex, lesbianism, rape and bondage/discipline there is commanding imagery created through the carefully orchestrated juxtaposition of religious iconography and sexual deviancy. While this is nothing new to historians and certainly goes back to the days of The Inquisition and beyond, there is something about the way the Japanese carry this off that has even more weight than the sleaziest European flicks of the late 70s and early 80s. Maybe it is the high pitched voices of the Japanese girls subtitled in English or possibly their delicate facial features framed by nuns’ habits. Maybe it is the cool and emotionless Catholicism of sisters walking down convent corridors and then engaging in all manner of copulation. For whatever the reason, SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is packed with scenery that with leave its mark on your mind and soul and of course, presented by our good friends at Mondo Macabro, this film transfer looks AMAZING. All the blacks and whites are crisp and clean, while the colors are vibrant and the audio is as clear as a bell. SINS OF SISTER LUCIA looks like it was filmed and then projected yesterday. When you’ve got a beautifully shot motion picture that evidences great care and thought when it comes to composition, camera angles and general creativity and it looks fabulous too, you’ve got yourself a real winner.

On the story side, SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is not terribly complex. It is the age-old tale of “bad girl needs to be taught a lesson so she’ll fall into line and not embarrass her family”. What starts off as a straight forward yarn about a hot-blooded and hard-headed young lady steadily devolves into one opportunity after another to go down an even more lurid path and engage in even more depravity. While there are “twists and turns” in the plot, they are far more manufactured than surprising and are just vehicles for piling on the pulchritude. SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is not about writing or acting, it is a powerful stimulant to the senses and must be openly admitted to be such. Once you confess your sins, it is much easier to enjoy them.

Typical of the many other Mondo Macabro DVDs I’ve seen, SINS OF SISTER LUCIA has an impressive bonus features menu. There is a two-part text segment to start called “About the Film” which looks first at Nikkatsu Films and then SINS OF SISTER LUCIA specifically. After that is an exceptional 24 minute documentary called “The Erotic Vampire” which is an expose and retrospective exploring Japanese erotic horror and exploitation films. This is one of the more compelling mini-features I have seen in some time and should deeply impress those who wish to know more about our Oriental exploitation brethren. After that is a 9 minute “Interview with Jasper Sharp”, which is a discussion with British film historian Jasper Sharp regarding SINS OF SISTER LUCIA, its director and its place in Japanese film lore. There is a segment called “Nikkatsu Film Trailers” of which there are six little known gems. Finally, there is the extensive “More from Mondo Macabro” promotional trailer montage. While I have seen many of their wildly entertaining films, I never tire of this ever expanding trailer loop and certainly want to own ALL of their wares.

SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is the very definition of a movie for hedonists. There is no deep religious message, neither is it philosophically profound, nor is it amply arcane. SINS OF SISTER LUCIA is no different than that first bottle of wine you swiped from your parents’ liquor cabinet or that first naughty magazine you found in the Big Boys’ Clubhouse when you snuck in late one evening. This is pure Forbidden Fruit and like The Apple, it is more than just a tasty treat. It looks wonderful, swinging from that tree, a mix of scarlet shades and gleaming skin over tart interior flesh. Just as a true Epicurean approaches a wine tasting by appreciating the hue and bouquet of a vintage before sampling it, let your eyes and ears bask in the splendor of SINS OF SISTER LUCIA and leave the more analytical centers of your brain to get the much needed rest they deserve.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

WALLED IN (2007) d. Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Eerie abodes, creepy castles and dreadful dwellings have long been a deep and extremely rich well from which film makers have been able to draw when trying to create an atmospheric and disturbing set of images for a motion picture. Whether it is the cob-webby corridors, the blackened basements or the asphyxiating attics, a fright-filled structure can be the centerpiece upon which a great horror movie is built. Architecture in and of itself is a very interesting study and domiciles can tell us a lot about the history of a town and/or a family when you study the original plan for the structure and then explore any additions. While additions to the primary blueprints can sometimes improve the appearance and function of a house, too often there are excessive changes that are made and the fundamental plan is lost in a swell of attempts to “do better” than the first design, subverting the artistry and ruining the final outcome. Films can be a lot like that. What starts out as a promising tale winds in unforeseen directions and then the narrative ends up somewhere you’d rather not have gone. WALLED IN is a perfect example of a motion picture that started out with all kinds of strengths and seemed to be driving towards a degree of cinematic success, but like a crazed contractor slapping on all kinds of “improvements” to a house’s design, WALLED IN veered away from its blueprints and ended up being a bit disappointing.

WALLED IN is the story of Sam Walczak, a beautiful young woman who is given her first job as a structural engineer, the task being the demolition of a building with a very compelling past. The Malestrazza Building is an architectural marvel, but it is also the scene of terrifying events. Fifteen years earlier, a large number of people were entombed within the walls of the building, Mr. Malestrazza among them. Sam’s commission takes her inside the structure where she is suppose to determine the best way to bring it down safely, but against her better judgment Sam is drawn into the story of the building’s genius architect, his bizarre beliefs and how they affected his plans and the last few tenants living there. Sam’s curiosity leads her to a series of fascinating discoveries and even more frightening revelations, proving the old saw, “there is more than meets the eye”, especially when it comes to a building with the anomalies like the one that Sam almost becomes a part of.

WALLED IN starts off with some of the most eye-catching photography, set utilization and set construction I have had the opportunity to enjoy in some time. Whether it is the bleak but still attractive winter panoramas of the Canadian prairies and wetlands, the stark and forbidding exterior scenes of the “Malestrazza Building” (which is a model and a CGI construct, but a damn good-looking one) or the fabulously beautiful and atmospheric interior sets of the structure, WALLED IN is wonderfully shot. Particular attention is paid during the first half of the film to the internal architecture and d├ęcor and when moody lighting is exploited, mixing colors, shades, tints and tones, one is strongly reminded of a non-supernatural version of SUSPIRIA or INFERNO, for those fine Dario Argento films focused heavily on the power and profundity of architectural psychology. There are harsh and strident lines mixed with fanciful designs and accents, textured backgrounds and sleek characteristics, monochromatic scenes as well as hues that highlight visual elements and a chiaroscuro that is palpable and sometimes astonishingly opulent. Sadly, this level of artistry is not maintained throughout the movie and as the story shifts its focus, so too does the imagery and the painstaking beauty and power of WALLED IN sluices away like so much water running through a dam.

The director and many of the crew members of WALLED IN are French and for many people who like Euro-cinema, this could be considered a blessing. The French have a penchant and a reputation for leisurely paced cinema and for the first half of this film the patient nature of the plot is a positive. The story starts off as a mystery punctuated with some bizarre character interplay that stems from the quirky nature of each persona. The awkwardness of these interactions and the strange motivations for each character help to establish an overarching sense of suspense and occasional menace that keeps the story moving. During this stretch of the rising action, the striking and sinister imagery of the building and the patiently unfolding nature of its secrets make WALLED IN gripping and intriguing despite is unhurried cadence. As the story develops though, a whole new side to the narrative begins to open up, to the detriment of the final product. What started as a mystery with horror elements and some sleight of hand trying to trick the unwary viewer into thinking there might be some supernatural components becomes a tale about obsession/control mixed with revenge, and drama takes over the reigns of the plot. The onus is taken away from the house and all its secrets, all the strangeness of the characters wafts away and they are simply pawns in a psychological and physical torture/endurance saga. WALLED IN is certainly not “torture porn”, but it borrows from that misbegotten subgenre, taking away the wonderfully thoughtful color scheme and replacing it with sepia tones, removing the marvelous architecture and putting in sweaty and grimy or loathsome bodies, and slicing out any sense of mysterious apprehension and substituting grimness and grisly events. WALLED IN is restrained and we are not treated to brutal gore or miserable machinations, but what started so promisingly and had a feel so very like THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (the original and the remake), went more in the direction of SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and other films about insane fixation and cruel compulsion.

The performances in WALLED IN were also nothing to write home about. Mischa Barton plays the character of Sam Walczak and there are certain qualities to her portrayal worth mentioning. Miss Barton has a wonderfully expressive face and her eyes are especially emotive, so that with the help of the fairly strong camera work, we are treated to the best part of her performance, her facial expressions and the intensity of her countenance. Whether it is the nature of her voice or issues of her talents, Miss Barton’s delivery of her lines often feels forced, not terribly engaging and while her eyes radiate emotion, there is a flatness to her speech that keeps her character from really being one we can relate to. There is a small degree of chemistry that develops between Sam and Jimmy (played by Cameron Bright) and the creepy motivations of Jimmy’s character are very suggestive of the film WHAT THE PEEPER SAW, but Cameron Bright’s performance is even more wooden that that of Mischa Barton and he is not able to sell his “mania” to viewers in the kind of convincing manner that was necessary. For fans of the pretty and willowy Mischa Barton, I am certain that the sizable number of scenes where she is “nude” will come across as a complete and total tease. While there is no question that what we can’t see is almost always more enticing than what we can see, in this case using “implied nudity” scenes was a mistake. To create a sense of vulnerability and defenselessness in the character of Sam as the screenwriters were trying to do and intensify the titillation factor, actual nudity would have carried far more impact. Either Miss Barton needed to bite the bullet and get naked, or the producers needed to find an attractive body-double for those scenes or another actress needed to be cast who was unafraid to shed her clothes. Teasing viewers works under the right set of circumstances, but this wasn’t that time. In the end though, it seemed to be part of the second half decline of WALLED IN. If the writers really wanted to go down the path of being a gritty “modern horror” flick, then they needed to grab the bull by the horns. If they’d rather have stuck with a more Gothic approach, then restraint would have been fine, but the original scheme of the film needed to be maintained, and that didn’t happen.

WALLED IN has a small but interesting set of supplements. In addition to the trailer, there is a 14 ½ minute “Making of Walled In” documentary that really feels like a scholarly mini-feature. There is a voice over that seems almost like an instructional video, as we are treated to “behind the scenes” footage of the production as well as cast and crew anecdotes and interviews. While this featurette is a little too clip heavy, at least the informational voice over helps to thin the impact of the heavy number of clips. The crew recollections and comments did a fine job of shedding light on the technical processes and left me with a slightly higher degree of respect for the efforts of those involved. While WALLED IN wasn’t the finest film I’ve ever seen, the bonus features did what all extras should do, soften my heart to a small degree so that the razor-sharpness of my word-processing pen was not unleashed with reckless abandon.

WALLED IN should stand as a gentle cautionary example to filmmakers to remember lines like “To thine own self be true” and the like. Had this movie stuck to its original guns and kept blazing away at the target it started with, it might have ended up as a complete and total joy about which I could sing its praises heartily. The praise will now be blended with criticism and the chorus of cheers will be muted. Just as mixing Federalist architecture and Greek Revival styles generally doesn’t work, mixing two tones of tales and two sides of different stories kept WALLED IN locked in a closet and did not allow it to burst forth into a lighted room with a big “BOO”, savoring the resultant reaction.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

CROWLEY (2008) d. Julian Doyle

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Applying generalizations to any form of scholarly critique may not always be the most precise or the fairest method of analysis, but it can be immeasurably helpful in creating broad comparisons. As a result, this introduction must start with a few sweeping generalizations. 1) Films about Satan and his manifestation on The Mortal Plane tend to be dark, atmospheric and gloomy in appearance and tone. 2) Movies that deal with scientific machinery and its awesome power and potential are often sterile looking and appeal only to science fiction fans. 3) Motion pictures that incorporate time paradoxes, parallel universes and other mid-bending concepts can be supercilious and self-important despite their compelling premises. What if a film combined most, if not all, of the best elements of these three generalizations? Would it be a messy morass or a wildly entertaining hybrid? CROWLEY (aka CHEMICAL WEDDING) is not a mess and it does combine a wide variety of story concepts, and although it might not appeal to everyone, imagine taking the essence of OMEN III, blending it with the graphic scenery of ICHI THE KILLER and then sprinkling in an over the top but commanding performance akin to Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, and you’ve got an idea what CROWLEY is a little bit like, but even that analogy doesn’t do it justice.

CROWLEY is the story of the reincarnated spirit of the infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley. Two young academics are at the corrupt and debauched old man’s death in 1947 and witness strange events that occur at his passing. Some 60 years later, an American scientist named Joshua Mathers arrives in London to combine his computer programs dealing with virtual reality with a powerful computer known as Zed93. Before he can properly begin his experiments, his English assistant Victor Nuberg permits a quirky Literature Professor named Oliver Haddo to perform his own experiment, allowing the disembodied spirit of Aleister Crowley to leave the Astral Plane where it had been lurking and inhabit the body of Professor Haddo. The returned Crowley begins preparations for the return of Satan on Earth and the establishment of a Kingdom of Damnation, Excess and Perversity. Mathers teams up with a university coed and journalist named Lia Robinson in an attempt to thwart Crowley’s machinations, little knowing that Crowley needs Lia for the penultimate rite known as The Chemical Wedding.

CROWLEY starts off with a story that is a little choppy and has some jarring transitions between scenes and storylines, but it keeps its head above water by invoking all kinds of occult imagery and demonic/spiritual ideals wrapped around the deeply eccentric performance of John Shrapnel who plays the Aleister Crowley of 1947. While the tendency to transition roughly at times never fades, when the plot shifts gears into the present and adds new layers to an already complex introduction, those threads twist into a tapestry that has many rich characteristics. First, the story component that deals with Satanic Resurrection invokes so many good ideas of the past, whether it is the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft, the OMEN movies, the many atmospheric hammer films like BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB just to name a few. CROWLEY is rich in colorful and moody sequences and sublime scenery made all the more effective by the English interior and exterior sets, all of which help to sell the feel that the struggle against Ultimate Evil is old and never-ending. As the narrative gains momentum, even more interesting components are stitched into this luxuriant fabric. The science fiction elements dealing with computers, alternate realities and time have a mix that evokes flicks like ALTERED STATES or novels like SCHRODINGER’S CAT, making it so that CROWLEY is more than just your ordinary movie dealing with the occult and The Devil. Even as the plot becomes steadily “intellectual” at its heart, a hefty helping of heat-inducing harlotry and other pervasive pinches of pulchritude are slathered onto the surface so that the luridly atmospheric aura begins to also be profane, salacious and occasionally obscene. Naked women, bloody violence, sinful sex acts, all manner of bodily fluids erupting forth and blasphemous behavior are dappled liberally throughout the plot, making CROWLEY appealing to those expecting their Devil-worship movies to be licentious as well as lugubrious.

What CROWLEY also has going for it is a cast that is a mix of seasoned, talented veterans and some talented newcomers too. In addition to recognizable British performers like John Shrapnel, there are seasoned thespians Terence Bayler (Professor Brent) and Paul McDowell (Symonds) who lend stateliness and stability to the cast. American Kal Weber (Joshua Mathers) and lovely Brit Lucy Cudden (Lia Robinson) both give very strong performances in their roles as well, and it doesn’t hurt that Miss Cudden has an attractive face, a trim and sinuous figure and a river of lustrous and fiery hair. Overshadowing all there these impressive and competent portrayals is the magisterial and malevolent acting effort of Simon Callow (Oliver Haddo/reincarnated Crowley). I have seen Mr. Callow in many films since the 1980s, AMADEUS, ROOM WITH A VIEW, MAURICE, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE to name just a few and I have always been impressed. Mr. Callow’s portrayal of Aleister Crowley returned and openly consorting with Powers Dark and Sinister is the most sadistically enjoyable and immorally delightful example of character acting I have seen in some time. It wasn’t long after I first saw BLUE VELVET that I began memorizing Frank Booth’s many memorable lines and finding ways to weave them into the warp and weft of daily life. Simon Callow’s absolutely marvelous mix of becoming the dissolute dabbler in the Dark Arts, depraved defiler of the dismally devoted and a death-wielding demon driven to direct despair and dismay, all the while playing an alternate role at the beginning and end of the film, is an pleasure to revel in and enjoy for his facial expressions, line delivery, body language and even the way he wears his costumes. There isn’t a time during CROWLEY where you aren’t looking forward to seeing him engage in his next act of wickedness, even when it is cringe-inducing. So, whether it is a somewhat convoluted but still engaging narrative that grabs the senses and the intellect, or it is a splendid mix of performers who do their jobs well, or even camera work that is consistently competent and helps to create imagery I can appreciate and take pleasure in, CROWLEY fires on all cylinders. It is not an instant classic, but it is not B-level cinema either. It is entertaining and I was surprised how quickly the hour and forty-five minute runtime passed.

CROWLEY has a surprisingly rich set of extras. There is an excellent audio commentary with director/writer Julian Doyle, writer Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden fame) and producer Ben Timlett. There is a 21 minute “Making of Crowley” featurette that is one of the better mixes of “behind the scenes” footage and cast & crew anecdotes/interview clips. What distinguishes this featurette from its brethren is the deeply appreciated lack of film clips. Too many “making of” documentaries are so heavily loaded with clips from a movie I just watched that it becomes an exercise in time wasted. The jewel of the bonus features is the 29 minute “Deleted Scenes” reel which is accompanied by text comments and comedic quips of the director. This featurette was one of the best looks into the mental processes of a director I have viewed, for I was able to see the scenes/segments that were cut AND read the director’s rationale and/or reminiscences about the experience. More bonus features need to do this. Finally, there is the film trailer to round out the supplements. After watching a film that I mentally connected with, I felt that the extras section also had respect for my intelligence and I left CROWLEY feeling like I had experienced a smart horror film, which doesn’t happen too often today.

While I have had a chance to meet many actors and actresses to whom I have been able to offer my admiration for their efforts, there are so many others whom I have not had a chance to pay my respects. The list is longer now, for while I have always liked Simon Callow, I now have a reason to remember him to the end of my days. When I watch a motion picture like CROWLEY during one of my many battles with insomnia and nearly ALL of the film stays with me the next day after I’ve had a chance to sleep on my viewing that is a VERY good sign. In addition, when I am bombarded by the sights and sounds of a bizarre, bombastic but still beneficent performance and a smile follows me through the exhaustive stretches of a gray and dreary morning that is worth a positive shout too. Not everyone will enjoy CROWLEY and there are some who will probably be shocked by some of its imagery. For those who like their horror to be a strange admixture of smart and a little sick reminiscent of BLUE VELVET, then CROWLEY may be worth watching late one night when the winds are howling through the bare branches of the trees, there is no moon in the sky and the stars look wan. Imagine that the Forces of Darkness are prowling the Cold Hour before Dawn and then turn on CROWLEY. My hope is that you are left somewhat unsettled after the viewing, for that is what a horror film should do.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

CRIPPLED CREEK (2005) d. Hans Hartman

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When people begin an exercise program, they generally expect something to happen to their health and a change to take place in the shape of their bodies, given enough effort and time elapsed. After the days and weeks have crawled by with much sweat having dripped down their forehead and no change or improvement having occurred, the exertion is often seen as useless and it tends to be discarded for other activities. Movies are often a lot like a failed workout regimen. After the minutes have dragged by and nothing much has happened in regards to the story or the characters, a lot of folks will abandon their cinematic torture and move on to some other film or even a different form of entertainment. Watching CRIPPLED CREEK made me realize that no amount of arduous physical strain, even the three-a-day soccer boot camp I lived through in high school, was ever as unpleasant as this viewing experience. While there are almost always a few things worth praising in most films, and I can find a few here too, I have dropped weights on my feet or torn muscles during cardio routines and those injurious moments felt better than my CRIPPLED CREEK ordeal. Maybe this is what it feels like to be “crippled”, seeing as I felt like I couldn’t escape from what I was forced to endure since doing a proper review means sitting through a motion picture to the bitter end.

CRIPPLED CREEK is the “story” of Mady Hooper, her cousin Bambie and their friend Aubry Laput, all young women eager to spend some time together off in the woods drinking, smoking, cursing, gabbing aimlessly and hitting on any guy who can potentially provide them with sexual stimulation. On their drive out to the wild and while they are staying at Mady’s grandparent’s wilderness hovel, the girls are warned that there have been strange happenings in these woods, but the three ignore the admonitions and proceed to find ways to amuse themselves, although most other people would find their methods of passing time rather mundane. After an interminably long time, the feeling that they are being watched grows on the girls and finally a killer decides it is time to start picking off the campers and their “boy toys” in a very “woodcrafty” fashion. By the end, a series of “killings” have occurred, not the least of which is 92 minutes of life that has been bludgeoned to death by the hefty hammer of tedium that is CRIPPLED CREEK.

If CRIPPLED CREEK was a student film, I hope that it was given a failing grade. If it was made by former film students, let us hope that they failed out of school, are working as laborers somewhere and made this appallingly boring movie in their spare time. Where does CRIPPLED CREEK go wrong? Just about everywhere. First and foremost, the story and the accompanying dialogue do almost nothing to build tension, develop characters, establish menace or initiate any kind of momentum. All actions in any plot and dialogue in a screenplay should advance the narrative, but that is rarely the case in CRIPPLED CREEK. We are treated to trite lines bandied back and forth between the girls that focus on their sexual interests, their desire to meet “cute guys” and occasionally there are short anecdotes that are reminiscent of “ghost stories” but have little or nothing to do with this story. Most of the interaction between the girls and their guy friends, Tom and Gary, is just as inane and sitting through these senseless moments of verbal intercourse is tantamount to cinematic throat clearing. Just as incredibly tedious are the actions of the characters. We get to see them walk through the woods, sit around a campfire, pass bottles of alcohol and/or pot pipes back and forth, make some food and occasionally find ways to copulate. We are even treated to three moments of voiding their bladders/bowels and one vomiting scene. What seemed to be the case here was that the makers of CRIPPLED CREEK took themselves, this project and their efforts entirely too seriously and in an attempt to create a horror film with a cinema verite feel or even a BLAIR WITCH aura, they created a snoozer of epic proportions. Not even the fact that the female cast members were surprisingly attractive both in face and figure and that all three are seen disrobed in one form or another is enough to jolt the plot out of a terrifyingly uninteresting rut the depth and breadth of the Grand Canyon.

It gets even worse. From an audio and visual standpoint, CRIPPLED CREEK looks and sounds like it was filmed using Fisher Price movie-making tools and then edited and finally encoded/authored on a Radio Shack close-out sale computer. The fact that it was shot on video wasn’t a good thing to start with and most of the camera angles were uninspired and the editing was not terribly exciting, but in the encoding or transfer process a graininess and pixel-y quality arose that makes CRIPPLED CREEK look worse than most of the 1980s VHS tapes I watched on my single head Sharp VCR and ancient Toshiba television. CRIPPLED CREEK often looked like it was projected onto a burlap sack that had none of the corn dust beaten out of it. What should have been the penultimate scenes in CRIPPLED CREEK, the murder moments, were also a total let down. The ideas for the “kills” that transpired were right out off Joseph Conrad’s The Most Dangerous Game and the reason for killing the campers seemed to evoke memories of THE FOREST (1981), but like so many other components of this misery-fest, they were not shot well or shot to be “creative” and ended up just being a mess. On the audio side, whoever miced the cast and possibly the people who mixed the sound didn’t know how to do their jobs either for the dialogue was nearly impossible to hear unless the actors were screaming. At that point, I was actually thankful for the overacting and poor performances for at least I could hear what was transpiring. There were a few moments where somewhat atmospheric incidental music was utilized and had this been done more often, some kind of “mood” might have been fashioned. What was usually the case was that “music” produced by rock bands who were probably friends or associates of the crew was laid over the dialogue and “action” sequences, but it ended up sounding like someone had left a radio on during the filming and occasionally remembered to turn it up. What may have been the greatest shame of the poor camera work and poorer video and audio techniques was that CRIPPLED CREEK was entirely shot in Connecticut and had a very authentic “camping trip” look to it. The exterior sets could have looked very attractive had we been able to see them cleanly and while none of the actors seemed like gifted thespians, I have seen worse portrayals and if we could have heard them better, maybe their lines might have made more of an impact.

Even the bonus features of CRIPPLED CREEK were a fiasco. On the back of the DVD case, it says that in addition to the “theatrical trailer” (this played in theaters somewhere?) that there was a “cast biography” section and a “production photo gallery” segment. HA! There was a trailer and that was it. If there were other extras to be had, they were the best hidden “easter eggs” devised yet for I couldn’t locate them. If there was any disc that needed extras to sweeten my soured heart, this was it, but there was nothing beyond a trailer that wasn’t much more interesting than the feature film.

It isn’t often that I tear apart a film that has some qualities that should make me cheer heartily for it. CRIPPLED CREEK was a New England effort and has three very comely actresses who were obviously willing to get naked for their “art”. There was a killer loose in the forest and the girls were forced to “dodge” him wearing tight tank tops and short shorts. The beefy bo-hunks who provided the much needed “man-meat” for the girls get their just desserts, for there is nothing worse than a useless and well-muscled boy toy in a “slasher” film. In the end, CRIPPLED CREEK is an outstanding study in horrendous execution on nearly every level from pre-production all the way to post-production. Just as someone toiling away in the weight room will get nothing out of their efforts if they don’t understand how to do it right, the people who made CRIPPLED CREEK obviously needed a lot of schooling when it comes to writing and making a motion picture. This movie should be used in college classes on how NOT to craft a horror film.

Monday, March 2, 2009

STASH (2009) d. Jacob Ennis

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Gritty crime dramas have long been a staple of the motion picture landscape. Even before the grisly days of the Black Dahlia case, stories about kidnapping, torture, drugs and larceny have been popular fodder for film makers and movie goers alike. Whether they are Big Time productions like THE CRYING GAME or small, independent efforts like THE CANDY SNATCHERS, spinning a yarn about depraved delinquents, sadistic sickos or villainous varmints has long struck a chord with writers, directors, actors and those who like to see them craft a flick that tackles these subjects. STASH is a modern twist on these age-old plot concepts and is able to mine a narrative that has been done many times before and blend some classic exploitation techniques, while sprinkling in a few updates to the well trodden tale to end up as a mildly entertaining film, not groundbreaking or terrifically impressive, but not a train-wreck either.

STASH is the story of Springhill College student Sarah Conrad, who is traveling the lonely roads of Eastern Kentucky on her way back home to see her parents and enjoy time at a family reunion. Just after a brief phone check in with her folks, Sarah experiences car trouble and finds herself stranded. Before long, two locals, C.J. and Stan, happen by and the seedy pair offer Sarah a ride to a service station. What starts as a kind gesture turns out to be a self-serving act of sinister brutality, as the two low-lifes hand Sarah over to Bud, a marijuana grower/pusher with a taste for kidnapping, torturing and raping young women. Sarah finds herself chained up in Bud’s basement enduring sickening torment deepening to a mindless nightmare. Even as Sarah sinks lower down the well of horror, her car is discovered by her worried father and the search for Sarah cranks up to high gear. Law enforcement races against time to save Sarah and the other girls C.J. and Stan have given as “tribute” to Bud before each wears out her usefulness or succumbs to the abuse the monster heaps on each captive.

STASH is not a great film and evidences many of the weaknesses of the exploitation genre of cinema, but there are also praiseworthy elements too. Like most exploitation movies, when you look at the box cover and see how lurid and licentious it appears to be, you may think you are in for a wild ride, and STASH is certainly a disturbing motion picture. What is surprising is how restrained most of the “violence” in this film is and how that sense of “implied violence” as opposed to grotesquely filmed “realistic violence” keeps STASH out of the “torture porn” category and rescues it from being another CARVER or SAW. What is also somewhat impressive is the sincere effort made at blending character melodrama (parental sequences) with suspense (police scenes) with menace and “action” (Bud’s torture scenes) and several other dramatic sequences involving character interplay and an actual story. What emerges is a movie that has its roots firmly in the rich soil of exploitation ancestry and feels like an updating of the Ginger movies of the 1970s. While those films (GINGER, THE ABDUCTORS and GIRLS ARE FOR LOVING) were about a female Mike Hammer and had a somewhat exotic cast and setting most of the time, STASH borrows the essence of what made the Ginger films enticing; cruelty, bondage, nudity, crime and long stretches where plot construction and character development were attempted. Typical of most exploitation fare, you think you’re going to get one thing, and you do to an extant, but there are other components built into the narrative that can work for or against the end product. In the case of STASH, while the plot wasn’t scintillating, it wasn’t boring either. STASH had a reasonably well-considered cast from a visual standpoint. Set in the hills of Kentucky, most of the characters looked and sounded like locals and were either average in appearance or downright unpleasant and displayed thick southern drawls, with the exception of C.J., whose irritating white-rapper affectation was one of the least pleasant aspects of STASH. The most attractive members of the cast were the female captives, as should be the case as they are the “bump & grind” vectors. It also didn’t hurt that as comely as Karen Boles (Sarah) was, she was also able to give a reasonably good performance, something that was most consistently absent in STASH. STASH was not filmed like Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN, but it was competently shot, had a good collection of simple but effective interior and exterior sets and most of the incidental music was thoughtfully utilized.

At this point, it must sound like STASH was a finely crafted independent movie and that you should rush out and buy. Hold your horses there Partner, you might want to hear the rest before you cause a dvd stampede. Much like exploitation cinema of the past, STASH has its share of weaknesses, most notably its penchant for poor acting. Whether it is overacting, woodenness, a lack of chemistry between the cast members or just foul-mouthed dialogue that was poorly delivered, STASH is not going to win any awards for its performances, but that is typical of the vast majority of its older cousins in this genre. If you go in knowing full well that these people are not gifted or experienced actors, you won’t be overly disappointed. STASH also suffers from a small degree of another exploitation cinema bane, padding. Fortunately there isn’t too much of this filler to make it feel like a Dick Randall movie, but it is apparent none-the-less and when Stan and his mother get into it or you’ve seen a few scenes with Sarah’s parents, you may want to hit the “fast forward” button, for the plot isn’t being advanced with any real momentum at these points. Despite having characters that weren’t terribly well-portrayed, most of the roles were either quietly likable, detestable (for the right reasons) or just neutral, but that wasn’t always the case. Whether it is my advancing age or some inner prejudice, the white-bread, frat boy, bad-goatee wearing turd named C. J. was nearly a deal-breaker for me and when coupled with miserably irritating rap music that accompanied his role, I really wondered if I would be able to make it through STASH in its introductory phase, the longest of which I have ever seen. Fortunately, the rap music dissipated, C. J. was not a regular occurrence and I was able to shrug off his baleful influence as one would hack up phlegm that needs expelling. Like most exploitation flicks, STASH has a fairly heady mix of engaging components and elements that just don’t measure up, but luckily, the good outweighs the bad in a very narrow competition and as such, I felt a degree of respect for what the film makers were able to achieve.

Typical of most EI Cinema releases, STASH has a sizable extras menu and while I can’t always recommend all the movies they foist on the world, one of the reasons I continue to feel good will toward them is their willingness to add tidbits and goodies to their discs. There are two audio commentary tracks, one with director/writer/producer Jacob Ennis and the other with executive producers Billy and Denise Blackwell. Both are worth your time. There is a 15 ½ minute “Making of Stash” that is a mix of cast/crew interviews, “behind the scenes” segments and film clips. It is pretty enjoyable, especially the interview clips. Next is an 8 ½ minute “Bloopers and Outtakes” reel which is fun but fairly standard fare. The 3 ½ minute makeup effects supplement “Creating Bud Jr.” is well worth a look and while not “cine-magic”, it is a thoughtful look at the effects process. For those looking for more iconic “scream queen” fodder, there is a 5 ½ minute interview called “Debbie Rochon on Stash” which should delight her fans and those viewers who like the connection to 80s/90s low budget times past. There is also Pownd’s music video “Still I Bleed” and then two trailer compilations, four trailers from Bloody Earth Films and nine trailers from Camp Motion Pictures. All in all, it may not by Paris, but it still feels like a pleasant little holiday to get extras of any type that lets you look into the minds of the people at the tiller. Kudos should definitely go out to the EI Cinema people for continuing to do things right in the vein of bonus features.

If you like the “gems” of exploitation heritage or don’t mind low budget attempts to tell a tale and be a little shameless at the same time, STASH could very well be for you. It is not nearly as naughty as it might want you to believe, but that was almost always the case once upon a time too. It isn’t a thrill a minute, but I wasn’t expecting it to be either. Like many folks who have watched far too many genre films, I knew what I was getting into and as a result, I was able to appreciate STASH for what it was, a flick designed to tell a very tried and true tale with a little bit of tension and titillation thrown in for good measure so that the people involved could make a paycheck and possibly collect a few royalties. Such was the case in the past and it is still true today. I don’t mind because I feel a lot better about giving my money to folk struggling to make a living like I am and who made a motion picture I kind of liked, rather than pouring cash down the crapper seeing a film where “suits” pulled all the strings, painted by numbers and created mud as a result. I know which one turns my stomach less. Do you?