Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rottweiler (Spain, 2004)

After initially wetting his toes as the producer of Stuart Gordon's first three and still best films (Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986) and Dolls (1987)), Brian Yuzna entered the realm of horror film direction in 1989 with Society, a flawed if not perversely entertaining horror film with a socially satiric edge. Since then, Yuzna has regularly been involved with numerous films of varying levels of success as producer, writer, director or some combination thereof.
As a director, he's experienced highs such as Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and lows such as Progeny (1998), but no matter how bad any of his films are or are not, they almost always tend to be interesting, if not highly watchable and entertaining — particularly for fans of low budget and b-films.
A long-term resident of Spain, the films he actually directs are slowly but surely featuring less and less Anglo actors and are resorting more and more to the dubbing that so-many a bad-film lover treasures in true Euro-trash. Rottweiler falls squarely within this neuvo euro-trash sphere: with the exception of one early-dead escapee, all roles seem to be filled by Spanish-speakers. The primary source of the film is likewise Spanish: although credited to a story by the Spanish novelist Alberto Vázquez Figueroa, in all likelihood Rottweiler is probably based on his novel El Perro, which was already filmed in Spain as a political thriller in 1976.
This time around, however, Yuzna and his scriptwriter (Miguel Tejada-Flores, who did the script to the much better Screamers in 1995) have converted the dog into a canine Terminator and thus moved away from political allegory and towards sci-fi trash. And don't have any doubts about it, Rottweiler is indeed trash, but as simple as its storyline is, Yuzna milks the film for all it's worth. (Hell, if he can’t fit in another human to be shredded by the dog, then he’ll at least include a chicken!) OK, if you wanna toss in some intellectual claptrap, you might draw comparisons between the character's name (Dante) and his continual journey to find his gal (and redemption) with that old Italian classic we all had to read in school, but since (among other things) this flick's lost woman is called "Ula" and not "Beatrice" the comparison doesn’t go far.
Set in 2018, Rottweiler kicks off with Dante arriving at a chain gang and promptly escaping chained to another prisoner, but before the film has the chance of becoming some sci-fi version of The Defiant Ones (1958), the dog makes mincemeat of the black prisoner and then conveniently concentrates on his soul food lunch long enough for Dante to escape. The rest of the film flips back and forth between flashbacks of how Dante got in his situation — he and his fellow anti-establishment gal Ula (Irene Montalà) got their thrills by putting themselves in dangerous situations; unluckily, while accompanying illegal immigrants entering the land by water, they run afoul of Borg (Paul Naschy), an evil symbol of capitalism and the danger turns real — and Dante's quest to get to the city Puerto Angel, where he now thinks Ula is. Quickly caught by a chain gang guard and the dog, Dante manages to kill both and escape again, but five minutes later the dog is revealed to be a canine terminator that never stops...
In the end,
Rottweiler probably isn’t a very good film, but anyone who has the slightest fear of dogs will probably cringe in their seats and there are a few nice aspects to it — among others that the relatively defenseless hero ends up even more defenseless as one point and spends a good 10 minutes on the run both barefoot and nude (that’s what I call realism — not like in the much better sci-fi flick Larva in which a hot bit-part babe manages to get her bra back on before she goes on the run) and, best of all, a totally downer of an ending (more realism — sorta). All in all, considering that the flick is just one 91-minute-long chase film in which an innocent man on the run is pursued by a robo-dog bent on killing anything and everyone that crosses its path, Rottweiler zooms by quickly and effectively. And for a b-film, what more can you ask?

Bang Boom Bang – Ein todsicheres Ding (Germany, 1999)

In his debut feature film, Peter Thorwarth managed to prove that Thomas Jahn's Knockin' On Heaven's Door (1997) wasn't some lucky fluke, but that Germany, the land supposedly lacking all humor, is also fully capable of producing some of the most blackly humorous, quickly paced postmodern crime films around. (Well, OK, it did so twice — the pickings have been pretty dry since then.)
Displaying a light touch that reveals both a deep knowledge of film and technique, with Bang Boom Bang – Ein todsicheres Ding Thorwarth made a film that continuously entertains and never bores, successfully combining numerous characters, narrative twists and story-threads into a satisfying whole. The seemingly loose script ties up tightly in the end, the good dialogue and clear characterization underscored by some excellent "type" casting, the visuals a constant treat of sight gags and surprises, not to mention some excellent directorial flourishes. Combine all that with good editing, fine cinematography and some excellent music, and you got one good fucking film.
Not that one would expect Bang Boom Bang to be any good if one doesn't make it past the first scene, in which the obnoxious jailbird Kalle (Ralf Richter) gives an aggravating tirade about wanting his dream car and girlfriend (in pumps) waiting outside of the jail when he gets released in two years. The guy is disgusting, and though the scene gets nervous laughs, one doesn't laugh with him or actually find him funny. Kalle is doing time for a bank robbery, the deal with his partner Keek (Oliver Korittke) being that Kralle does the time and then, once released, gets 90% of the take remaining. Unknown to Kralle, Keek, a video junkie whose brains have gone to mush from too much hash and too many crappy videos, has lost the money on horse races and is in no way capable of either buying the car Kralle has arranged or ever even paying him what he is owed. When Keek unwittingly gives Kralle a hardcore porno video featuring Kralle's slut girlfriend as the bonking babe, Kralle blows a fuse and escapes, forcing Keek to take more desperate measures to get the cash needed.
Teaming up with his friend Andy (Markus Knüfken), a hot-headed local soccer player and mechanic, they get involved with the local loser Schlucke (Martin Semmelrogge) in a plan they think is to rob the crooked businessman Werner Kampmann (Diether Krebs). Propelled by greed, desire, stupidity, bad luck, revenge and chance, people die, a thumb gets locked in a safe, porno shoots get disrupted and everything dawdles out of control, much to the viewer's delight.
Filmed in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany's central industry area commonly called the "Ruhrgebiet," Thorwarth makes good use of the area's overall grayness to underscore the bleak lives of his characters, all the men of which are too dense or brainless to realize the innate pointlessness and stupidity of their actions. (Don't be mistaken, though — this film is no "message film," and its last scene purposely takes the piss out of the little message Bang Boom Bang might have.)

Retroactive (USA, 1997)

(Spoilers) This tasty little film can easily be described as Groundhog Day (1993) from hell. Morneau, who has displayed no exceptional talent in many of his films — which include Final Judgment (1992 / full movie), Carnosaur 2 (1995 / trailer), Bats (1999 / trailer) and Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting For You (2003 / trailer) — has managed to deliver an exciting, engrossing film that keeps one both on the edge of the seat and interested in the events.
True, the first ten minutes used to set up the time travel concept are less than promising, especially after the film's properly brooding and artsy opening credits sequence, but once Karen (Kylie Travis) meets up with Frank (James Belushi) and Rayanne (Shannon Whirry), things definitely get going. Accepting a lift from the two after her car breaks down on some lonely Texan highway, she lives to regret it repeatedly. James Belushi, whose busy career has gone downhill qualitatively since Salvador (1986 / trailer) and Red Heat (1988 / trailer), is perfectly cast as a psychopathic redneck Texan sporting both Elvis sideburns and his beer-gut. Flipping out when learning of his wife's extramarital activities, he blows Rayanne's brains out and goes after Karen, who barely manages to get away, taking refuge in an underground laboratory where Brian (Frank Whaley, miscast as usual) is conducting time travel experiments for the government.
Whoops! Fuck up at the controls, and she gets sent back twenty minutes and finds herself in the back seat of Frank's car, ready to try to stop the carnage that she knows is ahead. Not only does she fail miserably, but this time the carnage is even worse! The cycle repeats itself again and again, every attempt by Karen to stop the violent chain of events only resulting in more destruction and an ever increasing body count. Much like in Final Destination (2000 / trailer), Death doesn’t seem to take lightly to any attempts to cross his plans, but unlike the supernatural powers at work in that teeny horror bodycount film, the violence in Retroactive is powered (mostly) by redneck stupidity and hormones.
Retroactive delivers much more than either its title or synopsis leads one to expect. Well acted, shot and edited, the ending is even good, offering a semi-downer not normally found in this type of celluloid adventure. Both main babes are a pleasure to look at, even if they do keep their clothes on, and the smaller roles are as excellently cast — as Frank is — and though filmed in California, one never doubts for a moment that this isn't hell in re-play somewhere in Buttfuck, Texas.

Kylie Travis, whose main claim to fame was regular roles in television's Models, Inc and Central Park West, does well as Karen, convincingly developing the inner-strength a person would need to go through all that she does. Shannon Whirry, a b-film specialist who has flit through many an "erotic thriller" is surprisingly likeable and sympathy arousing as the abused wife, even if she is too beautiful for her part. The only weak link in the chain in Retroactive is Frank Whaley, whose baby face hasn't stood out so obviously since Broken Arrow (1996 / trailer). He holds his own a bit better later in the film after he starts getting his hands dirty, but as a scientist specializing in time travel experiments he leaves a lot to be desired. All in all, though, Morneau delivers the goods times four in Retroactive.

The Rosary Murders (USA, 1987)

Due to its plot, The Rosary Murders demands comparison to Alfred Hitchcock's relatively weak but nonetheless more interesting movie I Confess (1953), but truth be told, neither film is all that good. Director Fred Walton also made the more entertaining body count spoof April Fool's Day the same year as this film, but all in all, none of his films have ever been all that exciting. Even the involvement of Elmore Leonard as co-scripter didn't help this celluloid sleeping pill, a dull movie which unbelievably enough even has an uninvolving turn by Donald Sutherland as Father Koesler, a priest with a problem. (As if being a priest isn't a big enough problem in the first place.) Someone is killing priests and nuns in Detroit for no apparent reason, always leaving a black rosary on his victims as his calling card. After the unidentified murderer confesses his actions to the popular local priest Father Koesler (Sutherland), the holy man undertakes to discover who the murderer is, despite being bound by religious law to not reveal what is said in the confessional and, in turn, what he learns while playing detective. The good man quickly traces everything back to a father of a young girl who committed suicide. Seems she couldn't deal with the incessant sexual molestation her religiously fanatic father constantly subjected her to. Like any good nutcase, Daddy now blames the church for his daughter's suicide and is killing the clerics as revenge. As we all know, every killer needs a logical and believable way to choose his victims. In that snoozathon The January Man (1989), the murderer chooses his victims after the notes of a song, in Manhunter (1986) the victims get chosen indiscriminately from family photos, and in The Rosary Murders the Killer daddy chooses his victims by the similarity between their names and the ten commandments. (Okay, sure, why not?) Along the way he also kills a few innocents bystanders — a cop here and there as well as some old lady — but those murders happen more or less in passing. Of course, no film critical of organized religion can be all that bad, and neither is The Rosary Murders, providing you like your movies bloodless and dull. (Maybe William X. Kienzle's novel on which the film is based might be a bit better, but it seems unlikely.) For a much more interesting murder-among-the-religious flick, catch Alice, Sweat Alice/Communion instead.

The Pleasure Garden (Great Britain, 1952)

A 36 minute art-flick oddity made in England by the forgotten American poet/writer/filmmaker James Broughton, filmed in a contrast-rich black and white, featuring a whimsical innocence in its surrealism that doesn’t stop the film from getting tedious. Set amongst the beautiful if not almost magical looking ruins of what once was obviously an impressive estate garden, this avant-garde film has less in common with the violently aggressive surrealism of Bunuel and Dali’s L'Age d'Or (1930) than it does with the at that time not yet existent simplicity and overstatement of children’s fantasy TV. A celebration of freedom and the bohemia of the early 50’s, The Pleasure Garden exudes a positive, pro-life energy, despite a suicide that happens almost in passing. Mildly engrossing to those researching the development of modern non-commercial/ underground films along the lines of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and early Curtis Harrington, the film's predictability isn’t half as annoying as the overly simplified stereotypes are. Cute, but not crucial — unless you’re a first semester art student.

Dark City (USA, 1998)

A rare film indeed. Dark City is nothing less than a masterpiece, both as a science fiction film and as a simple visionary, cinematic experience. This, of course, helps to explain why the film was such a flop, disappearing from the screens almost as quickly as it appeared, relegated to the nether regions of unjust obscurity. As is proved again and again: "Never overestimate the intelligence of the public." They cry for, desperately await and then rush to see something (not just once but some dozen times) as emotionally empty and uninteresting as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), but when something truly creative comes their way, they let it slip by unnoticed, unloved, and never to be seen. The loss to the masses means only the greater gain for the few that one day stumble upon this film, for it allows that additional special joy one has when suddenly seeing an unknown masterpiece for the first time.
A masterful crossbreeding of film noir and science fiction, Dark City is aptly named, for it features a city darker than any of the dank, shadowy urban horrors to be found in the classic film noir or German expressionistic masterpieces. Much more than in his previous film The Crow (1994), which is more famous for being the film in which Brandon Lee died than for being one of the best comic book adaptations ever, director Alex Proyas creates both a city and a situation that is as convincing as it is fantastic. And though a nonstop rush of visual and special effects, the story never is overshadowed or drowned by what is seen on screen. Unlike The Mummy (1999),for example, none of the CGI ever come across as being a replacement for content or plot, but serve instead to enhance and support both the story and theme. Filled with enough intellectual and philosophical asides to keep geeks and trivialists busy for years, Dark City nonetheless never sinks into intellectual pretentiousness, and delivers all it wants to say in the language of popular entertainment. As unbelievable as it sounds, this film has its cake and eats it, too.
Though few will notice it, Dark City opens with a direct reference to The Bible, The Book of John, 6:14, which refers to the coming of the savior. John Murdoch (played by a sleepy-eyed Rufus Sewell) awakens in room 614 of some seedy hotel, naked in the bathtub, bereft of memory but saddled with the body of a bloody, naked woman. The telephone rings and the raspy, gasping voice of Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) tells him he is in great danger and must leave the room, for the Strangers are coming. Mere seconds ahead of the white-faced, bowler-wearing men in their long, fur-lined overcoats, John flees into the gloomy night of a city in which the sun never shines with no idea of who or what he is or where he belongs. Bit by bit, the clues seem to indicate that he is a serial killer, the murderer of six prostitutes. But as Inspector Frank Bumstead (an unusually effective William Hurt) muses at one point, what type of murderer slaughters women but takes the time to save a goldfish? After taking a brief respite with streetwalker May (Melissa George, Australian Playboy playmate of March 1997, whose attributes we have the pleasure of seeing again), John returns to Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly — as beautiful as always but, regrettably, unlike in The Hot Spot (1990), she keeps her perfect body completely covered this time around), the wife he cannot remember but nonetheless feels love for. The clue to everything seems to lie at Shell Beach, his supposed place of birth outside the city, a location which seems impossible to get to. Forever on the run from the Strangers and the police, John witnesses how at the stroke of midnight the whole city fall asleep and how whole aspects of it change and grow, seemingly at the will of the Strangers out to get him. They are aliens, creatures of unknown origin — as Dr. Schreber says, "First came the darkness, then came the strangers" — that use bodies as their containers and that, in their search to discover and understand the human soul, use Dark City as a living test tube. It seems they control the very fabric of reality of the city, and the memories of all its inhabitants are of their creation. In an attempt to capture John, one of them, Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien, known to many from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)), has the memories intended for John injected into himself. (As he later tells John, "I have become the monster you were intended to be.") Eventually John, with the help of Busmtead and Schreber, discovers the secret of Dark City, but will it help to save either him or Emma?
Watch this film and find out — you definitely won't be disappointed. Dark City is a masterpiece of action and special effects, with a story that moves from convoluted to completely logical even as it remains wonderfully fantastic. Whether watched as a cinematic masterpiece or a simple sci-fi action flick, Dark City delivers more than most films of either kind. It deserves to be rediscovered; do your part in helping this.

Hollow Point (Canada, 1995)

When looking at the name of the director of Hollow Point, one hardly finds any promise that the film might be worth watching. Sidney J. Furie, a long time Hollywood stalwart, started his career making such films as Snake Woman (1961), Dr. Blood’s Coffin (1961) and The Leather Boys (1963) and eventually went on to do the worst of all Christopher Reeve Superman films, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Obviously, his name hardly spells quality. Still, between Furie’s entertainingly humble beginnings and present status as a direct-to-video film director, he did have a few notable highpoints. There were a few hit spy films in the 1960s, and a few other moneymakers in the following two generations, including Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and, best of all, The Entity (1981). (Lady Sings the Blues is a quality, non-sleaze Hollywood entry into Blaxploitaion, narrating the “true” story of Billie Holiday’s life and starring Diane Ross and Billy Dee Williams. The Entity, on the other hand, is probably a film that Barbara Hershey would best have forgotten, featuring her in the starring role of a woman continually being stripped and raped by an invisible ghost. Featuring an explosively over-the-top ending and unconvincing final 5 minutes that tries to present both female self-discovery and empowerment alongside the typical idea of “the horror continues,” The Entity also features numerous scenes of a naked Hershey having her tits mauled by invisible hands... Great stuff, in other words.)
When considering the names of those starring in Hollow Point, one can almost only feel dread. Starring John Lithgrow, Donald Sutherland, Tia Carrere and Thomas Ian Griffith, the headlining cast is hardly a promise of quality. Tia Carrere, born Althea Janairo in Honolulu in 1967, is a nice looking babe with gravity defying orbs that seem to have gotten bigger since Wayne’s World (1991), but as an actress she is hardly known for her taste or talent, despite having graced such masterpieces as Zombie Nightmare (1986), Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991) and Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man (1991). (Her most important scenes in Showdown in Little Tokyo, the sex scenes with the supposedly lethally endowed — in the film at least — Dolf Lundgrum, were all done with a body double — although, going by the photo above, she didn't need to.) Her chiseled Hollow Point co-star Thomas Ian Griffith, though he did make a good looking Rock Hudson in the 1990 TV film of the same name, isn’t actually even known at all. John Lithgrow’s name does present more promise, for despite the number of turkeys he’s taken part in, he usually is still a shining light in terms of the acting, as he was in the two Brian De Palma mistakes Blow Out (1981) and Raising Cain (1992) and the entertaining World According To Garp (1982). Still, 1967 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard and Fullbright Scholarship aside, Lithgrow often shows no intelligence in terms of his choice in movie scripts, and more often than not wastes his talents in worthless trash. The same can almost be said of Donald Sutherland, a man who seemingly never stops working. But unlike Lithgrow, Sutherland’s choices tend more towards odd than bad. No matter how odd his choice in scripts are, he is normally a standout aspect of whatever he takes part in, whether it be a swan-song production for an aging movie queen like Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), an overrated comedy like MASH (1970), a dreamy horror thriller like Don't Look Now (1973), a foreign arthouse oddity like Casanova (1976), a piece of teenage summer fluff like Buffy The Vampire Killer (1992) or a Big Budget Hollywood production like Outbreak (1995). Capable of overacting in ways that surpass anything ever done by even the legendary Shelley Winters, he likewise shares Ms. Winters' eccentricity and diversity in terms of script selection, moving freely between top Hollywood productions, independent projects and trashhouse grime.
So how, then does this brew mix? Pretty damned well, actually. Diane Norwood (Carrere) is an embittered FBI agent tired of being called (and treated like a) “sweetheart” by her coworkers, Max Parrish (Griffin) is a pill-popping drug-addicted ex-DEA agent out to regain his job and Garrett Lawton (Sutherland) a killer for hire who has grown bored with his job. For a variety of reasons they more or less team up against Thomas Livingston (Lithgrow), a money launderer with a Napoleon complex who sidelines as a sort of New Age guru for a multi-ethnic group of three Mafioso bosses. Like most screwball comedies, little or nothing of the film is remembered within a few days, but while being watched, it does keep you laughing. Hollow Point is neither a message film nor hardcore sleaze, it is simply an entertaining, well made B-film that manages to actually surprise; a truly unexpected treat, a screwball comedy full of action, laughs, violent death, explosions and verbal foreplay, featuring some of the funniest characterizations seen in films — B-films, at least — in a long time. There ain’t a serious aspect to the whole film, and more than one aspect of the film is morally questionable at best, but it’s all so much fun, who gives a fuck? How often is there a film in which a drug addict, a killer and a less than honest FBI are the heroes? That alone makes Hollow Point a film worth seeing. Even the Little Lady will probably like this flick.

Raw Meat (Great Britain, 1972)

Made in England by American director Gary Sherman, Raw Meat (aka Death Line) is a filthy little low budget slow mover featuring few of the type of unexpected twists found in Sherman’s later film, Dead & Buried (1981) or the violent sleaze of Vice Squad (1982), but which is overflowing with the same basic ineptitude Sherman displays in the horrendous Poltergeist III (1988).
Opening with a catchy, bass-heavy discofied jazz score played over a mildly stylish and cheap credit sequence, the film goes steadily downhill from scene one, and has little to offer other than an occasionally artsy-fartsy use of camera and sound effects, a short, pleasant shovel through the face scene and a lot of drooling. As badly acted as the main hero's and heroine's haircuts are ugly, the video version of "Death Line" I watched suffered from an over-all murky sound that rendered much of what was said impossible to understand — one hopes the current DVD version is better, but whether an improved transfer would actually improve the film is doubtful.
Donald Pleasance plays an incompetent and disinterested inspector who realizes something isn't right down in the Underground, where people keep disappearing or being killed, and Christopher Lee makes one of his typical, top-billed 1-minute-5-lines-spoken appearances as an MI5 official, complete with an absolutely ridiculous fake mustache.
The story is loosely based on the old Sawny Bean legend, only this time, instead of featuring an inbred family of Scottish cannibal mutants living in caves, there are only two inbred English cannibal, plague-infected mutants living in deserted subway tunnels, the last survivors of a mixed-sex group of subway diggers buried alive in an accident during the 19th century. The film plods predictably along, complete with dead men that blink, a lot of long slow pans over decayed and half eaten bodies, and numerous lengthy close ups of the main-mutants pus-dripping face as he drools all over the place. (Not a man you would like to have over as a dinner guest.) Things really begin to get exciting when Mrs. Mutant up and dies. Mr. Mutant does the obligatory moaning and groaning and scenes of being broken hearted before going off in search of a new Mrs., setting his sights on none other than — surprise!! — our ugly heroine, whom he promptly kidnaps and slobbers all over. Regrettably, his new found happiness is short lived, as the ugly hero succeeds where so many others had failed, not only in finding the mutant's secret home, but in vanquishing the pus-dripping fiend with a flashlight.
A truly Shakespearean script, to say the least, and a truly lousy film. Much like the definitely far classier English "classic" The Devil Rides Out, Raw Meat leaves one with the impression that all those fans out there that tout the film as a classic have never even actually seen it.

Screamers (USA, 1995)

(Spoilers) Based on Philip K. Dick's short story Second Variety, Screamers is an oft but unjustly maligned low budget science fiction film that is far better video fodder than many a movie with ten times its budget. Director Christian Duguay manages once again to transcend both his script and his actors and deliver a film that is both entertaining and, in total, greater than its parts.
Peter Weller, best remembered for being a lousy actor, surprises by doing another one of his periodic good acting turns, this time as the film's cynical hero Hendrickson. True, his emotional emoting is as wooden ever, but the rest of the time he is both convincing and likable. Screamers is definitely one of his less embarrassing genre entries, miles above Of Unknown Origin (1983), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984) or Naked Lunch (1991) but not quiet up there with RoboCop (1987) — more like a bit better than Leviathan (1989), a highly entertaining low budget Alien-under-the-water C film. As Jessica, Jennifer Rubin is pleasant to watch, even if she never does show enough skin. Odd that her career has never gone anywhere: not only has she not made a film since 2001, her only other truly memorable role is still her first, that of the ex-junkie who dies from a fistful of needles in her arm in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). Simpatico number three is Ace Jefferson (Andy Lauer), who plays the sole surviving soldier of the crashed spaceship at the beginning of the film.
The core idea of Screamers is one that is a favorite in the Star Trek spin-offs of the late 80s and 90s, that of technology developing beyond itself. In The Next Generation, there is Data and the occasional single episode entity like Dr. Moriarty or pipe cleaning robots, in Voyager there is the Doctor, and in Screamers there are the screamers, little robots with built-in circular saws created to hunt and kill. Throw in a little Shakespeare and the theme of futility of war, add a bunch of inhuman killer kids ala The Brood (1979) or Village of the Damned (1960/1993) and let it all loose on a war torn,
dead planet full of cavernous, underground compounds and you got one little nifty B-film.
The action transpires in 2078 on the distant planet of Sirus 6B, where a never ending war has been going on for much too long, the planet long since having become a desolate hell. After victim number one gets shredded by a screamer and a big spaceship crashes, Hendrickson decides to investigate if the shredded delivery boy was actually delivering a peace message or not, and leaves for the long trek to the enemy compound with the Ace Jefferson in tow. Once there, they hook up with what seems to be the last three survivors in the compound and discover that the screamers have evolved into self-replicating humanoid killers still bent on killing humans. To paraphrase what one screamer says late in the film, "We can laugh, we can cry, we can bleed — we can fuck."
By the end of Screamers everyone but Hendrickson is dead, and though he leaves the planet on an emergency shuttle, it is made more than clear that he won't be reaching earth in one piece. The ending has often been castigated as being a cheap and easy lead-in for an eventual sequel, but it can also be construed on a much different level, especially since in modern Hollywood practice, no lead-in is needed for a sequel. The inferred inevitable death of Hendrickson after what seems like a semi-happy end merely underscores the cynical, depressing anti-war attitude that needles its way throughout what is otherwise basically a sci-fi shoot 'em up film. It serves less to lead in to a possible sequel than simply underline the film's minimal thematic justification.
The special effects were top notch at the time, especially for the film's budget, but some of them have aged badly. The story has some big holes in its development, plot and logic, but the acting is good, atmosphere excellent, characterization instantaneous but rounded, and the action well choreographed.
Watch this baby — you'll probably like it. I know I did.

Her Name Is Cat (Hong Kong, 1998)

The slight plot that is to be found in Her Name Is Cat has John, a lonely, mid-divorce detective, figuring out that a dreamy-eyed, child-loving beauty named Cat is out killing the Triad Bosses. Hot on her trail (tail?), Cat turns the tables on our hero by infiltrating his life, befriending his whining little daughter, smoking his cigars in his apartment while wearing his clothes and, eventually, after taking refuge with the detective after being injured, having some bondage-tinted sex with him. Yep, true love blossoms, so when our detective pisses off the top Triad Boss — who promptly puts a contract out on him — Cat saves John (obliterating her previous partner/boyfriend’s killer bitch new partner/mate along the way). The two lovebirds sail off on a borrowed yacht for a long, boring romantic interlude during which they perform a homegrown marriage ceremony (that includes becoming blood siblings) and stand around half-naked. But, of course, their happiness is short lived, for the police catch up with them and arrest Cat, who is convinced that John set her up and that he, like all men, is actually scum...
Lacking in continuity and padded with the superfluous, the director (“Ford Clarence” — or Clarence Fok Yiu-leun) often relies too much on style when he should have thought more about story, continuity or (a little bit of) logic, especially since he doesn’t seem to really have much of a grip on style either. Her Name Is Cat is yet another Hong Kong multi-violent shoot 'em up film about a female assassin with commitment problems. Prone to wearing tight T-shirts without bras and taking part in prolonged, sweaty exercise programs, she works for Sister Shin, who heads an assassin ring and seems to hold all her meetings in a church when she's not showering Cat with lesbian-toned attention. A sleazy little movie that tries to get away with as much skin and sex as was probably allowed in Hong Kong films at that time, its typically explosive but excellent shoot outs and indulgently choreographed fight scenes are interspersed with many-too-many long, boring scenes of uninteresting romance and sex, or dull scenes that may more or less explain the inane storyline's development but completely fail to make the characters all that interesting. (Beyond Hypothermia (1996) this film ain't.)
As always with these Hong Kong sleaze feasts, Her Name is Cat does feature some entertainingly extreme, noteworthy ideas — like a flashback establishing Cat's past relationship to the opposing assassins in which the man, her ex-lover, not wanting her to have his baby, keeps punching her in the stomach to induce an abortion, or when, at the climactic fight, Sister Shin gets impaled by a cast iron crucifix. Regrettably the film as a whole is a yawn, even if the babes are all hot. Definitely not the best that Hong Kong has to offer, and is not bad enough to be laughably enjoyable — but obviously popular enough to have warranted a "sequel" two years later, Her Name is Cat 2.

Sorority House Massacre (USA, 1986)

One of the best titles from the "Golden Age" of slasher films hides one of the all-time worst entries to the genre. It is of no surprise that no one involved in this turkey went on to have any career of note; what is surprising is that the movie eventually spawned a sequel, Jim Wynorski's Sorority House Massacre II (1990). But then, producer Roger Corman always knew a good title when he saw one. (Oddly enough, the flashbacks from S.H.M. II don't even come from S.H.M. I, but are instead lifted from the far superior Slumber Party Massacre (1982), a film primarily remembered today for having been written by Rita Mae Brown.) In truth, while both Sorority House Massacres are pretty crappy, Wynorski's celluloid abortion is the more enjoyable of the two, for he at least fills the screen with numerous shots of naked flesh and mounds of silicon and also evidences some humour. The tits in Carol Frank's film, most of which are shown in one boring and pointless scene in which three of the girls try on every dress belonging to a sorority sister gone for the weekend, may be all natural but they are unimpressive. Too little, too late and too uninteresting.
Director Carol Frank actually worked as an assistant on Slumber Party Massacre, which may be the reason she managed to get the job to write and direct this film. But, aside for a few well made, creepy dream sequences, this unoriginal and dull piece of shit is a perfect lesson on how not to make a horror film. Neither scary nor campy enough to be fun, one of the biggest horrors of the film is the 1980's wardrobe; women who dress like that deserve to die. The only thing in the movie more horrendous than the wardrobe is the film music, a typically dreadful and generic 1980's synthesizer score "composed" by Michael Wetherwax, who obviously simply turned on the tape machine and then indiscriminately pressed the keys, making a point to keep a single key pressed throughout any scene that should supposedly be scary. Much like the composer, director Frank also obviously didn't have an original idea in her head, for seldom has there been a film that rips off Halloween (1978) more than this one. In that few films towards the end of the "Golden Age" didn't do so, the unoriginality of the story isn't reason enough to write the film off. But when an unoriginal film also features a total lack of tension, a meandering pace, dull characters and equally uninteresting murders, then it is time to go to bed. Frank even makes the unforgivable mistake of starting the movie as a flashback being told from the hospital bed of the sole survivor — a mistake so grievous that even Hustler magazine's writing specs for fiction specifically says "no flashbacks" — thus negating the important question of "who's gonna make it?" and robbing the film of any possible suspense. When a movie evidences as little talent as this one, the viewer can only find solace in knowing that luckily for the world of horror, the director has yet to make another film — as is true for most of the actors involved.
In this version of Halloween, Beth (Angela O'Neill) arrives at Theta Omega Theta, her sorority to be, for Memorial Weekend and is promptly plagued by visions and dreams of a knife-wielding maniac and dead people with pick-axes in their chest. Somewhere else in the state, deep in the bowels of an empty high school — oh, excuse me: of a nut house — catatonic Bobby (John C. Russell) suddenly starts getting all uppity. Surprise! He kills an orderly, gets a pass for weekend leave and starts on his trip back to his old home where many years ago he pick-axed his parents to death and knifed all but one of his sisters. Back at Theta Omega, all but Beth and three others have left for the weekend. Eventually the boyfriends arrive, so the body count can begin! But first, through hypnosis, Beth learns that as a child she used to live in the very house the sorority is in, and that she is the only survivor of the legendary massacre that happened there. She is Bobby's sister! Well, Bobby arrives and everyone gets knifed and dies but — as was revealed at the film's start — for Beth, who manages at the last minute to knife Bobby through the throat.
Hell, skip this piece of shit and go straight to the sequel: if nothing else, S.H.M. II proves that Jim Wynorski doesn't just make bad films…

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Night of the Living Dead (1968, USA)

(A ramble with spoilers.) What can be said about this film that hasn't already been said? It is still a film that any and all fans of modern horror films has to see at least once to properly be allowed to call themselves a fan. Of course, fans of the modern day zombie film — especially the new turbo-energized rampaging zombies so popular for the Romero-film-based remakes — might find this filmic patriarch both slow moving and low on the gore. But for as creaky and dated the film sometimes seems, Night of the Living Dead still unnerves, scares, enthralls and works. There is a valid reason that Night of the Living Dead was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1999: it may be a cheap horror film, but nonetheless the ingredients happened to mix in that special, unplanned way that leads to an unexpected masterpiece. Likewise, the film also introduces a modern icon of horror: that of the flesh eating zombie. Prior to Night of the Living Dead, zombies may have been dead, but they were primarily unthinking slaves/henchmen/servants; since then, basically, all they want is a warm lunch.
Inspired by EC Horror Comics and, possibly, the underappreciated Last Man on Earth (1964) — an Italo-version of Richard Matherson's novel I Am Legend which is actually the first film to feature slowly shambling living un-dead out to kill the living — Night of the Living Dead was a labor of love from a number of people who hoped that the film would take them to bigger and better things, though no one involved probably realized that they were taking part in creating a true masterpiece of modern horror, an event which none of them were ever to repeat again.
A true low-budget film, Night of the Living Dead was filmed in the countryside outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mostly on weekends. When money would run out the pauses between filming were even longer, so the final product took 30 days over a seven-month period. To save costs, some investors took over important rolls, such as that of Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), while others doubled as zombies — matricide victim Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), for example, is seen briefly as a bug-eating zombie. Featuring an inexperienced cast and crew of unknowns, even director George Romero himself, while a dedicated 8MM filmmaker since his childhood and a local producer of commercials and industrial films, had no actual experience in feature film making. (According to Danny Peary in the book Cult Movies, Romero's only previous experience with feature film was as a 19-year-old grip for Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959).)
Romero himself, despite many an interesting film since then, including The Crazies/Code Name: Trixie (1973), Martin (1978), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Creepshow (1982), has never really managed to achieve an as successful alchemist's mixture as he did in his first film — though he did come close with Martin and Dawn of the Dead. In truth, however, after seeing what he delivered in Land of the Dead (2005), the worst of a row of increasingly disappointing films, it is probably safe to assume he will never make another truly good film. (Still, how many directors can truly claim, as he can, to have invented a whole new horror sub-genre? For all the crap he has made since then, he still deserves respect for that.)
At the time when Romero had finished the mother of all flesh-eating undead movies, actually, the original industry response was relatively disinterested — not surprising, considering the overall bleakness of Night of the Living Dead. (Likewise, it came just at the time when B&W film was falling out of favor due to the competition of television.) Both AIP and Columbia turned the film down when it was offered to them, and had the Walter Reade Organization not taken it on to round out triple features and drive-in showings, who knows how long it would've taken to be discovered. But they did, and word-of-mouth and unexpected critical popularity did the rest...
As mentioned before, today's standards Night of the Living Dead is relatively bloodless, the average pay-TV production or PG-rated movie featuring more blood and guts than this zombie fest (although the uncut matricide scene does still rate high in shock value). Nonetheless, it still packs a gritty punch, it pessimism and claustrophobia overcoming its dated aspects enough to convincingly dish out a horrific mixture of everyone's most common fears, that of being alone, defenseless and vulnerable in an increasingly uncontrollable and unexplainable life-threatening situation — in the dark. Like all of Romero's best films, Night of the Living Dead is populated primarily by flawed, if not completely unsympathetic heroes — people just like you or me or the jerk next door, not some exceptionally good-looking and super-intelligent Übermensch from Planet Hollywood — thus making all that happens all the more realistic.
The film starts off innocently enough with Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny driving to some distant cemetery to put the yearly bouquet on their father's grave. Johnny's brotherly taunting of "They're coming to get you, Barbra" suddenly taking a terrifying turn when the tall, gaunt man stumbling around the cemetery actually does first attack Barbra and then kills her protective brother. (That the zombie continues after Barbra instead of first chomping on her brother is one of the lapses in logic the story sometimes suffers, but such flaws are easy to overlook in the excitement of the moment, especially since the concept of logic is actually rather misplaced anyway when talking about flesh-chewing living dead.) Escaping to a deserted farmhouse populated seemingly only with a half-eaten corpse on the second floor, Barbra is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a young black man also running from the reanimated dead. Boarding themselves into the house, it is soon revealed that there are five other living people hiding in the cellar: Judy and Tom, a young local couple, and Harry & Helen Cooper, with their injured child Karen, who has been bitten by one of the creatures. Over the television they learn that due to some unknown radiation emitting from a satellite that has returned to earth from Venus, all the freshly dead are returning to life, hungry to eat the living. When not fighting the zombies gathering in ever larger numbers outside the house, the seven spend their time fighting with each other. In the course of the evening Judy and Tom get barbecued in Ben's truck when an attempt to refuel it backfires, Barbra gets pulled out into the mass of hungry zombies by her very own dead brother, Ben shoots Harry in an argument gone out of control and Helen gets killed by her very own zombified daughter. Come daybreak, the trigger happy hick law comes ambling through the area hunting the dead, and Ben, as the last survivor in the house comes out from the safety of the cellar... minutes later, Night of the Living Dead, ends with one of the most depressing, unsentimental endings of all time.
There are some interesting aspects of Night of the Living Dead that don't always come to mind when seeing it for the first time, though some do seem to be brought up in every article about the film. Firstly, while to today's world, the concept of a black hero is nothing new, in 1968 it was something that got a double take. Though Romero consistently states that he was in no way making a political or social statement in the movie, all his horror films have featured too much subtle socially conscious criticism to take his denials seriously. Not that Romero ever actually pounds it over the viewer's head in Night of the Living Dead that Ben should be some sort of political statement; the rest of the characters obviously view him simply as a person in an equally desperate situation. Even Harry, while an obvious asshole with no likable features, never once uses the N-word, makes any sort of racist statement or calls Ben's skin color to recognition. Still, at the time, it was a statement simply by being. (Unlike in the first sequel Dawn of the Dead, there isn't even a single Afro-American among the walking dead.) On the other hand, for as advanced as the film was in regards to Black Americans, all the women are definitely examples of the helpless second sex, miles away from being anywhere close to independent, strong or in any way equal to their male counterparts. (An aspect corrected in the remake, interestingly enough, in which only Barbra survives.) Likewise, it is interesting to note that in the end, the fact is that the asshole Harry was right the entire time, and that the cellar was indeed the only truly safe place in the house; everyone who dies, does so more or less for listening to and doing what Ben suggests.