Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Short Film: Rabbit

Run Wrake is a talented English illustrator, commercial artist and filmmaker with an interesting and pleasantly twisted vision. His website reveals the extent of his activities and also offers an enjoyable overview of past works. His 2005 film Rabbit was a commission funded through Finetake by the Arts Council England and Channel 4 and took approximately 16 months to complete. Not surprisingly, Rabbit has raked in awards at short film festivals across the world.Rabbit narrates what happens when a boy and a girl discover a magical idol that can supply them with never-ending wealth: Their unbridled greed quickly causes them to lose all moral and ethical values – with fatal results.
Wrake made Rabbit using approximately 200 educational stickers from the 1950s that were found in a junk shop some twenty-plus years ago, and he has stated that the biggest challenge faced was the creation of movement from such limited source material. He mastered the challenge well, and created a compelling, hypnotic and visually intriguing horror movie dealing with the concepts of "lost innocence, greed and nature."
Rabbit was written, directed and produced by Run Wrake, music is by Howie B & Craig Richards, sound by Craig Butters & Cliff Jones, and Martin Morris & Barnaby Hewlett were animation assistants.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dark Remains (USA, 2005)

Brian Avenet-Bradley has been gaining continually increasing praise as a director and writer of low budget, independent genre films since Freez’er, his 2001 directorial genre debut (also known as Cold Blood). Dark Remains (2005), his third film, is a ghost story, and once again he handles both the scriptwriting and directorial chores and, once again, also delivers good gas mileage on the dollar. The story itself might not be the freshest of ghostly tales, but Avenet-Bradley and his cast milk it for all they can and, as a result, the film delivers a few decent jolts and more than enough decent scares. That the film has been selected for screening at a variety of international festivals is understandable, what isn’t understandable is that the film hasn’t been a bigger success.
Dark Remains opens with two jolts: First, a double suicide with a man who blows his brains out and a woman who slits her wrists in the bathtub in a large rural cabin. Next, the action moves to the leisurely paced interlude of domestic bliss at the city home of Allen (Greg Thompson) and Julie Pyke (Cheri Christian), a happy couple with an adorable little girl, but this scene of familial harmony ends on a bloody note when Julie, awakened by a noise unknown, wanders into her daughter's bedroom to find her dead, her throat and wrists slashed. This not being a detective film, Avenet-Bradley skips the immediate aftermath of the event and jumps forward to the couple's eventual flight to an isolated mountain cabin in search of assuagement and emotional recovery. Julie, an art photographer, is depressed and blames her husband for their daughter's death – and his insistence that he did indeed lock the front door of their city home falls to deaf ears. Julie sees Emma in the photos she takes while wandering through the nearby deserted prison, and the couple’s slow but steady estrangement is intensified as Julie gets increasingly obsessed with her spirit photographs – photos that only show empty rooms and spaces to Allen. The viewer, however, can often see that what neither the protagonists can see: Fleeting but shocking glimpses of putrefied entities always appearing just outside of their view. (Oddly enough, visiting friends have no such luck. When their friends Steve (Jason Turner) and Gail (Syr Law) come visiting, Steve has such a horrific encounter that the couple leave the very next day.) Realizing that all is not well in the State of Denmark, Allen heads for the local library and, to the librarian’s advice that he should leave the cabin, begins researching local history... only to find out that on or around May 21st, people connected to the cabin have traditionally committed suicide or disappeared. Are he and Emma going to be next? He decides to that they should leave the cabin, but not only is Julie hardly of the same opinion, she is willing to go to great lengths to ensure that she is not taken away...
True, there are a few stumbling blocks to the story – for example: to what extent a secondary character is responsible for certain deaths is neither clear nor truly logical, the extent that Julie drifts into her obsession also costs the viewer's sympathy, and that common assumption to so many horror films that the minute you die and go ghost you automatically become an evil ghost – but it only evidence of the director's assured hand that such flaws are hardly noticeable.
Dark Remains
is downright creepy and more than bleak, but as a good old fashion ghost story the film does exactly what it should: It keeps the viewer on the edge of the sofa, the beer and popcorn forgotten. Brian Avenet-Bradley is definitely a genre director to watch.

The Big House (USA, 1930)

The U.S. great-granddaddy of prison films. The popular Roger Corman female-in-jail films (and the numerous Philippine shot imitations) that we all so love are the illegitimate offspring of this and that German classic (and possibly first ever) strange-sister film Mädchen Im Uniform (1931). But unlike all the bare-breasted prison and reform school films that have followed in their wake, both Mädchen Im Uniform and The Big House were very much message films criticizing social injustices of their time – or at least they claimed to be.
Whether viewed as a message film or simply good entertainment, though The Big House has become a bit creaky in parts it is still a relatively taunt, exciting and well-made film, if not the first true classic of the genre. George W. Hill was definitely a good director with an eye for detail, movement and action. Regrettably, his career was cut a bit short by his supposed suicide some four years later (according to the less than reliable Kenneth Anger in his sleaze-classic Hollywood Babylon, Hill “blew his head off with a hunting rifle in 1934"). (Chester Morris, who played John Morgan in The Big House also eventually killed himself as well, though he did wait another 40 years to do so. He died of a drug overdose in 1970, just as he was beginning to attempt a comeback. A handsome, popular actor in the 30’s and 40’s, he starred in all three of Roland West’s talkies and the classic B-film Five Came Back (1939) before going on to star in 13 films as Boston Blackie, a retired safecracker and private dick. By 1956, however, when he was to be seen in The She-Creature, his career was pretty much over.)
Aside from Hill’s fluid and competent direction and the excellent lighting, The Big House is greatly helped by a fabulous cast. Aside from the sexy Chester Morris, the movie also features excellent, nuanced performances by both Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery as well as pleasant, competent turns by Lewis Stone and Leila Hyams. (While all the important men of the film had long if uneven careers after The Big House, Leila Hyams retired by 1936. A one-time magazine model, she specialized in playing beautiful but strong, reliable and self-assured women, and her part in The Big House was no different. Though few people remember her name, fans of classic films might remember her as the sassy and likable Venus in Tom Browning’s Freaks (1932) and as the concerned but resourceful Ruth in The Island of Lost Souls (1933).)
The opening credits of The Big House are superimposed over the marching feet of the prisoners and then we are shown a tiny, ant-like car driving up to a huge, art deco prison that is actually more closely related to Metropolis (1927) than to reality – in fact, it is so obviously a mat shot that the initial impression is that of an UFA silent film. The young, most likely pampered Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is delivered to the prison, sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter after running over someone while driving drunk. We follow him as his identity is slowly stripped and he becomes just another numbered convict. (The overall effect of this concept is somewhat dulled later by the fact that all prisoners are always referred to by name, not by number.) A brief meeting with the warden (Lewis Stone) allows the main themes of the film to be stated – namely, that society wants to lock criminals away but not pay for them, and that prison won’t make a man yellow but will bring the yellow out of him – and then Kent is locked up in a tiny cell with the murderous Butch (Wallace Beery) and the small-time forger and criminal John Morgan (Chester Morris). John and Butch have an almost brotherly relationship for the most part, but it doesn’t stop Butch from eventually threatening John with a knife. When Butch gets sent to the hole for instigating a rebellion in the mess hall, his knife gets passed under the table to Kent, whose yellow side is growing by leaps and bounds every day that he is in jail. The day before John is to be released early for good behavior, Kent plants Butch’s knife in his jacket when the cell is searched, which costs John his pardon and results in his being sent to the hole as well. John is able to escape soon after, and outside he looks up Kent’s sister Anne (Leila Hyams) at the bookstore she runs. Why he does so is a bit unclear – if he did so merely because he though her pretty, why did he bring a gun? In any event, she gets his gun and is in the midst of calling the police when she realizes that she can’t bring herself to send him “back to that horrible place.” She even ends up covering up and lying for John when a cop who had recognized him on the street enters her bookstore. Though initially fooled, the cop nonetheless eventually arrests John at Anne’s house some months later, an event that leaves her parents surprisingly unfazed despite Anne’s tearful statement that she loves John. Back in The Big House, John learns that Butch has hidden guns and is planning a big break out on Thanksgiving’s Day, but he refuses to take part in it. As for Kent, the past months have converted the weak youth into a sniveling weasel and snitch who rats on the escape plans in hope of an early release. (Oddly enough, though they know of the plans, the warden and guards don’t really do anything in advance to stop them.) Come Thanksgiving’s, the breakout is a bloody fiasco and all the prisoner’s, now heavily armed with guns taken from the prison’s arms depot, are trapped in the prison with numerous guards as hostages. The situation becomes even more desperate when Butch begins to shoot the hostages and the warden brings in the tanks….
An interesting aspect of The Big House is how it sucker punches the viewer’s expectations through the gradual reversal of the film’s sympathies from Kent to John. While Butch may be obviously beyond redemption (and the viewer is seemingly not expected to question why), the growth of Kent and John in two separate directions automatically raises questions in regard to situation and development. Kent comes from a well-to-do, loving family but when put into the dangerous, stressful situation of the prison, the irresponsible youth steadily becomes more and more corrupt. John, who at one point even states that he has no family, might be a nice guy but he only really regains his social responsibility and desire to improve himself after he is exposed to the healthy environment of Anne and Kent’s family (and the job he refers to just before he is arrested and sent back to prison).
As mentioned before, the performance in The Big House are universally excellent. Still, Wallace Beery, one-time carnie, ex-husband of Gloria Swanson and renowned fan of the English Technique truly excels as the likable but volatile and dangerous Butch. It is less surprising that he was nominated for an Oscar for his part than that he didn’t get it. Blustery, good natured but often scary and obviously dangerous, he can get laughs when he reminisces aloud about how he shouldn’t have fed some ex-gal of his rat poison but can also strike fear when he pulls a knife after fixing a cockroach race. Still, even after he starts offing the guards he remains oddly likable – in all senses a good anti-hero.
Robert Montgomery does a good job as well, his scrubbed, pampered face perfect the role of a spineless and weak young man who is slowly turned into a weasel by the pressure of prison life. (But being a snitch was also an aspect of the real man: He eventually became a “friendly witness” for The House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and helped destroy a few careers.) Montgomery had a nice livelihood playing smooth good guys, but the films in which he was in that have aged the best had him work against character, as in Night Must Fall (1937), in which he played a psycho killer. Eventually he went on to directing films, including Lady In The Lake (1947), famed for being filmed from the subjective viewpoint of the film’s hero Marlowe (played by Montgomery). Panned as a gimmick at the time, the movie has aged excellently. Something that The Big House perhaps has not done as well, but it is a laudable credit to George W. Hill's film that despite its creaking bones it remains such a cinematic pleasure to watch.

The Nameless / Los Sin nombre (Spain, 1999)

The Nameless / Los Sin nombre is the feature-length directorial debut of the Spanish horror specialist Jaume Balagueró. And, as a debut film, it is not the worst; but as a horror film, it is also far from the best. It simply is one of those award-winning films that gets great word of mouth but that, when you finally get to see it, you can't help but go "Huh?"
True, the film may start off in a more than heart-wrenching manner, but once the film kicks into "five years later" everything falls apart despite itself. And at the end of the film, when the storyline achieves an almost conspiracy theory like level – yes, just like the Catholic Church, the U.S. Government, the Elders of Zion and so many others, even the evil work in conspiracies – there is little left for the viewer to do but make raspberries. Especially since the acting is so uniformly monotone but for one or two exceptions – OK, the main characters are indeed all broken souls adrift in a world they no longer can relate to, but do they really have to be such soggy tampons? And why, towards the end of the movie, do the three main characters of the film act like they are all teenage sluts in a dead teenager body-count film and always do exactly that which no one with a brain would do? The viewer can't help but shout "Die, you dumb shit!" (Spoiler!) And they do, but for one…
The tortured and mutilated body of Angela (Judith Tort), the brutally murdered five-year-old daughter of Claudia (Emma Vilarasau) and Marc Gifford (Brendan Price) is found. Five years later, the marriage is over and Claudia is pill-popping and miserable. Suddenly she gets a call from Angela (now Jessica Del Pozo, looking 16 years of age or older), who claims both to be alive and that "they" just wanted Claudia to think she was dead. With the help of Bruno Massera (Karra Elejalde), the retired detective that originally investigated Angela's unsolved "murder," she begins the search for her daughter. A reporter for a supermarket rag gets interested in the case and also begins to investigate, and all slowly – very slowly, in fact – get involved in a whirlpool leading to unavoidable death and disaster…
OK, The Nameless does have great atmosphere and cinematography, providing you have nothing against the umpteenth regurgitation of the stylistic verve David Fincher displayed in Se7en (1995/trailer). Likewise, there is some nifty inter-editing – again and again and again – of shocking images. But there is also a lot of dialogue, some really turgid pacing, some really unbelievable plot developments (a cop giving a disgraced ex-cop buddy a gun?), some abominable overacting during the key final scene that grates terribly against the underacting of the entire film before, and a storyline that goes on and on and on but never arrives, even when it gets to the train station.
Dunno, but after having seen this turkey and both the extremely disappointing Darkness (2002) and mostly disappointing Fragile (2005), slowly but surely I find it doubtful that the much-hyped [Rec] (2007) is gonna cut the mustard.

Escape from Absolom (USA, 1994)

Based on Richard Herley's novel The Penal Colony, this shot-in-Australia programmer is a fun, hormonally driven thriller that entertains well on its first viewing but tends to fall apart structurally upon a second viewing or under any serious consideration. But since films like this aren't meant to be message films and exist solely to entertain, who cares if the story doesn't hold water as long as it is well made – and technically, this film is on top.
Director Campell finally gained some real attention in Hollywood with this movie and was given the first Pierce Brosnan James Bond flick GoldenEye (1995/trailer) as his next project. (That movie is just a good a ride and easily has ten times as many holes in the story but no one seems to mind – so why should we let the flaws in Escape from Absolom bother us?) Campell, who also lensed the last Bond revamp Casino Royal (2006/trailer), has come a long way from his early roots in England, his first directorial jobs there being a string of early softcore sex comedies, one of which, The Sex Thief (1973), got released in the USA as a hardcore film, the explicit in & out and money shots having all been added by the distributor. Of his early jiggler films, the best known is probably Eskimo Nell (1975), which was once re-released on Medusa Videos as a trash classic of mid-seventies British exploitation. Supposedly based on an anonymously written Victorian erotic poem entitled Eskimo Nell, the movie tells the tale of some filmmakers called in by smut peddlers from B.U.M. Productions to make a porno film based on an anonymously written Victorian erotic poem entitled (surprise!) Eskimo Nell.
The acting in Escape from Absolom is surprisingly good, considering some of those in it. Of course, there is Ray Liotta as Robbins, around whom the film is built. He does one of his better turns, moving indiscriminately throughout the film from indifferent to psycho to concern without working up much of a sweat. Obviously one of his last roles before he took up heavy drinking, not only does he look good and his face not at all puffy, but his one shirtless scene reveals a fabulously well-trained upper body. (If all the guys there had bodies like that, who cares if the island has no women – a problem totally ignored in the film.) Lance Henrikson, a familiar face in many a fifth and first class film, is The Father, the world-weary leader of the good guys whose only hope in life is to escape the island so as to reveal to the world what horrible things go on there. Kevin Dillon, one of many non-famous brothers of more successful stars, defies all expectations and delivers a believable job as Casay, a wimpy member of the good guys whose general dorkiness causes Robbins' to befriend him, while Michael Lerner, a familiar face whose career as a character actor goes as far back as an early episode of The Brady Bunch, does a patently expressionless performance as the evil warden (seemingly modeled after his Oscar-nominated performance in Barton Fink (1991/trailer)). Most enjoyable is Stuart Wilson as Marek, the suavely psychotic leader of the Outsiders – not only does he get the best lines, but he manages to chew the scenery without being overly camp. (His wardrobe, like that of all the bad guys, was seemingly bought off the rack at The Crypt and The Pep Boys. The good guys, on the other hand, obviously spend the evenings knitting or sewing, for they all seem to be clothed in hand-knit sweaters or loose-fitting hippie garments, everything in earth tones.) There are a couple of other familiar faces and a ton of type casting, and of course, the mandatory midget.

The movie gets straight to the point, when the credit sequence of a military parade ends with one man breaking ranks and blowing the brains out of the commander standing at attention. Soon after, Robbins is taking a monorail to a fortress jail in the middle of a sandy desert where he quickly locks horns with the sadistic warden. (This being 2022, prisons have long since become a private, capitalistic enterprise, no longer run by the state.) Had the warden acted sensibly and simply had Robbins killed, there would be no story, so luckily, he sends the man to Absolom. Absolom is a lush, beautiful island somewhere off the coast where the all the incorrigibles are dumped and left to fend for themselves. Much like an adult version of The Lord of the Flies, the men there have split into two warring camps: the blood-thirsty and primitive Outsiders, who live in the jungles; and the industrious, peace-loving Insiders, who live in an almost medieval village they have built in a clearing. Winning his right to live amongst the Outsiders, Robbins promptly blows all chances of advancement in the corporation and runs off, less escaping to the Insiders than falling into their hands after being left for dead by the Outsiders. Between various scenes of carnage, the rest of the film concerns Robbins slowly coming around and regaining his sense of communal responsibility while at the same time helping The Father realize his dream of getting "the truth" off the island. (Of course, we also learn why he blew the brains out of that military big wig, too.) The big escape holds no water at all, but it does give the viewer a good sense of satisfaction....
Escape from Absolom is reminiscent of many films, including but not limited to Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1981/trailer), The Shawshank Redemption (1994/trailer), Fortress (1993) and Most Dangerous Game (1932) and its thousands of imitations. But then, any film featuring a loner who gets hunted like an animal before he ends up helping a struggling group fight against penal injustice and a despotic warden in an inescapable prison located on an uncharted island in the future is bound to remind someone of some movie somewhere. (Okay, so maybe Escape from Absolom is a string of clichés – at least it works.)
If possible, the uncut version should be the one rented, for otherwise one misses a lot of pleasant decapitations, an embowelling and spikings and stuff. And we wouldn't want that, now, would we?

Urban Legend (USA, 1998)

(Trailer.) A film that should have been a lot better than it is. Of the spat of teen horror films that hit the screen around the end of the 1990s, Urban Legend is one of the least ironic, most traditional and least interesting. In regards to the teenage bodycount genre, Urban Legend works neither as homage nor as a particularly inspired update but is much more a by-the-book imitation. Put all the characters in clothes from the early 80s, and you wouldn't be able to tell much of a difference. And, like so many of the early bodycount splatter films, the only thing that really keeps you interested is the curiosity of who is next to die and how. Most would-be victims are given less identifiable personality than any of the numerous walk-on characters of the Friday the 13th or Halloween flicks, and the little personality they are given tends to be so obnoxious in nature that you don't care when they die anyway.
Not that that usually matters if you're into this type of thing, but what is bothersome is that the film could have been a lot better had a little more care gone into the film. The concept of a killer going around acting out urban legends is not that bad an idea, the cannon of legendary horrors being plentiful, often frightful and for the most part untouched in film (at the that time, in any event). Thus, for a bodycount film, the script is functionally good enough in that even as see-through as it is, it offers a passable framework for the action. (True, the killer is much too easy to figure out, but then, this ain't no mystery flick.) Scriptwriter Silvio Blank does at least dispose of the few authority elements quickly enough by making them all major Doubting Thomases and, in turn, easy fodder; but then, adults never have belonged in this type of movie anyway, so why bother keeping any of them around?
On the other hand, the simplified one-note characterization of all would-be "teenage" victims does get annoying after awhile – are there no likable teens out there to killed? No teens about whom we might worry for or sympathize with? In Urban Legend they are all either egoists, loudmouthed or simply obnoxious, other than for the first victim, who dies before she can display any traits at all.
But again, one doesn't necessarily watch these types of film for the characterization. (Characterization and logic are simply things that sometimes, once a blue moon in the most unexpected place, suddenly pop up and help transform a dead-teenager film into something surprising – namely: an exception.) Films like this get watched either for the vicarious thrills, scares or the effects. In this regard, Urban Legend ain't no masterpiece either. The gore level is low and the tension middling.
The latter is due to the movie's most damaging flaw: The lacklustre direction and cinematography. Director Jamie Blank, in his directorial debut, shows all the natural flare of blind baseball player with ten thumbs. He has no idea how to build-up or even present mood or tension, let alone sustain it, and seemingly has even less of a concept about what a camera is capable of doing. The lifeless, uninteresting if not simply banal direction does much to kill the film, and all the false scares thrown in every ten minutes to wake up the viewer are a cheap, unsatisfying substitute. (The man obviously is aiming for a career in television.) About the only half-way suspenseful kill is the long chase scene inspired by the Ohio Player's death in the recording studio legend of the ax-murdered victim's scream – which, as anyone who grew up in the seventies can tell you, isn't a legend but is true. (Uh, and I have a bridge to sell you, too.)
Amongst the other legends mined and modified are the killer in the back seat, the switchblade-wielding ankle slicer hidden under the car, the dog in the microwave, the scratching feet of the boyfriend hung over the car, the car that stinks of rotten flesh (though the victim is actually much too fresh to actually stink) and the "aren't you glad you didn't turn on the lights" killer. The Drano murder is harder to fit as a legend, primarily because – unlike the Ohio Players story – it can be traced factually from a scene of a pimp killing a hooker in the back seat of a cab in Magnum Force (1973) to a real murder attempt inspired by the film, as narrated in the true crime book Victim by Gary Kinder. (Perhaps the legend there is that death comes quickly with Drano, for in truth Drano is both extremely painful and not necessarily fatal when swallowed.)
Want a teenage body count film from the turn of the century that scares and even is surprisingly different from the rest of the masses? Then don't get this turkey, go get Final Destination (2000/trailer) instead. (Or, if you prefer you gore with humor, try Final Destination II (2003/trailer)... but skip the uninteresting Final Destination III (2006/trailer).

Sapphire (Great Britain, 1959)

A staid but surprisingly good murder drama narrating a Scotland Yard investigation into the murder of a young, pregnant black woman who had been passing herself off as white. In fact, she is presented as a white murder victim all the way up until when her black brother first shows up, so the revelation of her racial roots is rather a surprise. There are enough suspects to keep the viewer constantly guessing, especially as the slow but steady detective work of The Yard constantly uncovers new clues.
Basil Dearden, the director, does an admirable job at presenting the obvious and not so obvious undercurrents of racism prevalent in British society at the time, taking a well defined stance against it even as he occasionally unthinkingly reinforces a variety of pretty horrendous black stereotypes at the same time (for example, the racy petticoats in Sapphire's room are seen by the detective as proof of the black blood underneath the white skin). Well acted, tightly scripted, and featuring excellent characterization and top-notch acting, Sapphire is engrossing from the start, enough so that the few flaws – due primarily to the passage of time and changing attitudes – can be overlooked. (Still, it is very hard to believe that even back in 1959, a detective would pick up, open and close a bloodied switchblade with his own bare hands before wrapping it in a protective handkerchief.)
Basil Dearden, who was killed in a car accident in 1971, had a long career in English cinema, spanning from such aged B&W classics as the anthology film Dead of Night (1945) to the highly entertaining black comedy The Assassination Bureau (1969), the latter which featured the dream cast of Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas and Curt Jurgens. As for the pale-skinned, raven-haired beauty who fleeted ever so briefly across the screen as Sapphire, Yvonne Buckingham went on to play in a few made-for-TV Edgar Wallace thrillers, Urge to Kill (1960) and The Sinister Man (1962), and the lead role as Christine Keeler in Robert B. Spaffold’s The Keeler Affair (1963), which also features Drew Barrymore’s deadbeat Dad and Highschool Confidential (1958) co-star John Barrymore Jr, before disappearing into the never-never land of never-had-beens. Don't blink, or you probably miss Barbara Steele in an early, uncredited role as a student.

Shrooms (2007)

(Trailer. Spoilers.) A group of five Americans with way too much money fly all the way to Ireland to take mushrooms with a college buddy. Driving deep into an old wood forest that is populated by Irish-accented West Virginian hillbilly idgits, they lay camp at a lake close to a deserted orphanage. They take drugs and one by one but for one they die. And then there is a twist ending. Scary.
In terms of where the film belongs on one's DVD shelf, Irish director Paddy Breathnach's 2007 horror film Shrooms – providing one chooses to even keep the film once having seen it – belongs right up there next to the original Reefer Madness (1936, aka Tell You Children). For much like how the dead teenager films of the 80s propagated the basic concept that you'll die if you have sex, Shrooms propagates the idea that if taking mushrooms doesn't kill you, it'll drive you insane – which is exactly what Reefer Madness tried to say about pot.
And much like how Reefer Madness now gives the Average Joe the feeling that the cast and crew of that camp classic had probably never actually smoked a doobie in their life, Shrooms gives the experienced viewer the feeling that no one is the film knows jack shit about mushrooms. Not that one has to know a drug to enjoy a good drug movie – or a good anti-drug movie – but if you do have the slightest knowledge about Shrooms, Breathnach's film tosses up some really lame stupidities that are hard to overlook. But then, the magic mushroom that is the true driver of the story – the death's head psilocybe – isn't even real, so perhaps it is aside the point to slag off on how misinformed and wrong the film is. The experienced with forgiving natures and those who have never taken mushrooms and don't know anything about them may well enjoy the film for what it is: A well shot teenage body-count film that agitates somewhere between Deliverance (1972/trailer) and either version of Friday the 13th (1980 or 2009/trailer) or any other teenage bodycount flick, with a slight nod to any number of films that involve a deserted house with a horrible legend.
If there is one half-truth in the film, then it is said by Jake (Jack Huston) to the five Americans as they drive to their future deaths. A worldly man of experience, he emphasizes that mushrooms are best taken "outdoors, in the right environment and with the right people." Well, the outdoor bit doesn't hurt but also doesn't have to be, but the latter two aspects definitely do make for a more pleasant experience – especially if the event is to be a social one. The thing is, for a man who spouts such wisdoms, Jake – like everyone else in the film – continually proceeds to make for bad vibes all the way up until the mushroom tea is finally drunk. Worse, in total disregard of common sense and drug etiquette, they all take the drugs while one of their gang, Blutto (Robert Hoffman), is missing – with the fucking car keys! – and a second, Tara (Lindsey Haun), is still suffering from a bad trip. (They might not deserve to die for taking drugs, but for being egoistic, brainless dickheads they sure do.)
But, ignoring the fact that all the victims-to-be lack both brains and proper drug etiquette, at least once the drugs are taken the story picks up a bit, even if most of the characters walk and look and talk and run around and act as if they had drunk Yogi Tea and not a hallucinogen. (OK, I admit I successfully acted "normal" in the distant past while tripping – in my younger and much dumber years, I even once drove a car across LA from a raided party while tripping the light fantastic – but I am sure I wasn't even half as "normal" as the kids in this film.)
Shrooms is for the most part pretty lame, but it does have some aspects that make it a clear choice over, say, Desperate Housewives or Lost reruns. For example, as dickie as all the characters are as a whole, the gals are at least hot (a real shame they don't get naked), and there are worse actors to have graced a horror film. Furthermore, the film does have nice (dank) colors, the editing is pretty nifty (always a good thing to have if the deaths happen off-screen), the camera work is pretty spiffy, there are a few good laughs (loved the talking cow – wish I had experienced one back in my younger days) and, after they finally start to die, the tension is OK. But Reefer Madness is definitely a lot more fun (no matter which version you see).

Dead/Undead (USA, 2002)

Four troubled rich kids, their eternally smiling new age councilor, a dizzy blonde student assistant and a much-too-young hard-nosed cop overseer drive out to the country for a weekend of group therapy. Once there, they are confronted by a creature called "The Sorcalak", a demon that takes on the powers and characteristics of those it kills and which bestows those who kill it with an unnaturally long life before they themselves turn into the creature. Oh, yeah, it also turns the males it kills into zombies and the females it kills into vampires. How can the creature be stopped? Does any of the "victims" have ulterior motives? Will there be any survivors? And just how much guck can a monster puke, anyway?
Dead/Undead is an oddly interesting if not somewhat dilettantish independently produced horror film from 2002 that works much better than it probably should. The extended DVD version is fattened to 90-odd minutes from the film's original 78-minute running time by the addition of a totally unnecessary and out-of-place "Two Years Later" epilogue that might be good for an additional laugh (and for setting up a future sequel) but is in no way essential to the flick itself. According to legend (and Erin Podolsky of the Detroit Metro Times), Dead/Undead was shot in four days for approximately 2,000 bucks; less legendary but also true, is that four different directors helmed the script supplied by Matt Valade, a minor local Michigan celebrity, and Bruce Campbell, a much bigger celebrity and native Michigander, did indeed say that "It didn’t suck as much as I thought it was going to".
And, indeed, it really doesn’t suck as much as it could have… in fact, for all its flaws, Dead/Undead supplies some nice gore scenes and more than occasional solid laughs. But for all the comparisons the DVD cover makes with Evil Dead (1981/trailer), the great masterpiece of Michigan low-budget independent horror films, Dead/Undead lacks its granddad’s kinetic directorial eye; considering that four people directed it, the film is remarkable staid and stylistically unadventurous, almost as if four minds hampered anyone from going wild. The day-for-night shots (most of the film, actually) also are a bit annoying at first, but the humor and fun that infuses the project as a whole does wonders to make it easy to overlook such flaws. Anyway, what heterosexual male (or lesbian female) horror fan doesn't like a film that features that great stereotype of a ditzy blonde in underwear running through a forest? And what gore fan can't appreciate a scene in which a stereotypical drug-addled victim attempts to stuff his guts back in after having had them ripped out by a demon? (Rest assured, the film works only with stereotypes – and to its advantage, obviously so.)
As a film that cost what it did, without a doubt Dead/Undead offers a good return on its original investment on an entertainment level. (And for Jana Kramer, pictured left, the film has even helped make a career on TV. In this flick, as "Alice St. James" she doesn't show her underwear but she does kick demon butt.) It might not be a shot-in-the-arm genre breaking masterpiece like Sam Rami's debut, but Dead/Undead still really deserves a greater viewer base than it has.
Hey, Mikey, try it, you might like it.

Darkness (Spain, 2002)

At the latest, since [REC] began making waves in 2007 (and promptly got remade in the USA as Quarantine in 2008 (trailer)), the Spaniard Jaume Balagueró is no longer a totally unfamiliar name to fans of contemporary euro-horror. Darkness, from 2002, is the first his films using "international" names – namely, Anna Paquin, Lena Olin, Iain Glen and Giancarlo Giannini (Canadian, Swedish, Scottish and Italian, respectively) – and thus it is perhaps understandable why Miramax/Dimension picked it up for North American distribution. They chose to edit the film down by roughly 10 minutes to get a PG-13 release, but having only seen the uncut version I would tend to say the missing 10+ minutes probably did little to the film other than speed it up. Darkness, in its uncut European form, is one slooowwww film, a long dark and dank build-up to an admittedly unexpected (and depressing) ending that nonetheless could have used less padding, more adrenaline and better handling of its actors. Having seen Fragile (2005), The Nameless (1999) and now Darkness, a tendency of Jaume Balagueró is evident: Endangered women (and children) that have the expressiveness of a Prozac-overdoes victim. (Not that the men really fair that better in Darkness: Iain Glen overacts well enough as the freaking father, and Stephan Enquist is convincing as the defeatist son, but when Giancarlo Giannini delivers a wet-rag performance, something is simply wrong.)
The basic storyline is of the old Amityville Horror (1979) vein: Family moves into house, daddy begins to flip out, momma wrings her hands as she ignores the obvious, and the evil incarnate finally pops out of the closet. In this case, the family is an American one that has returned to Spain, the country of daddy's birth. (His mommy took him to the promise land as a child, after he was the only survivor of a group of seven children that disappeared.) In no short time he starts having fits like he used to "ten years ago", the young son not only develops bruises all over his neck but his pencils keep getting eaten by the shadows, dark images flit by the corner of one's eye, and only the daughter seems to realize that something terrible is brewing. Unluckily, no one wants to listen to her except her new Spanish boyfriend (Fele Martínez). They find out the true story behind the house from some guy who is then killed by the evil (although one wonders why the evil even needs to be "freed" if it can already impose a killing darkness on the public subway miles away from the house). And, yes, that other person does indeed have a hidden agenda, one that supports Balagueró's regular (dramaturgical) assumption that some people are simply evil – or, to be more exact, simply serve evil – so no background motivation for why they do what they do is really needed. (Sort of like the political actions of George Bush.) Slow and steady the darkness does spread as everyone does one inexplicably stupid thing after the other until the unexpected (and effective) regurgitation of the last scene of the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984/trailer).
Jaume Balagueró once said (on the cover of the German DVD release of The Nameless), "When I watch a horror film, I don't want to laugh." Well, while it seems one never laughs during a Balagueró film, one is often left scratching one's head or yawning. This is particularly true of Darkness, which does indeed have a few truly horrendous scenes – the young son (Stephan Enquist) watching from inside the car as his father (Iain Glen) has a paralyzing fit on a rainy street, the evil thing that crawls across the ceiling behind the daughter (Anna Paquin), among others – but the film drags out its mostly clichéd, by-the-number and, until the last scene, predictable story to the point at which the viewer simply loses interest. (The banal telephone scene, for example, was promptly repeated in the next flick I watched: a crappy Sandra Bullock film, for Christ’s sake.) Indeed, the actions and reactions of the characters, and story development in general, is often positively aggravating, so by the time the time the scares kick in, if you aren’t already asleep you probably won’t give a damn anyway.
To his defence, Jaume Balagueró has a lot of style, but style – like those stupid quick-cut shock images that he uses way too often in his films – only goes so far before it wears thin. And thus, as Dr. Gore (who, admittedly, saw the PG-13 version) puts it in his review of the film on his blog: “The audience shrugs and gives Darkness a resounding Ho Hum."

The Vampire Bat (USA, 1933)

The Vampire Bat (USA, 1933) is an early and minor but nonetheless entertaining entry from The Golden Age of Horror which, while far from a masterpiece, has a pleasing cast and flies by quickly enough at roughly 69 minutes. Partially filmed on the Universal European village lot, The Vampire Bat shares some stylistic similarities to the far better Universal productions of the genre, but it unmistakably remains a far more obvious low-budget and slapdash Poverty Row affair than the true masterpieces of the Golden Age. For all the film’s obviously ignoble roots, however, director Frank R. Strayer – who started in the Silents and died in 1964 – shows a nice grasp of how to use the camera and, as a result, the film occasionally has the atmosphere and feel of German expressionist cinema. In regards to the use of framing, shadows, depth and tracking shots, The Vampire Bat is miles above and beyond what one finds in the b-films of today. (But then, who needs aesthetic direction when you have CGI and tits?)
The story, on the other hand, written by the prolific Edward T. Lowe Jr., is more-or-less exactly what one might expect from the man who also wrote the scripts to House of Dracula (1945), House of Frankenstein (1944) and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), all three of which are amongst the least artistically successful entries in their respective franchises. For The Vampire Bat, Lowe purloined narrative aspects from two far more popular, successful and important films of that decade, namely Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), and came up with a rather odd-mixture: A “vampire” film that flip-flops midway into a mad doctor movie. The mixture, hampered by more than one pothole and insufficiently explained twist, doesn't really work all that convincingly, but Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye (and some other familiar but unknown background faces) give it their best shot, which helps the proceedings greatly.
As if a plague of large bats wasn’t already enough, the European village of Kleinschloss (which translates into “Little Castle”) is also being terrorized by a series of unexplainable murders in which the victims always found drained of blood and with two puncture marks on their neck. The Burgermeister (which translates into “mayor”) and townsfolk are convinced a vampire is at work, and suspicion quickly falls upon Herman (Dwight Frye) the overacting, beady-eyed town simpleton. Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) laughs off the whole concept of a vampire and wants Herman brought in for questioning, but the torch-bearing mob chasing Herman scares him into jumping to his death. Bad news that an obvious clue pointing to Herman is found at the murder site of the next victim, who was murdered after Herman had died (and had also been beheaded and staked just for good measure by the good villagers). Now Karl knows that it is not a vampire at work – as do the viewers. No, the good Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill) has long-distance mental control over his servant Emil Borst (Robert Frazer), who murders at the good doctor’s will so that he can gather the precious blood he so needs to continue his experiments in creating life. Unluckily, Karl’s gal Ruth Bertin (Fay Wray) discovers the truth just as Dr. Niemann sends Emil out to bring him Karl…
Well acted and well directed, The Vampire Bat is an enjoyable if inane old-school experience, and despite its rather needy script, the film remains painless to watch in spite of an almost total lack of background music.

The Vampire Bat is available free of charge here at the Internet Archives.

Graveyard Disturbance / Brivido giallo - Una notte al cimitero (Italy,1987)

Three years after the immensely enjoyable Demons (1985/trailer) and a year after the almost as enjoyable sequel Demons II: The Nightmare Returns (1986/trailer), director Lamberto Bava – the son of Mario Bava, the great Italian master of low budget atmospheric horror – ralphed up this flick, Brivido giallo - Una notte al cimitero, released as Graveyard Disturbance in English-speaking countries and as Zombie des grauens ("Zombie of Horror") or Die Gruft ("The Crypt") in German-speaking countries. In its native country of Italy, this flick was actually a television movie – and boy, does it ever show!
A co-sexual group of five extremely dislikeable and mentally deficient teenage jerks (three guys, two gals) on the lam from one of the most incompetently executed cases of mass-shoplifting avoid the cops by detouring down a dirt road that leads past a cemetery and down deep into an impenetrable fog. Slogging through the mist, in another act of utter stupidity they bog their van in a deep stream and continue on foot, first stumbling upon dinosaur tracks and then upon a deserted church and then, finally, upon a "creepy" inn built beneath the church populated by scarred and unfriendly cretins with red glowing eyes. The cretin innkeeper bets them a fortune that they can’t survive the night in the crypts located below the inn/church and the five more or less take up the bet and eventually all climb down the ladder into the bowels of the earth where they meet zombies and stuff and run this way and that way and scream and run and argue and run before they finally get back up to the inn, kill the innkeeper, collect the treasure and get arrested by the cops.
Or at least that is what happens in the German "uncut" version.
The film has some great-looking zombies and two good intentional laughs but is, on the whole, one boring piece of shit that starts and goes and ends nowhere. Bava swipes from, among other sources, his own films (the glowing red eyes are a take on the glowing eyes of Demons), from his own Dad (the horse-drawn hearse going by in slow motion is swiped from the indefinitely superior Black Sunday (1960/trailer)), from Dario Argento (the slimy pit scene in Phenomena (1985, trailer)) and possibly from Carnival of the Souls (1962), for the abrupt ending of the German version leaves one thinking that it could be the case that the five brats were actually dead the whole time and they didn't know it. (This assumption arises from the fact that they van supposedly is left stuck and immobile in the water, but is later found by the cops at the bottom of a steep incline.) But since the last point is never truly clarified in the film, one must assume that all five teenage jackasses actually survived with nary a scratch.
Although marketed as a horror film, Graveyard Disturbance is definitely not played seriously and thus, unsurprisingly, completely fails as a horror film. Far worse, however, is that for a film possibly played for laughs – as is evident by the two best scenes, those of a zombie awakening to fondle the breasts of another zombie and promptly getting slapped for doing so, and of a family of undead freaks being disturbed at their braised-rat banquet by the teenagers – the film is painfully bare of laughs. Despite one or two atmospheric shots and some scary-looking zombies, Graveyard Disturbance is an example of sloppy, lazy filmmaking at its uncreative worst. Avoid this turkey at all costs.
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