Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)

Saving on monthly light bills since 2010

This has what's usually either a straight horror, thriller or action/sci-fi premise with the world at large gone missing and where the survivors have to piece together what's left to save their own skin and move on. Though it plays out more as a drama/mystery with some scattered suspense and scary moments in a thriller/horror variation. It could have been the perfect cinematic experience as the audience is presented with a unique idea, however it lacks on the developmental side of its own concept and ends up feeling like a mini series that got abruptly canceled before the pay off. "Vanishing on 7th Street" creates a dividing point: some are going to love the stark ambiguity, while others are going to desire more from its outset.

The film concentrates on four random individuals in Detroit when a sudden power outage occurs and almost everyone instantly vanishes. They find not only the people that are normally walking about instantly missing with only their clothing left as a reminder, but also their friends and loved ones. Seventy two hours later and Luke (Hayden Christensen)--a field reporter who woke late and discovered everyone gone with empty vehicles in the streets to show for it--is now in a routine by scavenging batteries and flashlights from cars that you think is only used to walk around in the dark with. Soon enough screeching shadows that swallow up light take out a man who's lighter ran out of fluid. The sun is setting and rising in less intervals according to him, so any source of light is a survival tool. A share of the film is incredibly dark as a result, though it often plays with shadows, such as encroaching hands and looming silhouettes on the walls. It's hinted that humans get turned into incorporeal beings, though it's not alluded to if the shadows are there to harm, help or just take over everyone's individualism to their ways. For all we know, a mad scientist did an experiment for the world's ultimate solution of going green: we lose our physical form that has been draining the Earth's resources and eroding the ozone layer. Jokes aside, the film is that open ended and it takes away from its lasting impact without some kind of richer outline in place.

Luke spots a bar on 7th street that has all of its lights on. Inside he meets James (Jacob Latimore), a boy of 12 who's got a loaded weapon, booze and a working gasoline run generator to give massive amounts of illumination. A woman eventually named Rosemary (Thandie Newton) bursts through the door in a desperate panic after experiencing the first day in a hospital looking for her son. Luke is on his way out, James wants to stay in case his mother comes back and the Rosemary doesn't want to give up on her baby boy. They hear the cries of a man named Paul (John Leguizamo) outside, who was previously a projectionist at a bustling movie theater. Paul is found with a head injury and a story to tell. Back in the bar the whys and emotional turmoil of moving on from their former loved ones takes hold. There's a share of talk between the characters as to what it all potentially means. Though it's left at: it is what it is, and the characters move on.

After setting up its premise, this concentrates more on the emotional impact of the situation rather than the survivalist aspect like seen in many of these films. So the characters being clouded by feelings end up making mistakes that a clear headed person most likely wouldn't, such as lighting anything around them on fire or conserving energy. The performers grab up a deal of focal point but they don't always hold their own, partly because they're given limited range. Hayden Christensen stands and moves about handsomely, though delivers some forced lines when attempting to get sentimental; John Leguizamo goes from the information guy to acting hurt; the others are mostly on about their family members. They try to beat out the clock of the generator with half their focus and hope for some kind of luck. The film is somewhat inevitable with its title, as it centered more on the characters losing their chance of making it when trying to bring back what they had before with normal human interaction after a bout of loneliness and turmoil for several days. That portion makes it a hopeless situation and hard to relate to, as the closer they get to other humans their chances are lessened of all getting away.

The film's minimalism leaves your mind to roam for other aspects to cling onto. Granted there are some momentary scares and added amounts of creepiness here and there. However this also doesn't give reasons or even motivations towards what's happening and literally leaves you hanging in the dark. In life, shadows are a common occurrence in that they follow you everywhere. That's an intriguing concept to turn around because you can't escape them. But the relating factor of instilling danger by giving them the power to make us vanish, while making it big enough to be a global crisis seems too made up without some kind of ground work or motivation. This isn't just a haunted house with strange happenings or a recognizable risk waiting to happen. In "The Birds" we thought to understand these animals that innocently fly and chirp everywhere we go. The mind is familiar with birds, but what strikes fear is when they suddenly attack us without warning when we're unprepared. You can see what they're doing with their razor sharp beaks and claws, even though it's not understood exactly what's causing their disarray. This film has people vanish, never to show how their physical form disappears, why they're needed or where they go. It seems too broad and abstract an idea to get inside the movie because there's no central driving point besides darkness, which us humans are capable of adapting to anyway.

Some films can go too far with an explanation such as "The Happening" by leaving the audience with a dumbfounded expression. Though movies that also concentrated on the emotional human element of interacting with each other after or during a crisis, such as "The Road" and even "Night of the Living Dead," didn't state exactly why it was happening either but were still effective in that you got something from observation. They didn't need a thorough explanation laid out for the audience. Though enough was there to think about in the afterwards, such as "The Road" dealing with sacrifice and our loss of humanity, and then "Night of the Living Dead" dealing with governmental control and humans including themselves in their own food chain. Both films were able to lock you into their world by establishing more ground work behind what's mainly going on in the foreground.

To its credit, "Vanishing on 7th Street" was shot well with a dedication towards atmosphere. Director Brad Anderson's "Session 9" and "The Machinist" had a flair for mood. He has that part handled, except he didn't write this and that's the major down turn here. This had some inventive setups and some cool dreamlike scenes that gave it a different mode to teleport yourself into. Unlike other films in horror, you don't get that pay off of seeing a cruel way to go out, nor a perspective from the other side, whether it's hellish or not. They're essentially just shadow beings that moan and will bathe you in eternal darkness for no sustaining reason. What you see is what you get. I guess that's evil to some, but we still don't know their story. I mean "King Kong" looked to be just a beast that terrorized a city of helpless people, though he was also ripped from his home and taken there by humans. A distracting intermittent musical string effect is used at points that starts low and ends high for a few seconds and ends up becoming an overused norm that you can count on.

I usually love these type of films that deal with empty streets and apocalyptic overtones, and this had some feeling put into it instead of flying right through. Though it played down its concept and it felt like the film left itself at a sketch but then expected the audience to do more of the leg work to fill in the rest of picture and make it more interesting beyond what it was.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist)
Stars: Hayden Christensen, John Leguizamo, Thandie Newton, Jacob Latimore
Link: IMDB

Monday, August 29, 2011

Husk (2011)

Four guys, a gal and a corn place

This is a movie that plays around with the dark and deadly arts of superstitions along the lines of "Scarecrows," "Jeepers Creepers" and "Children of the Corn," where the scarecrows are animated and the surrounding dwelling is alive from some supernatural force that ensnared a group of passers by. It's a survivalist horror that plays more on suspense than exploitation or even creating a gradual, thinking-man's enviroment.

Four guys and a gal of twenty something are driving on a road through cornfields when suddenly crows hit their windshield and cause them to crash. After shaking off the daze, their car won't restart, cell phones have no signal, they're 40 miles from the nearest gas station and if that wasn't enough their friend Johnny is missing. Brian and Scott head off into the seemingly endless, head-high cornfields to find him, while Brian's girlfriend Natalie and the driver Chris stay behind. That was their first mistake. Just as a shark won't be able to get ahold of you outside of the territories of water, the villains won't be able to touch you outside of the maze of corn stalks they prowl behind.

There are a few scattered clues of more dead birds and older rusted cars that they pass by. Brian and Scott spot a light flicking on upstairs of a house from afar. Meanwhile Natalie spots something suspicious, causing her to panic and run back to warn Brian. Within a few moments Brian and Scott encounter a strange sowing room where someone walks in tranced and runs out something entirely different. Natalie gets attacked in a flash and dragged off. They desperately look for her as the sun then begins to set signaling they're all in over their heads now. They formulate some plans from the old farm house with aging and unkept furniture on the other side of where they crashed, but the possessed zombie scarecrows of the corn stand in their way to rescue their friends or launch an escape.

"Husk" starts out rather innocently by seeing the characters get sucked into the horror without forcing it and giving into ominous signs such as thunder-claps and spooky spider-webs, but instead providing physical action. It's capable of keeping your attention with a certain level of mysteriousness without being too vague or confusing. There are some inventive scenarios and then a few other questionable ones that are skipped over to perpetuate the story. Though it maintains a consistent flow with little snippets of backstory fit to its thriller-like pacing that comes with interlaced music to enhance the experience. The characters represent the first victim, the girlfriend in peril, the every-man-for-himself, the follower and the alpha male to take charge. They play out their stereotypes but also throw in some surprises as to their behavior and who gets it. This plays on the usual motivations for action: people going off on their own instead of sticking together, as well as conflicting opinions on what's the best way to get out of the impossible situation.

The picture quality looks a little crisp at times in the digital age, though the sets come with some tarnish and some shots are purposely obscured instead of giving a perfect frame. There's some blood that fits more to the situations than going out of their way to show carnage. Sometimes by just giving a sound effect to give an impression of the violence. The actions of the scarecrows go from fumbling around to having a higher intuition to fit the jumping scare of the scene. Going from mindlessly possessed to self-aware, makes it seem a little too much for the audience's benefit rather than inherent to an actual interaction, though, on the other hand, you're not always able to count on what they'll do next. "Husk" played it straight at times with some conventions but was a quick and above average experience due to how it flowed together by including its own set of rules and a back story that's reminiscent of Cane and Abel in the Old Testament, where blood is spilled and causes a normal place to turn evil. If there's a part two, hopefully a few more things get tighter as the crew created a decent environment and experience with this flick that has the potential to expand.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Brett Simmons
Stars: Devon Graye, Wes Chatham, C.J. Thomason, Tammin Sursok, Ben Easter
Link: IMDB

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tokyo Gore Police (2008)

The net worth of a blood bank spilled

I can probably name all of the movies that I've put on over the years that have turned someone else's stomach or were just too much to handle. One of the more recent ones would be the action/horror/science fiction/satire "Tokyo Gore Police." Recommended to me by another like minded horror enthusiast and then watched with another friend and a buddy and his girlfriend. Needless to say the buddy and his girlfriend are used to the little cubicles of life and their senses couldn't handle the overload of mayhem and carnage. They left after ignored complaints to turn it off and returned some time later to tell me that they don't trust my taste in movies. My DVD shelf shares spots with this and the likes of "City of God" and "Dances with Wolves," but I also like to open my eyes wide to what else is out there to stretch and contort this absurd thing called life in new ways thought unimaginable.

If you're looking for something with moderation, a firm foothold in reality or an engrossing story you won't find it here. This film isn't for everybody as it's incredibly over-the-top, over-the-top--notice the repetition--to even the somewhat depraved genre film with a few things in the extreme. It's unlike anything I've ever seen in a live person film apart from what filmmakers can get away with more in Japanese animes. If you've caught films with ultra violence and perversion from the '80s such as "Urotsukidoji," "Violence Jack" or "Wicked City," than "TGP" feels like a bridge between, except this time with real people. I didn't think many movies could compete with Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive/Braindead" for bloodshed. Even Jackson I'm sure didn't think so when he left those days behind, but then here we are with one of the bloodiest films of the last decade.

Some other films such as "Shogun Assassin" had amputation scenes with a single hose implanted underneath, only to spray spurts of blood to mimic a heartbeat or just explode out in a continuous stream like you've got your thumb on a garden hose. Now, this movie somehow takes that even further to where every time flesh is cut open several hoses spray out blood, no matter where main arteries lay, and then faster and in larger quantities than the human body probably contains. One way of turning that illogical outlook into a new perspective, is that blood is fearful of being trapped in its own body and wants to live on the outside quicker than it can come out to see the world in wonderful streams and bursts. Flesh is so soft and cuttable here, it's as if it was made to be ripped open than stay intact. As if we were meant to be turned inside out rather than inside in. This finds some of the most inventive ways that us humans can be ripped apart and then even built back together again by people called "engineers." It's almost poetic in a morbid way as it can make you think of the vast possibilities of how to dismantle and reconstruct the human body.

This is a somewhat futuristic version of Tokyo where the police are privatized. It's not going to look like, say, "Blade Runner" as they still drive around cars and use other modern devices. Though some of the architecture doesn't look as well-kept and maintained as the cleanly, present day Tokyo. Outlaws called engineers modify their bodies so that when they get injured their wounds reshape into weapons. The only way to kill one is to severe a tiny key shaped tumor in the body. A samurai sword carrying woman named Ruka is an engineer hunter that's called in when the Tokyo Police Corporation have one they can't handle. Ruka isn't sure where she places herself in this odd world. She cuts her arms and rides around in the city with very few words--numb to the violence she commits as soon as her pager goes off alerting her of another engineer. Her mother was a cutter, and her father died as a police officer during a demonstration, though the Chief raised her like a daughter. A serial killer engineer is dismembering women, and then draining their body of blood similar to "Exorcist III" by leaving little jars at the scene and a scar on the skin with the engineer tumor stamp. The killer turns an officer likewise into an engineer and the Chief amps up the authority of the the Police Corporation--who are already donning outfits like samurai warriors instead of peace keepers--to the point of taking out anyone that looks remotely suspicious. Ruka soon has a conversation with the mysterious serial killer who gives some revelations about his actions that tie into her father.

The story takes awhile before it kicks into a narrative flow, as in the meantime it gets caught up in its own creative devices, as well as concentrates on making the futuristic world as atmospheric as they can. There are a lot of strange use of colors with neon lights of the city, along with some purposefully misaligned and miscued camera angles to show ruination and imperfection. Some of the gore and creature effects aren't perfect with some makeshift contraptions, but that's also part of what I think gives this film such a surreal vibe. Not every second is filled with a gore scene but when it gets down it takes a bath with it in an area the size of a lake. It gets so wild that blood doesn't just spray at the camera but drench the lens to the point of having a slimy red tint oozing down. Everything is in such excess from its comic book style action to its sadistic sense of humor, such as certain appendages turning into cruel weapons. There are even some hilarious infomercials/commercials that play on Japanese society in between that are just straight hilarious, such as a brand of wrist cutters promoted by cutesy Japanese girls like they're selling Hello Kitty memorabilia instead.

Sometimes this feels like a collage of highly inventive ideas to take you to a different world and time than being structured with a story that jumps out at you. This is more an exercise in stimulating untapped sensations with the absurd, as the underlying plot about police privatization isn't anything new or made to be message worthy, and just seems an excuse to show perversions of violence and sex taken to the extreme. It's the future and Japanese have gotten so advanced beyond their slimmer cell phones that no one here manages to have sex normally. Other movies include sex and violence that fit in context to the story. "TGP," on the other hand, has brutality and perversion first and then a story or certain scenarios at times that seem only there to perpetuate the mentioned. The message is only going to be taken as far as: "Hey, they should have made the police even more vile!" Though they have enough of their own mechanics and devices to keep a viewer busy and get you locked into their world as exaggerated as that may be. Almost nothing's based in reality here and the mechanics don't make sense outside of the movie, but the filmmakers manage to do it so well that you forget about your surroundings, which is just as good enough to let go to the highly diverting and gruesomely amusing experience.

Rating: 8/10

Director: Yoshihiro Nishimura (special makeup effects on The Machine Girl)
Starring: Eihi Shiina, Yukihide Benny, Itsuji Itao, Ikuko Sawada
Link: IMDB

The Machine Girl (2008)

Severed limbs have their uses

This is a nod to ultra violent mangas and even '70s grindhouse pictures with a high school girl named Ami Hyuga who gets her arm severed and replaces it with various weapons to combat bullies. Her mother and father killed themselves over murder allegations and now she only has her younger brother left to look after. Those Japanese and their honor.

Tragedy strikes Ami again as her brother Yu and his friend Takeshi get killed over making the son of a yakuza boss named Sho Kimura lose face in front of his crew. It was only ruled a suicide but she finds a death wish list in Yu's bedroom that points to his killers. Everybody has their own families and friends to worry about and don't want to help her. She heads out on her own and finds one of the lower guys, only to have the thought-to-be-nice parents attempt to kill her. She tries to avoid violence but ends up defending herself and gets a taste for blood and satisfying revenge. Might as well continue the carnage. This leads her to the outrageously sadistic Hatori Hanzo clan residence where the spoiled yakuza son Sho lives. His family is power hungry and looks for any little reason to make their tyrannous mark on others, including just prior forcing the new chef to eat his own fingers from a measly accident. She gets close but then captured and tortured, before getting her left arm severed almost to the elbow with massive amounts of blood spray to show for it. She escapes and ends up at her brother's dead friend's parent's auto repair shop. They held a grudge beforehand directed at Ami, but end up stitching her up, give her armory and form a partnership to get back at those directly responsible for Yu and Takeshi's deaths.

"The Machine Girl" boils down to what people would do for their loved ones, whether they are just regular folks or entirely sadistic to begin with. Ami's rampage is to be a bully's worst nightmare. In the process, this tags on some gore, massive amounts of blood spray, action sequences with various inventive weapons and then who could forget ninjas, yakuza thugs and brainwashed parents turned homicidal maniacs. This hearkens back to the days of "Lady Snowblood" as it tarnishes the stereotypical view of the Japanese lady. If you've seen some of the period piece Japanese films where women tip toe, look down when they walk, speak overly feminine and dress in bright colors. This turns that around and includes some harsh female personalities that come with deeper, rougher voices, and who aren't afraid of getting covered in blood and sometimes outdo their male counterparts with violence.

The martial arts needs a little work on the choreography side, as it comes with more than one obvious punch and kick that misses the mark and doesn't always make the physical contact as cringe worthy or brutal as it projects in that regard. Though sword gashes, machine gun bullet wounds and a chainsaw that rips body parts in half is another story--the film has that part down with stained walls and floors to show for it. With all these Hollywood movies that drown out dialogue with too loud of music, the soundtrack does the opposite here as the volume is often too low, causing it to not always capitalize on impacting the scene its layered over top. The picture quality gives it a certain tone, as it seems purposely washed out with certain dulled colors that give off more grays than anything remotely bright. "The Machine Girl" has comically exaggerated motivations and emotions to the point of jumping back and forth with insane mood swings, whether it be a happy-go-lucky scene with hoops leading to running for someone's life, father and son bonding that leads to dripping blood into mouths, to nice looking parents going all murderous by swinging golf club and dipping battered hands in a tempura fryer. This is a wild movie that needs a little work with its overly ambitious ways, but it's still a pretty entertaining experience just because you can count on it to take everything it does over-the-top and not just meet halfway like many other pictures tend to do.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Noboru Iguchi
Stars: Minase Yashiro, Nobuhiro Nishihara, Kentaro Shimazu, Ryosuke Kawamura,
Link: IMDB

Bone Sickness (2004)

Mind passing the femur?

This starts out normally with a twenty-something woman in New England taking care of her husband who has some kind of debilitating bone ailment with no known medical basis. Through failed trial and error the wife gets desperate enough to seek out her husband's mullet sportin' friend who brews up his own concoction from body parts of the recently laid to rest in the nearby graveyard that he works at.

"Bone Sickness" gives its obvious cues and nods to Fulci's "City of the Living Dead" and "House by the Cemetery." This is the kind of account that only "makes sense" to those neck deep in the horror genre...and with a history of mental disorders to boot. If the audience really attempted to sit down and think about if point A matches up with point B, or if their anatomy teachers were lying to them, madness will probably take over. Can creepy crawlin' bugs really nest inside peoples' faces underneath easily ripped off skin and also come vomiting out of mouths, who knows? It can make for interesting visuals, but as more and more time goes by, the events taking place seem to get more and more diluted and a little more adventurous than the filmmakers can scurry to handle.

"Bone Sickness" is an excuse for carnage and catered towards surrealism. The atmosphere drips, slimes, smells and ultimately disgusts like any old school horror movie enthusiast would crave--myself included. This is about excess and exaggeration, though the pacing is something that needed tweaking as the flow--even with all its head slicings, neck gashes, gut munching and nudity going on--doesn't steadily captivate one's attention span or put one right there in the mix. Though it's still more effective than, say, "Das Komabrutale Duell."

The sound effects range from Italian horror style to stock haunted house. The special make-up effects can be effective, plenty and downright juicy; though due to budget limitations you might see the occasional recognizable food item as well as more "frozen" victims than you can count that just stand or lay there ready to be taken alive through premeditated gore traps. This is unconventional cinema on the low-budget end--shot on video, poor lighting, camera humming--though this isn't, for instance, like "Tetsuo," "Premutos," "Schramm," "Naked Blood," "House on Tombstone Hill" or "Bad Taste" where the production values were pitiful, but the out-there stories were translated with more refined and captivating creativity that could lock you in without looking back or questioning why this or that was done or if you should hit fast-forward to speed it up.

Rating: 4/10

From Black to Red recommends instead: "City of the Living Dead" : This has Hell's gates opening, zombies running amuck, gory violence, a moody score and an incredibly nightmarish atmosphere to get lost in.

Director: Brian Paulin (At Dawn They Sleep, Mummy Raider)
Stars: Darya Zabinski, Brian Paulin, Ruby Larocca, Rich George, Kevin Barbane
Link: IMDB

Saturday, August 27, 2011

From Dusk Till Dawn 3 (1999)

Rough and pale riders square off in the past

I originally rented "FDTD 2" and remember turning it off for lack thereof to the original. Similar to "Exorcist II" missing the mark and losing the essence of the first, I didn't even give the third part a chance for a while. "From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter" moves at a much more steady pacing than the mentioned and has a story that is richer with legend. This is a western/horror prequel that includes some characters from the first film but set a hundred years ago in Mexico with additional outlaws and more folks that just got mixed up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

A man named Johnny Madrid (Marco Leonardi), who looks to be doomed by the fate of a broken neck with a crowd of onlookers, is walked to a podium and first suffers the whip of The Hangman (Temuera Morrison). He escapes with the help of a younger friend and shoots his way out, but not before kidnapping the ruthless executioner's daughter Esmeralda (Ara Celi) who radiates a comely look and innocence opposite of her scarred face father. The younger friend, Reece, wants to join the newly formed gang of Johnny Madrid and gives him information about a cynical writer by name of Ambrose Bierce (Michael Parks) who is set to trade Pancho Villa something valuable to his revolution. Madrid and gang catch up with Bierce and a religious couple riding in a stagecoach. They knock them around and steal their belongings, only for everyone included to catch up at a bar/whorehouse later where every vice imaginable is taking place, and, of course, a deadly trap awaits when some blood is spilled.

The western/adventure aspect was handled pretty well with some decent enough acting and performances. Michael Parks, as Bierce, gives some charisma to the role with a certain wit and a pessimistic outlook, along with strange visions that give him a kind of mysteriousness--possibly due to alcoholism--or something else? Marco Leonardi brings some fun to his character of Madrid, even if you can't take his persona as the toughest outlaw to ride despite the scruffy facial hair and bladed boot. There's some gory scenes that make this one of the bloodier westerns out there--the Italians would be proud. This has a share of setups and a consistent pacing when it comes to action sequences instead of milking a certain set for budgetary reasons. There is also some atmosphere at times to show that there isn't anything but antiheroes out on the harsh, dusty terrain--just a you or me attitude.

For the latter portion the characters end up at what looks to be a slice of heaven with a saloon/whorehouse. By this point the setups were handled with less of the steady flow and tact of the earlier portion by instead going for an all-out, in-your-face delivery. Where most of the humor was somewhat dry before then, they threw in Orlando Jones as a salesman with a lisp and he seems so out of place, it's as if he just got off the set of a Mad TV skit without switching tones for the movie he's in. There are a share of extras and they don't always seem to be coordinated, as it feels like a free-for-all with strobe lights to add to the confusion of vampires gone wild. The first film jumped right into the horror portion as well and threw out some tongue in cheek humor. Though here the horror aspect feels like nearly a complete joke and a parody of itself, not to mention it's hard to take it seriously with soap opera looking lighting and with some of the props looking just shy of what you'd get at the Halloween store with styrofoam and painted on stones. It takes a complete miss on any suspense of the survival horror aspect and concentrates more on gags.

Looking at director P.J. Pesce's filmography with some westerns and action films, he feels out of his element with the horror portion. Yeah, there's some nudity, vulgarities, fights, more gore and vampires running amuck for amusement, but it also feels like it immediately got cheapened. The most to get out of this section is some character change away from the straightforward, and then a momentary twist regarding Esmeralda, which gets somewhat buried to concentrate on the others. There's tragedy in it, but it goes by so quickly as to be unrecognized.

Rating: 6/10

Director: P.J. Pesce (The Marshal TV series, The Desperate Trail)
Stars: Marco Leonardi, Ara Celi, Michael Parks, Temuera Morrison, Jordana Spiro, Rebecca Gayheart, Danny Trejo, Orlando Jones
Link: IMDB

Friday, August 26, 2011

From Dusk Till Dawn 2 (1999)

It's as if no one stepped in with both feet

Right off the bat, this was executively produced by Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, but sent straight to video, came with a third of the budget and was also handled by a different director and writing team. Not the biggest deal, as other horror sequels such as "Hellraiser II," "Aliens," "Psycho 2" and even "Amityville II" had different directors and scriptwriters and worked in their own ways. Though two of the biggest issues here is they didn't take it as seriously as their counterparts and they tried to do a story on its own that's very loosely related to the first to the point of losing context. It doesn't come with any revelations and the plot feels flat and unremarkable to try to carry its own weight. The opening scene sets up the tone of the rest of the picture with purposefully campy acting, inflated music, overextended screaming, gore and a tongue so far in the cheek that it bores a hole out the other side.

Gone are the glue-you-to-the-screen personalities of the first, and present are a bunch of nincompoops from Texas. The characters are inept, run at a slower pace and have few things on their mind but money and having a sleazy time. It makes you watch this from a distance as there aren't any relating points, just a group of guys that are neither cool, smooth or that you want to be in the same room with. One of them is a criminal named Luther (Duane Whitaker) who escaped from custody in Texas. There are news briefs and a Sheriff named Otis Lawson (Bo Hopkins) looking for him. Meanwhile, Luther contacts Buck (Robert Patrick) about a Mexican bank deal for $5 million of laundered drug money. Buck rounds up a team with his old buds C.W., Ray Bob and Jesus, and off they go to Mexico without showing how the known criminals got there.

On an empty road and with the whole barren area to fly a bat charges into Luther's car grill. After shooting the bat, he heads up the road to the Titty Twister and mentions the situation to the barkeep (Danny Trejo), who offers to give him a ride to the hotel where the rest of the crew are meanwhile extensively watching and talking about porn. The barkeep instead heads to Luther's car, gets out and follows the blood trail of the bat. The bat is transformed back into a regular vampire form and after a scuffle, Luther gets turned. He heads over to the hotel, turns one of the others into a vampire and then tells the rest of the crew that they need to do the job tonight. Not being the brightest people, they head over and from one thing leading to another more of the crew gets turned and Buck tries to escape only to get caught up in a heated cops vs vampire shootout.

Some of the characters here don't even make sense. The barkeep returns without explanation as to why he's still alive. Bruce Campbell and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen play lawyers for a pointless opening scene that gave another homage to Hitchcock but otherwise was pointless. White hotel clerks, black security guards, and then Texas Rangers allowed to investigate a crime scene in Mexico where they have no jurisdiction. Some poetic license for entertainment value is fine--the first movie even had some omissions as well--but this just pushed the bar and it makes it look like it's not even trying. As if everyone here treated it as a stepping stone by giving it half an ounce of effort with the intention of moving on as fast as possible. For a viewer, all those little nuances that made the first returnable are lost with the second followup, and that in itself is disappointing.

"From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money" is a movie that does it all on purpose, so how do you fault it for doing nothing but that? Except it feels like it missed the mark completely with very little redeeming value even by those lesser standards. The dialogue doesn't always give separation of character between the performers. There are a few momentary puns and jabs at its own devices that get some chuckles, a nude scene, and a few inventive camera setups, but those areas only carry it so for amusement. There's very little relating points emphasized--not even the money angle; even a 'Got to do it for a cause' line--nothing to learn, not much to see as far as locations and all of the characters you want harm to come their way, but then get upset that it took too long to do so. This has none of the elaborate creature effects of the first, but then again some are made to look cheesy, such as enlarged bats. Though money was spent in the last quarter of the movie. That segment was entertaining to a degree as it turns into an all out action battle with tons of fire power gone off and some gory deaths. Still doesn't make you forget what came before it.

Rating: 3.5/10

Director: Scott Spiegel (Intruder, writer of Evil Dead II)
Stars: Robert Patrick, Duane Whitaker, Bo Hopkins, Raymond Cruz, Danny Trejo
Link: IMDB

Thursday, August 25, 2011

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

A series of wrong places at the wrong times

The first peak I had of "From Dusk Till Dawn" was when attempting to sneak into the theater back in '96 and seeing the words "Titty Twister" on a sleazy bar front but then being kicked out right after. Soon enough a kind--or demented--neighbor leant the tape without alluding to the plot or genre. Being just excited that it was a "movie," not to mention with two guys and guns on the cover, I put it on without even reading the back and was surprised to find that not only was the beginning a cursing and violence filled crime adventure but then the latter half switches locales and turns into a kind of action/horror with monsters running amuck. My ignorance doubled when special make-up effects wizard Tom Savini--only known to myself before reading horror mags and dialing up to Internet access as that actor with the crotch gun--came to town to the local hobby shop and signed "my snot rag" (napkin) I had in my pocket--all for free! Good times.

Two men who live by their own rules make a mark on small town middle America by breaking every law in the book when they end up at a rinky-dink gas station in Texas. Fingers get itchy on their triggers and before you know it everyone's dead and a massive explosion ensues. "Low profile. Do you understand the meaning of the words "low profile"? Seth says to his brother Richie who ended up with a bullet hole through his hand. Richie (Quentin Tarantino) is the violence prone, perverted brother who constantly needs an eye looked after him. Actor George Clooney, as Seth, would get somewhat typecast after this as not the criminal, but the confident leader type that he does so well with a dead-set stare and words that command. This builds up to a kind of twisted redemption from a low life that is only out for himself--bank robber, cop killer, escaped felon--to unlikely antihero to protect his fellow man when something greater comes into the picture that jeorpardizes everybody's life.

From hotel rooms with one hostage to an RV with three more--including a former minister named Jacob (Keitel) and his two children Kate and Scott--they make it across the Mexico border and the Gecko brothers await a rendezvous with another criminal to make a score. That place is the Titty Twister: a Mexican bar that houses some of the rowdiest scumbags with neon lights and every vice offered to lure them in. Cheech Marin doubles as the boarder patrol agent and over-the-top host at the door selling prostitutes to bikers and truck drivers that layover in that seedy part of town. He puts a hand up to the Geckos and they return the favor with a beating. The brothers bring their captives inside and find strippers, loud rock 'n' roll, fist fights and hard liquor--their kind of place. Soon enough the incident outside and Richie's hand injury comes full circle to bite him where it counts when the host comes back in and the main table top dancer Satanico Pandemonium (Selma Hayek) can't help herself when it comes to the bloody wound. Within a split second all of the employees turn into something else and the patrons inside either run or fight for their lives by quickly using methods learned from other horror films. Yep, sometimes these things can be survival guides.

What's different about this picture compared to a straight horror film is that there isn't any foreshadowing. Though it's more action than horror by causing the characters to leap into making decisions on the fly, instead of slowly creeping up. Replay value is a blast, since you essentially have two differently toned movies in one with the same cast handling both sides. This is going for the full cinematic experience and escapism rather than truly making the environment authentic. Some of the mechanics are sacrificed for entertainment value over being thoroughly sound, so some things happen at opportune times, such as certain infected people turning faster than others or one monster having one ability and another doesn't. What makes that work is there is a decent amount of purposeful tongue-in-cheek humor, along with room left over for timed out suspense.

The beginning half of the film isn't all flash and fancy talk as they don't always hold back in what's said or done, whether it be racist comments to raping an innocent woman. Savini as "Sex Machine" and Williamson as "Frost" aren't the best actors but they still possess an onscreen tough look. This has some cool special makeup effects by KNB EFX Group that would later go on to do other big pictures; despite when CGI started to rear its head just after 2000 as the norm rather than utilizing it in a few areas. For instance, this uses some CG for transformations from normal to monstrous but the rest is prosthetics, giving it that unmistakable physical presence. There are facial masks, as well as full body casts. Not to mention some grisly gore, with anything from the straightforward brutal to the downright inventive. Most of the music feels more hip and flavorful than scary, apart from some choirs. Time just flies with this movie, from one captivating scene and piece of catchy dialogue to the next, it's hard to take your senses off what the next thing they have in store. It's one of those rare films that you'll wish didn't have to end.

Rating: 9/10

Director: Robert Rodriguez
Stars: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Tom Savini
Link: IMDB


Writer's note:

This is the first time I've seen the casual walking away from an explosion in the background. Since, it's been done from here to the moon.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sundown (1990)

Part vampire, western, comedy, oh my!

"Martin" managed to reinvent the vampire in the latter portion of the '70s by bringing a simpler approach and giving the genre an offbeat spark after some films started to lose their bite with the same theatrics. Thirteen lucky years later and "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat" is a full blown movie that rearranges conventions but also includes its very own uniqueness. It's pushing a little more away from straight horror with an off-the-wall tale with comedic overtones, though it's still just as enriched with the mythology that we've grown to love despite being done in a much more fun and less shadowy way. Enter the town of Purgatory where vampires have evolved to live peacefully out west. During the day they dab on sunscreen, wear UV glasses and cover up with stylish dress, including overblown hats that have brims just shy of umbrellas on their heads. There are rules and consequences in place, such as not killing humans, which right from the getgo is broken when one of them loses his temper.

A human named David Harrison (Jim Metzler) is coming to town to work on a malfunction at the Hemotechnics plant that produces synthetic blood, along with his wife Sarah (Morgan Brittany) and two girls to make a family adventure out of it. Easy said, easy done, though David has a past rivalry with a vampire named Shane (Maxwell Caulfied) who runs the plant and has an eye on his family. Soon enough the Harrisons encounter some odd occurances from bats to secret passageways that lead to a man sleeping in a coffin named Jozek Mardulak (David Carradine) who so happens to own Purgatory and be the one with the main vision for its inception. Except some of the town's people don't want to live a quaint life, instead of enjoying a warm meal of the real stuff directly from the source. A revolution is on the rise with the Quaker looking Mr. Jefferson (John Ireland) on one side with his posse of special gun-totting recruits, and on the other with most of the town's original inhabitants behind Mardulak.

"Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat" has a flair for the theatrical either with its bombastic music, built up camera shots to its performances and dress. It's a one of a kind film off in its own little world with eccentric and memorable characters. It has a strange atmosphere in that every other person feels from a different time period or location, from 19th century on up to '80s/'90s trends. There's the three hillbilly pals each with white beards at the gas station, a Jamaican cop who runs the jail and even an old German couple at the general store. Bruce Campbell plays Robert: a bumbling professor looking type with a recognizable family name. His car broke down and he uses the excuse to search out Jozek Mardulak with the help of a bombshell waitress, Sandy (Deborah Foreman), that's got her heart more than her teeth set on him.

The movie is more a series of events that leads up to a somewhat overdrawn vampire vs vampire gunslinging battle for the latter half just like the wild west except with high powered weaponry. Apart from a decapitation and some gun shot wounds, this isn't over-the-top gory as the violence falls more in context to the story. The movie's strength is its whimsical charm, not necessarily an intricate storyline. Events happen to further its personality rather than being layered or complex, which makes it all around easy. It almost feels like a family friendly rated R film, as there's no nudity and situations aren't as crude as others with the tag. Since there's a share of characters to show their varied personalities, the pacing often moves somewhat moderately compared to other films. It takes on one unveiling at a time until closer to the end. It keeps up the mystery but doesn't make this a freight train of revelations, though still diverting and loads of fun in the meantime to the point of wishing you were part of the gang. Like director Anthony Hickox's "Waxwork," this is another ambitious film with a little bit of slapstick and a sense for the cinematic experience rather than going for realism. You'll recognize Deborah Foreman and Dana Ashbrook with some roles here too. Likewise, "Sundown" creates an enveloping environment that isn't anything but pure escapism.

Rating: 7.5/10

Director: Anthony Hickox (Waxwork)
Stars: Jim Metzler, Morgan Brittany, Maxwell Caulfield, David Carradine, Bruce Campbell, Deborah Foreman
Link: IMDB


Quotes:

"I can't believe this. I just can't believe this. No one is gonna believe us! I wouldn't believe us! Who is gonna believe that some relic with a sombrero knocked off Tom's head with a backhand?"

"Your parents must be very romantic."
"They're very horny."

"Well, it could be your big night tonight."
"I'll be up as soon as I'm finished."
"You promise?"
"Threat."

"There's only two things that can happen to you in Purgatory. They can kill you, or they can turn you into a vampire."

"We feed on humans."
"Like a hundred other parasites. Like tapeworms, like fleas...like fungus. That's how special vampires are."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Primal (2010)

What great teeth you have!

Many, many years ago, 12, 000 years ago to be exact, a primitive man is painting on a rock face until he gets attacked from behind by something unexplained. Fast forward to the present day Australia with six individuals trekking some ways out for those same rock paintings for one of their studies. The first sign of trouble hits when they park and take a shortcut. "There's something wrong with that tunnel, we shouldn't go through it," says Anja before she blackouts from a claustrophobic panic attack...or something else. "Some point, you got to get over this," says Mel as the rest still walk through and have her drive around alone. Hey, what are friends there for?

This begins somewhat innocently with random jokes and pokes of fun. It's obvious from the beginning which character has tenacity when the gears of horror start to grind, but the filmmakers still gave surprises as to who gets it apart from their originally perceived character archetypes. They ignore a strange animal attack, and then live it up with some love making, substance abuse and acoustic guitar playing around a fire--a bunch of hippies they are! Mel goes skinny dipping, only to come out of the water covered in leeches and eventually show signs of fever and bloody gums. Soon enough tensions flare about who should have done what or if they should leave or not, and in the process find out what they really mean to each other as friends and companions.

They discover more odd organisms when microscopic insects eat through objects. They can't get help till morning, except by then Mel gets transformed with superhuman strength and a long set of chompers. Survival mode kicks in for the rest of the film with a bunch of in-fighting, denials, ruthlessness and haphazard plans to make it out alive from their former friend Mel who now wants to eat them without mercy. It's hard to feel sorry for nearly all of the characters because most range from either being too general to just plain unlikable. Though there are a few setups with irony to give grin to their folly. And, of course, there's going to be blood and some gore when they get it to keep the lynch mob satisfied.

The beginning has a decent exposition that unfolds the events in a forward motion, though when it comes time for the survival aspect it jumps back and forth, causing the element of suspense to reinvent its own wheel. The monstrous woman randomly appearing and disappearing comes with some effective pop outs when she shrieks her head off, but starts to lose its impact when she's not given more to do beyond a few modes for awhile till someone else turns. The terrain isn't always used to their advantage rather than staying in a general, unmemorable area, which makes it rely on the characters to carry the events. This is going for the tried and true and it unabashedly knows it with a few scenarios of the tongue-and-cheek kind, as well as a few jabs at their own devices and storyline.

This requires you to keep bending your imagination the further it goes as potential explanations are only alluded to. Especially by its finale when a random, choppy looking CGI entity appears but feels physically misplaced despite being loosely hinted at earlier. That ambiguity might have been fine to leave room for mystery, but there aren't always enough substantial or diverting scenes in the meantime to make you forget about the technicalities when they're just running around to save their own skin or deciding if they should kill or not. It's not really ponderous or completely emotionally driven stuff to get you fully locked in because most of the characters by that point are showing less and less strength that you could possibly relate to and are pushing more and more away by being selfish, indecisive or whiny. Not really the most cinematic of times even with the humor and bloodshed, which carries it only so far. In "The Descent," for instance, they're working with and against each other but have a goal to get out to the other side, which you know they're not going to all make it but it creates more tension for its duration with their friends, the creatures, the terrain and the light at the end of the tunnel all competing at once.

There's some potential with "Primal" and it has some fun in the meantime. The dialogue doesn't make you want to slap your forehead like other pictures and the performers give out some serious effort for what they're working with, even if they don't always put everything they've got into it. And the picture quality looks pretty sharp and consistent with some inventive modes, if not always capturing the best vantage points.

Rating: 5/10

Director: Josh Reed
Stars: Krew Boylan, Zoe Tuckwell-Smith, Wil Travel, Rebekah Foord, Damien Freeleagus, Lindsay Farris
Link: IMDB

Storm Warning (2007)

Don't stray too far from home

"Storm Warning" is an Aussie film that takes on hard-to-mistake characteristics of "Deliverance" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" still some 30 years later. This likewise has the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time city slickers, the isolated location and who could forget the dysfunctional family to clench the formula.

Are you, or someone you know, the type of person that needs a solid reason to get angry or inflict violence? This film is aimed more at the individual that even when pushed has a tendency to let conflict whiz right over their head. "Storm Warning" takes one regular lawyer and one significant other with spiced up French accent and throws them into a situation that leaves them paralyzed by fear. The first half of the film heads in the direction of "Funny Games" and "The Strangers" with too-timid-for-their-own-good folks pitifully matched up against some really shady, don't-bring-these-guys-home-to-your-mother type of characters. Though the fortunate difference is when the going gets rough, these regular people might find out they have more primitive survival skills in them than they thought.

This has no doubt been done before, so there aren't a load of surprises to unwrap or leave gaping wounds from. Though the film is effective in that it can take the audience out of their comfort zone and give a somewhat disgusted feeling from these crusty-toothed individuals that missed a few key links in the gene pool. "Storm Warning" works more for the individual who maintains a calm environment and isn't too distanced from routine, because for someone who can instantly spark anger or took a few can't-wait-to-try-these-out techniques in martial arts, this film would have been most likely over in 30 minutes. But that's just it, these people seem to represent that gal or guy that you wouldn't recognize in a crowd or read about in the local paper for on-the-spot heroism. This shows that some wear their caveman attire on the outside, while others repress that due to adaptive, modern conditions.

Rating: 6/10

Director: Jamie Blanks (Urban Legend, Valentine)
Stars: Nadia Fares, David Lyons, Mathew Wilkinson, John Brumpton
Link: IMDB

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

He'll shoulder press you AND the army you came with

As much as I enjoy the 1982 film, I'm going to review this as its own separate experience. The story element for the "Conan the Barbarian" 2011 felt pretty straightforward, as potential for more weighty subject matter was there but wasn't always emphasized, rather than jumping into one showy scene after the next. The quick pacing doesn't always give breathing room to think instead of a share of it just passing through. Since it doesn't always take advantage of one place for long, it often does itself a disservice for replay value when there aren't many layers to peel back.

A boy born in battle is destined to be a warrior, he grows up at first somewhat small and unappreciated, has another family member taken away from him and then seeks revenge at a much later time in his life when the villain so happens to be close to his master plan. It felt like too many flashy scenes surrounded by little substance of narrative to fully clench its epic proportions. It did give off certain sensations the first time around, I'll give it that, though there wasn't much to ponder on below the surface about the characters or the journey after it ended.

Jason Momoa held a presence of his own with a bulky and commanding physique, even if not ridiculously cut to the point of striation. He has a distinctive look on screen and a booming, almost professional wrestler voice. He appeared tough with some added scars and a deadpan stare, but ultimately well balanced when he was naturally wielding a sword like he owned it. Now, that's just his presence, because as for his aura there's not much else in the way of creating mystery about him, a relating ideology beyond the sword or fully capturing someone who's torn up with emotions about his lost relatives and village. He pretty much just moves from one place to the other with a loose strategy plan and it doesn't make this as gripping as the filmmakers intended with the fast flow.

The movie is very bombastic. There are various macho guy vs macho guy action scenes that include a share of candid blood shed and cruel wounds to show for it without pulling away. A particular creature scene with sand spirits was an inventive addition as they can appear from all around. There's a tad of humor, T and A nudity, a short lived love connection which leads to rescuing the damsel in distress, and then various sets of the real and CGI type that give presence of being splendid to dismal. Some of the dialogue and character setups give a sense of grand scope, though others can go over the mark to the point of hokiness. Especially some of the lines from both the villains Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his odd, finger-bladed daughter Marique (Rose McGowan). I've liked both performers in other films, and they look their part here, just some of the lines delivered aren't always shown in the best light.

I've seen a share of 3D films by now and this one was somewhat distracting out of the bunch. The tight action sequences were jarring to the point of frequently throwing out my focus like no other 3D movie I've seen to date to the point of having to sit farther back than usual. For the regular, every-other-time cinema goer, I'd say "Conan the Barbarian" 2011 isn't worth the pricey ticket as it's not pressing to see beyond a fan of the genre or the prior source material. As for an action-fantasy movie it included a large amount of action to whiz by one's head, though for fantasy it had a fairly to the point unfolding of the story for the genre, which can make the experience more titillating than impacting.

Rating: 5/10

Director: Marcus Nispel (Pathfinder, Friday the 13th 2009)
Stars: Jason Momoa, Ron Perlman, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Rachel Nichols
Link: IMDB, comparisons to 1982 film and Robert E. Howard stories

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Roadkill (1994)

Not even a pittance of hope here

I first caught snippets of this one through a Necrophagia music video and didn't realize I had already seen another by director Jim Van Bebber just prior, which made me search out "Dead Beat at Dawn" and think the guy should have done more with the down, dirty and depraved talent he's got. This is along the lines of a really seedy version of "Eraserhead." The picture quality of "Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin" makes it seem much older than the '90s, though it still adds a certain washed out grime and includes an atmosphere that feels surreal with strange and abstract music. This 14 minute film is nothing short of a nightmare as there's no resolve, just pain and a kind of dehumanization that comes with chills and sweats when the credits roll.

Enter a dwelling that any "flip this house" money maker would save the investment and move on as it looks like one of the nastiest hellholes imaginable. Never mind how someone could feel so at home there. A homeless man in a third world country would even be put off with the trash, rats, nonsensical writing, blood and even human skin masks on the walls. If they could make a special smelling device for the cinematic experience, then I'm sure it would implode in on itself with this one. Though he miraculously has a shower and a razor to keep up a regular front on the outside. This is like a roller coaster, you anticipate the risk beforehand, live the danger when riding by building to a culmination, and then finally the experience ends but with a plethora of sensations rather than a narrative story to tell afterwards.

John Martin is a loner, a cemetery stroller, a raw animal muncher, a binge drinker, an excessive TV watcher and who could forget a maniacal cackler. The beginning setup shows you just how crazy and unlikable he is until he steps out of his depressive dwelling and puts on the nice guy act when he meets two unsuspecting people who need a lift after their car conks out in the middle of nowhere. It creates an unpreventable trap with predator and prey to account for, but not a hero in sight. Not to mention the audience has no way to stop it and is given no way out, so you look on just to witness how far he takes the depravity that includes some gore and unsensual nudity. Even in the survival-of-the-fittest animal kingdom certain species will have competition among themselves, though they'll still form pacts to hunt outside species. This, on the other hand, has one antisocial human using cunning manipulation on desperate human beings for a sadistic gain. It shows that you can't let your guard down for anyone, because people aren't always who they seem, and with some much more worse than others. Just as you'd see a lion interact and go out on a hunt in a documentary, this is essentially the before and after of how a psycopath named John Martin stalks. Except in a way that's as filthy and disgusting as you can imagine to get that insider's look without holding back.

What makes this effective as a short is it gets right to it, no prancing around, no letting up with the oppressive feeling, no explanations so as to keep up the mystery and morbid curiosity, just a candid look at the sadistic and detestable. The experience is essentially more about those sometimes unexplainable emotions, rather than a constructive story to follow. So as a longer piece it most likely wouldn't have worked as it might have desensitized or lost the focus of viewers, but as is it packs a severe punch to the lower gut.

Rating: 8/10

Director: Jim Van Bebber
Stars: Mark Gillespie, Marc Pitman, Maureen Allise
Link: IMDB

My Sweet Satan (1994)

He served and died for his master...or so he thinks

The first time I saw this 19 minute short prior to finding it on DVD was around the early 2000s in a heavily bootlegged VHS tape through a fellow metalhead due to the soundtrack having a few extreme metal bands. At the time I thought it was just a low-budget exploitation piece but little did I know that it was based on the real life case of a 17 year old kid from New York named Ricky Kasso. In the film he's known as Ricky Kasslin and lives in Dayton, Ohio. Jim Van Bebber, who would go on to do "The Manson Family," would not only direct and write this but also step in as the main performer with drawn-on tattoos and a wild haircut--that looks in the way of Anthony Kiedis in "Point Break"--to show for his efforts at portraying this fractured individual who left a small stain on this Earth.

What works about this film is that it takes the perspective of multiple sides as to who was involved. There's enough room that a viewer can decide if they want to completely lambaste any and all involved, or be sympathetic, or possibly both. The devil worshipping aspect is brought a little closer to home and I'm sure can put a lot of people on edge. Yeah, occultists in old Hammer films with black robes and a certain precise order to their shadowy practices is one thing, but having an unsupervised kid running the streets and hanging out in local cemeteries is a lot more unpredictable and closer to your backyard. Except the film isn't mainly about that per se--even if it didn't hold back on the "praise Satans"--as it didn't try and show it was an epidemic that needs to have something done about it. It was a special set of circumstances that probably won't happen in the same way again. This is more about a delusional, misguided and rebellious kid who makes up his own rules and takes what he does to the absolute extreme, which ultimately leads to his end. Whether it would disobeying his parents and living on the streets, destroying property, fighting, doing excessive drugs, and then the main clincher being a quick but still brutal torture and murder over a prior dispute. One way of looking at it is he only lived 17 years on this Earth but lived it up by breaking whatever rules and deemed morals he could. He'll never see tomorrow, but what more does tomorrow hold in store for him?

The production values aren't stunning but this makes it a little more realistic that there are all unknown actors, real locations and natural mistakes. The acting is the equivalent of the public broadcasting channel for all those that are just used to fancy Hollywood movies, and the picture quality looks like somewhere in the '70s despite obvious trends in the '90s running rampant. Regardless of what comes out of their mouths everybody still looks the part. The atmosphere in this short essentially captures what was apparently going through Kasslin's head. The story is pretty straightforward but there are still various shots and snippets of dialogue to get a feel for his demeanor, motivations and lifestyle. There's some narration overtop to explain what the people were thinking at that time and how they would have done it differently after the fact. It goes to show how someone can get caught up in something without even realizing what they're doing because they're so directly in the moment.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn)
Stars: Jim Van Bebber, Terek Puckett, Mike Moore
Link: IMDB, Real life story

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ebola Syndrome (1996)

Makes "Outbreak" look like monkey business

Hong Kong, 1986: Kai (Anthony Wong) is sleeping with the boss's wife while her little girl stands out front. The boss suddenly comes home and catches them. He beats Kai, forces his wife to pee on him and then attempts to castrate the adulterer--Jerry Springer would be proud. Kai suddenly reverses the blade and kills the boss, wife and employee, while leaving the traumatized little girl soaking in gasoline when someone comes in just in the nick of time.

Johannesburg, South Africa, 1996: Kai is now working in a restaurant after fleeing China. The new boss's wife thinks he's no good but the boss says it's hard to find cheap labor, so they put up with him. Though she might just be right as he spits and ejaculates in food, as well as treats customers like they're doing him the favor of eating there. Kai carries a terrible smell around with him and can't get laid by white women nor Asian, even with cash in hand. The boss and him visit an out of reach African tribe called Zulu to secure some pigs at a cheap price and on the way back Kai decides to take advantage of a woman who just looks at first drunk. Yet, when she convulses and spits in his face he comes down with something that would play out quicker than AIDS. Kai contracts the organ-melting Ebola virus, yet with the exception of a high fever doesn't have the other symptoms as it turns out he's an incredibly rare carrier type. Soon enough things go for the sleaziest with rape, murder and then serving up the chopped up meat to patrons at the restaurant in the form of "African Buns" that look like hamburgers. After an outbreak of the Ebola virus at Kai's unsanitary hand, he heads back to Hong Kong with cash taken from the dead boss and a fresher smell. The sleaze continues when he picks up prostitutes and they contract the virus. With an outbreak on the rise, HK detectives--with the help of the little girl now grown up--start to back-track to find the man responsible for now bringing havoc to China.

There have been rapists and murderers in other films aplenty, though not many movies include the mentioned and then also have the guy feed human meat to unsuspecting humans, and then none that I know of that includes a real known virus--zombie films don't count--to spread his destructive behavior even further. It's an all time low for the human species, but an all time high for ways to single handedly reap devastation. The film has some shocks but one thing it lacks is suspense, as the camera focuses too much on Kai's character for his every move and even the element where the good guys attempt to stop him is delayed to see more carnage. Essentially what the audience gets is more of the bloody disgusting and less heroics that other films are dominant with when it comes to amoral subjects. The experience sails over the top due to the score card for the villain being nearly a shut out for the good guys.

If you're looking for sharp acting and crisp dialogue you won't find that here. The full uncut version I'm reviewing is for a Dutch DVD that includes terrible English subtitles that sometimes don't even make sense as some appear to be translated as is. Though the story isn't likely to get confusing. This has an extremely odd sense of humor at times, that ranges from somewhat light to pitch black. Wong makes some of the most ridiculous faces while doing his deplorable deeds. The events unfold more straightforward than "Untold Story." Wong plays a degenerate in both films, though he's more of just a perverted slacker than the goal-oriented, manipulative sociopath he was in "Untold Story." In both cases still a scumbag by any stretch. Though his performance in that film held more mysteriousness for what he'll do next and was more effectively creepy as such. What "Ebola Syndrome" did do better is it included a more consistent tone where the humor isn't entirely goofy to the point of distracting. This again plays on how much trust we give to people handling and serving our food to the point of making you give a few more glances at who's prepping your meal next time out. Not to mention it takes it further by making public places a hazard, where viruses and diseases are rampant and just a sneeze away from being infected and meeting a violent end.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Herman Yau (Taxi Hunter, The Untold Story)
Stars: Anthony Wong
Links: IMDB

The Untold Story (1993)

Brutal, yet goofy

This movie truly has an odd atmosphere with cheesy stock synthesizer music, mixed with goofy humor and then to contradict all that it includes brutal murder, sneaky cannibalism and a vicious rape. This opens up with a man getting his head smashed against a wall and burned alive from a heated gambling feud. The perpetrator changes his name and appearance and heads from Hong Kong to Macau. Fast forward eight years later to 1986, at the shore of a beach where severed arms and legs are found and detectives are called in to investigate. The film uses a framing technique that has a different tone on both sides, where you get to see somewhat silly plain clothes detectives fumbling around with evidence as if it's their first day on the job, and then on the other side the character Wong Chi Hang (Anthony Wong) seems like a dead-serious, manipulative and disturbing person that runs the Eight Immortals Restaurant. He cheats at gambling, tries to get a lawyer to break the law and then kills a worker on a whim for spreading rumors about him--a real class act. Since they don't waste anything in China, why should a killer, too? He starts to chop up the body and make barbeque "pork" buns with human meat as the secret ingredient for the patrons at the restaurant. "Hey fatso! You like the barbeque buns?" Wong asks a customer who responds back with glee: "Delicious! I can't stop eating them."

About the only technical crime work the cops do is get a clue from fingerprints from the severed arm at the beach that leads them to the restaurant. Unlike all these CSI type shows on TV in the modern day, this isn't going to be heavily or even moderately researched at that on the crime aspect. Wong worked at the restaurant prior and then apparently took it over by buying out the previous owner Cheng Lam. Currently a fearful woman has worked there for only two months and just thinks of him as a nasty boss. The head inspector isn't completely fooled by the charming man on the surface who feeds the rest of the detectives with his special barbeque buns. They stake him out and wait for a suspicious move. Soon enough he throws out evidence and they're on him just before he tries to flee. The latter half takes place in a prison and then a hospital where Wong gets beaten by inmates and then cops. Now, I'm not sure if there's a rivalry going on with the providences of Macau and Hong Kong, figuring this takes place in Macau but was financed and mostly shot in the HK. Similar to every other time a Japanese guy is in a Chinese film he's made to be entirely cruel or inferior. It seems a little past the point of poetic license as the supposed good guys here, being the Macau police, are made to be almost clueless at times, with not wanting to do their job at first, mistreating female coworkers to the point of harassment, the lead inspector taking credit for his underlings as well as being loose with prostitute-like dressed woman that he brings to work, and then instead of finding real clues they use brute tactics and manipulation to get him to confess.

Like some other Hong Kong films, "Untold Story"--aka "Human Pork Chop"--doesn't always stick to its genre type or smoothly blend the multiple tones together, so there might be some misplaced humor to an unaccustomed westerner. It's been like that since the day and age of chop socky, where a serious and violent duel will take place and the very next scene will be a slapstick one. With "Untold Story," it's hard to tell if you should be light heartedly laughing or afraid, or both at the same time. The tone is really that up in the air, and it seems that both directors had a different way they wanted to make it and compromised with both ways at once. Though what makes the experience different than the usual crime fare is you're not always sure who to root for. The bad guy is someone you'd never want to meet in person but yet you can't keep your eyes off of what he'll do next, even if it involves innocent people getting killed--give us more!

The cops aren't done a service here and are essentially written to lighten the load. They also fall kind of short on keeping the mystery and crime angle intriguing. Anthony Wong plays Mr. Wong with a totally changed persona if you've seen some of his other films. He portrays a degenerate who leeches off of other people in the most extreme sense and they make him entirely creepy while at it. When this movie gets down to the dirty stuff, it does deliver, whether it be with a cruel rape scene that doesn't involve the usual penetration but still the humiliation, to not hesitating when killing little children with blood spray to show for it. I remember first seeing this back on a grainy VHS tape, which made it even more sordid. Though the scenes with carnage are the main things that got seared into my head. When I picked it up on DVD and started to pay attention, some of the other things going on here aren't that memorable and as a result it's not something that thoroughly flows in the most gravitating order it could have when it comes to replay value. First time around: remembered for being horrific and unsettling. After that: you'll wish there was more to it on all fronts.

Rating: 6/10

Director: Danny Lee, Herman Yau
Stars: Anthony Wong, Danny Lee, Emily Kwan, Fui-On Shing
Link: IMDB

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Week of the Killer (1973)

Your soup will never be the same

This is a gradually paced Spanish drama on the downbeat side about a man named Marcos who shirks responsibility, whether it be for doing something more with his life or accounting for his own actions. He works at a slaughter factory and lives in a measly residence on the outskirts of town with his brother. He leads a simple life by laying about without his shirt, frequenting the nearby eatery with a waitress that is friendly, as well as running into an acquaintance who walks his dog and lives in the nearby high-rise apartments. Marcos and his steady girlfriend Paula are showing a little public display of affection when out on the town. They take a taxi and the driver midway through slams the breaks and tells them to get out. Marcos refuses to pay and the taxi driver assaults him and his girlfriend. Marcos grabs a nearby rock and clobbers the irate man on his head and they leave. The newspapers reveal the taxi driver died and the girlfriend's conscience starts to grow. She gives her boyfriend the ultimatum of him going to the police or she won't marry a man with a life of lies. In the heat of the moment, he kills her rather than face potential consequences for the action of the first murder. From then on out the dominoes fall faster than he can stop them from spiraling out of control by just killing more and more whenever someone is on to him.

"I know a lot of people who get ill when they see blood. You're not the same way about blood," says a friend after he gets cut and Marcos responds back with, "No, doesn't bother me in the least." The film insinuates that by him working in a factory day in and out killing animals, that he can be numb when it comes to murdering another human being to the point of not even flinching. Even his brother becomes surprised by his actions, which is reason enough to say that his absence of feelings came about later, rather than picking the slaughterhouse job because it's in his nature. Killing one type of flesh is for sustenance and murdering the other is a choice that affects his freedom, though that line starts to get blurred and co-merge with him. He's not just lying and stealing, but something that ends all ties to just anybody but people that care about him. He essentially jumps right into it to protect a life that's somewhat simple, reserved and uneventful otherwise. It makes the picture somewhat gloomy in that there's little to gain from it and hold onto. Despite some protests to stay away, every other person keeps seeing the bodies in his house and he decides to carry the remains in a sports bag only to blend the human remains with animal meat in a grinder at the factory he works at with no one the wiser. Yet, poetic justice wasn't what he expected. Someone has a collective eye on him and the final result of the film is somewhat unexpected but also depressing for those involved.

This had some decent performances, with Vincent Parra doing more physical acting than speaking. The setups are sometimes extended for atmosphere as well as to give the actors some room to breath their roles. The US title "Cannibal Man" makes this out to be just an exploitation film, though it plays on some morals and social commentary of early '70s Spain, with premarital sex, a potential same sex relationship, animal slaughter, murder and how the rich and poor are viewed and treated differently. It gives the movie a little more to think about instead of going for a straightforward experience of the macabre. Though it does show some blood and a little gore, such as the after effects of a clever to the face. There are also real shots in a few areas of a slaughter house with cows getting their throats cut and blood drained all over the floors and then carcasses being split down the middle to divide up the meat. The majority of the deaths have a reason behind them, instead of him going out of his way to hack people up, though the girlfriend's death felt too abrupt and made him out to just have an anger problem rather than other possibly deeper issues. The nudity is just one scene above the waist. The filmmakers made the Marcos character out to be a product of society rather than doing it entirely as an individual. His social status played a role to how the events got so out of control: police believing the rich rather than the poor, someone who cuts flesh all day for the people, doesn't always differentiate when it's being done to people. Though having that perspective for him isn't going to be like "The Bicycle Thief," as he's not just robbing somebody, but committing murder to cover up facing responsibility.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Eloy de la Iglesia (R.I.P. 2006) (Glass Ceiling, No One Heard the Scream)
Stars: Vicente/Vincent Parra, Emma Cohen
Link: IMDB

It Happened at Nightmare Inn (1973)

Button up that dress missy, or else...

(This review is for the Cheezy Flicks DVD version at 67 mins.)

This little Spanish flick is a horror tale that no doubt deals with death and macabre, though "It Happened at Nightmare Inn" is more about morals and beliefs and the length some will go to to uphold them.

Two sisters in a modest and traditional village have a fear of change from the invading counter culture of the times that foreigners are creeping in with. Scantily clad young women strut their stuff to drooling men, as well as others stay out late and are up to the devil knows what. Some old school folks are embracing of this new era, while others just scoff at the idea. Our sisters, on the other hand, feel it's their right to take matters into their own hands with the guests that stay in their inn but don't always check out.

"It Happened at Nightmare Inn" is a flawed movie that asks some questions that still hold true to some parts of the world today even if it wasn't able to flesh out everything it set out to do. The film is only mildly energetic and often anticlimactic with quick and to the point violence, as the story moves at a moderate pacing with more time spent on seeing the sisters' fears and delusions pile up. The filmmakers give us the ol' amateur detective subplot that feels cut and pasted for mystery's sake with a foreign woman searching for her sister that was last seen at the inn. The mechanics involved with translating the story to the screen make one feel more distant than involved to the specific motivations of the whole belief debate. Neither does one care what happens to the woman searching for her missing sibling as she doesn't feel like a grounded character. Some of the hiccups stem from this particular DVD version, which is edited.

Rating: 4/10

Director: Euginio Martin (Death at the Deep End of the Swimming Pool, Horror Express)
Stars: Judy Geeson, Aurora Bautista, Esperanza Roy
Link: IMDB

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Black Swan (2010)

She's a maniac...dancing like she never danced before

Like the "The Wrestler," this is a deeply woven character study that paces as a dark drama with a young woman named Nina (Natalie Portman) at the center attempting to push herself at the expense of personal relationships and her own physicalities when a once and a life time role comes her way. You get an intimate look at the behind the scenes of a ballet dancer, from routine stretches, make-up, feet taping, auditions, music rehearsals, to the make-it-or-break-it competitive inner circle that surrounds it. The bigger the role, it's stress and then some. Some have the strength of character to make it happen, while others let the make-believe character take over too much of their personal lives.

Nina's self-conscious and emotionally fragile when confrontation and criticisms come speeding at her. She ducks, hides and is afraid to express how she really feels in front of others with the exception of her live-at-home mother who is a shoulder to cry on but is overprotective of her to the world at large. To Nina, the world is Ballet and nothing more. It's on her mind when waking in the morning to conversations on the phone and when meeting outsiders. She's a woman who's partly still a little girl due to her tunnel vision and this causes her to cower away and misinterpret actual meanings as something else. She was riding on a thin slope to begin with and now with the role of Swan Queen--where she has to pull off both of the opposites of White Swan and Black Swan on the same stage when it's normally just one--being presented to her she loses all perspective and starts to slowly dream up and hallucinate.

Mila Kunis plays Lily, which represents a wild card amongst the conformity that usually comes from the traditional background of stage dancing. She's the rebellious, spontaneous one that's able to rebound from the unexpected. Nina is a perfectionist who practiced exclusively for the role of the delicate White Swan and now that she has to learn how to also play the dark and seductive Black Swan without a hitch in between characters, she starts to look at Lily's temperamental personality as both an inspiration and a threat due to the Black Swan coming to her naturally instead. Winona Ryder's character Beth--who was a former lead who stepped down--was impressionable to Nina but now can see the after effects of how much it takes a toll. Though at that point she might have traveled too deep on a downward spiral to turn around.

"Black Swan" takes an artful, niche subject and etches a darker shade onto it. There's no glamor here and you have to wonder if anybody is having fun or they're just doing it compulsively due to losing the spark but still having the talent left over. It uses ballet as a backdrop for a character expose and how something can be taken so far without seeing the forest through the trees. With the exception of a few exaggerated hallucinations that nail the point home, the film was subtle and not so direct, though without being vague either due to its progressive nature. A balance was struck without analyzing the character like a garden variety lay-down-on-the-couch shrink session, but rather an unhealthy breakdown that a viewer can see unfolding before their worrying eyes. The flow is gradual, the cinematography only comes with so many effects compared to other modern pictures, and the traditional stage music is frequently used to get the feel and atmosphere of the world they've encapsulated you in. This eventually builds up to a thrilling finale to show the final act of lost innocence during the big opening night that everyone's been anticipating.

Rating: 9/10

Director: Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain)
Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder
Link: IMDB