Thursday 31 March 2011

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976).

Another blacksploitation horror movie from director William Crain (who gave us the highly enjoyable Blacula), Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde sadly fails as an enteraining horror movie, though it does provide unintentional laughs and is hardly ever dull.
The story, as you may have guessed from the title, is a riff on the classic tale by Robert Louis Stevenson. Bernie Casey plays Dr. Henry Pride, a good man who is desperately trying to develop a completed formula that will regenerate liver cells. Just when he thinks he’s got it all sorted he decides to test it on a lab rat, which turns white and attacks the other rats. A bad sign, you may have thought, but Dr. Pride takes this as a sign to first inject an elderly female patient and then, a little while later, inject himself. The transformation is instant, Dr. Pride immediately turns white (Stan Winston is credited as the special effects guy here but I can only assume he was simply in charge of buying the flour and throwing it on Casey’s face) and homicidal.
You can have fun watching Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, really you can, but it’s not the kind of fun you have while a movie carries you along on an enjoyable journey. Nope, this is the kind of fun you have simply by pointing and laughing. Which is still fun.
The script by Larry LeBron (from a story by Lawrence Woolner though that credit should go, surely, to Mr. Stevenson) is pretty awful in places. The whole thing is badly dated, and that’s not helped by the stereotypical pimp character (complete with pimp hat), completely unbelievable and doesn’t even come close to being scary once. Actually, to be fair, there is one good jump scare. That’s it.
Casey does well in the main role but he’s weighed down by clunky dialogue and then the indignity of the flour-faced performance that he has to give. Marie O’Henry is so-so as the prostitute/patient Linda, someone the doctor wants to help until the serum takes over. Ji-Tu Cumbuka steals his scenes once again (he also played Skillet in Blacula) as a verbose lieutenant trying to catch whoever is responsible for the spate of murders on his turf.
After a plodding start that tries to establish the character and the reason why the serum exists, the movie does lift itself gradually but it never gets too far before the ridiculous “monster” and unappealing cinematography bring it back down again. The soundtrack is another area in which the movie is lacking, almost as if nobody could work up the enthusiasm to wrote any decent music accompanying such lacklustre visuals. Overall, it’s easy to say that this entire movie could do with a shot in the arm. Ironically.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Blacula (1972).

Yes, it’s a blaxploitation horror and, as you can guess from the title, it’s a riff on the Dracula tale. What you may not guess is that it’s actually quite a good little film.
William Marshall plays the title role (though the character’s proper name is actually Mamuwalde), a man bitten and cursed by Dracula himself in the opening sequence. Fast forward many years and Blacula’s coffin is taken to America by some interior decorators who have managed to pick up everything contained within Dracula’s household for quite a bargain price. It’s not long before people start dying from severe blood loss and Blacula, of course, discovers someone (Vonetta McGee) who seems to be the double of his deceased ex-wife. Thalmus Rasulala plays the cop who first decides to start considering the seemingly impossible as the bodies start to pile up (and, more worryingly, disappear).
While Blacula is not a great movie, in the standard sense, it does compare very favourably when weighed against other blacksploitation movies, and especially blacksploitation horrors. The cast mostly do a very good job with Marshall cutting an impressive figure as the caped vampire, McGee quite adorable and convincingly won over by a loving man and Rasulala putting on a gruff, tough act in a role that Fred Williamson would surely have loved to chew up.
The screenplay by Raymond Koenig and Joan Torres is adequate and contains laughs both intentional and unintentional (something that’s rarely avoidable nowadays when watching anything so very 70s). Where the movie scores is in the banter between Rasulala and everyone around him, especially Lt. Peters (played by Gordon Pinsent), and in the moments of nobility that Marshall makes the most of.
The direction by William Crain isn’t anything special but it’s quite a compliment that one or two factors haven’t actually dated as badly as you’d think. The classic heart (or should that be soul?) of the tale is timeless. The vampire make-up isn’t all that bad, though Marshall is given some majorly heavy eyebrows when baring his fangs, for some reason. And then we have the vamp to bat transformation, used fleetingly but well done with some simple animation as opposed to the big rubber bats that Hammer used to be so fond of. This ties in nicely to the amusing animated credit sequence.
There’s camp in abundance, the standard funky guitar you’d expect on the soundtrack (though, to be fair, the soundtrack is bloody good and it’s only the groovy 70s dancing that distracts from the enjoyment of the music), Elisha Cook Jr. and an amusing, scene-stealing repeated line delivered by a man named Ji-Tu Cumbuka, who plays a character called Skillet. Do give it a try.


Buy this set here

Tuesday 29 March 2011

The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto (2009).

From the mind of Rob Zombie comes this animated movie that’s madder than anything and everything that he’s previously put onscreen and an absolute hoot for those who can enjoy the puerile humour and the, unsurprisingly, reference-laden material (as I did).

El Superbeasto (voiced by Tom Papa) is a masked hero who is also a bit of a jackass. Think of Ash from the third Evil Dead movie and times that by ten, also adding numerous merchandising tie-ins and an ability to be fairly useless when needed the most. Dr Satan (Paul Giamatti) plans to find himself a certain woman he can make his unholy bride and to become a super-satanic piece of nastiness. And the certain woman is the mouthy and very busty Velvet Von Black (Rosario Dawson). El Superbeasto wants to save the not-so-innocent damsel in mild distress and needs the super-duper Suzi X (Sheri Moon Zombie) to help him out. Suzi herself is greatly helped by her transforming horny robot, Murray (Brian Posehn).

Honestly, this movie is entirely ridiculous for most of it’s running time but I enjoyed it immensely. The animation style was like a neon-lit cross between Ren & Stimpy and Fritz The Cat (which isn’t surprising as these two titles were amongst the inspirations for the animation) and it is also helped by one of the most amusing selection of song lyrics since Trey Parker and Matt Stone last set about writing a soundtrack. The song about Suzi X being chased by motorbike-riding zombie Nazis has to be heard to be believed, it had me laughing hard. Listen to it right here and now on this YouTube link.

The vocal cast are all great, from the leads to the cameo turns from the likes of Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and (my favourite of the lot thanks to the wonderfully droll character that he voices) Geoffrey Lewis.

As this is a Rob Zombie movie it’s no surprise that we get references to other horror classics but the wealth of them and how spot-on they are (thanks to the animated medium) pleasantly rewards the viewer who has been exposed to the same influences as Mr. Zombie. From the wonderful intro that brilliantly recreates the warning at the beginning of Frankenstein (1931) to the nod to Planet Of The Apes to Sunset Blvd to Zombie’s own outings (Moseley and Haig voice their respective characters, Otis Driftwood and Captain Spaulding) – you’re never far away from a subtle or not-so-subtle nod to another movie.

This could easily be dismissed as juvenile, unfunny nonsense by those who don’t find the humour appealing to them. Me? I thought it was damn hilarious and keep looking forward to Rob Zombie’s directorial outings in any form. 


Sunday 27 March 2011

Class Of 1999 (1990)

Director Mark L. Lester (who also wrote the story for this) was worried about kids in 1990. He had, of course, been worried about them ever since he gave us the enjoyably nasty Class Of 1984 but things had simply been declining since then. Which is obviously why he envisaged a future where military robots could be reprogrammed to be used as schoolteachers. Of course.
Lester uses Class Of 1999 to pose many questions. Just how far will kids go if the escalating teen violence is left unchecked? How many schlock-tastic stars can be crammed into one glorious b-movie? And just WHY would a robotic humanoid smoke a pipe?
The plot sees a particularly troubled school (run by Malcolm McDowell) used in a trial that involves three robo-teachers (Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick and John P. Ryan) bringing the students into line and improving the entire education system through . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . zero tolerance and the threat of major robo-violence. Death soon occurs and it becomes clear that the military programming is overtaking the educational programming but it’s hard to tell a deranged robo-teacher that it’s time for them to leave. That means that saving the day is up to bad boy Cody (Bradley Gregg), Christie the principal’s daughter (Traci Lind) and all of the other warring gang members, as long as they can stop fighting each other long enough to realise that they now have a common enemy.
Class Of 1999 is ridiculously implausible, slightly dated and hampered at times by it’s budgetary constraints. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun with an enjoyable tone and “message” that seems to veer from the conformist to the complete antiestablishmentism of the finale.
The acting is very much a mixed bag. Gregg and Lind make for a decent young couple that you want to see survive, Joshua John Miller has a character who is a lot more annoying here than the one he played in Near Dark, Malcolm McDowell is solid, Grier and Kilpatrick and Ryan have fun in their robo-roles and Stacy Keach plays an entertainingly demented scientist overseeing the trial.
Action sequences are lively enough and there’s plenty of destruction throughout but the movie really pulls out all of the stops in a final reel that pits the kids against the seemingly-indestructible teachers. It feels like a cross between The Faculty and Class Of Nuke ‘em High and I’m the kind of person who considers that no bad thing. Another “class act” from Lester. Yeah, sorry about that – couldn’t resist the pun.


Saturday 26 March 2011

Chopping Mall (1986).

When a shopping mall decides to turn it’s security over to laser-armed robots and a bunch of youngsters decide to stay in the mall to party late at night what’s the worst that could happen?
Director Jim Wynorski (who co-wrote this with Steve Mitchell) is someone I tend to like, despite most of his output being movies that you only watch for giggles when you have enough alcohol to accompany the experience. How can you not like a guy who made Scream Queen Hot Tub Party? Chopping Mall remains one of his best films though, to be fair, I’ve only seen this one and Vampirella and have yet to catch the delights of titles such as The Da Vinci Coed and The Bare Wench Project. Hell, I kinda want to see Cleavagefield purely based on the cheeky title.
But I digress.
The reason why Chopping Mall works so well is pure and simple: it’s fun. The robots can grab with pincers, electrocute people and fire their lasers while those stuck in the mall can panic and try to figure out how to defeat the three metal psychos. Wynorski doesn’t let things like logic or believability get in the way here but that’s okay because the whole thing is set up simply to maintain the mall-set carnage. So we have lasers that can sometimes make someone’s head explode and then simply give someone a small burn, we get large robots being able to creep up on wary victims walking backwards and the superb moment when an angry young man jumps into some small mall cart to ram a robot in a supremely pointless moment of self-sacrifice.
It must also be said that Wynorski knows what horror fans can enjoy. We get a smattering of gratuitous nudity, a bit of intentional comedy here and there, as much variety as possible in the death scenes and small roles for Mary Woronov and the legendary Dick Miller.
The cast are all there to be chased down and scared by the killbots but everyone does just fine with the material. The guys are all pretty forgettable and bland (though each one has a certain defining characteristic) but the female contingent includes Kelli Maroney (familiar to fans of Night Of The Comet) and Barbara Crampton (best known for her work with director Stuart Gordon).
And the killbots? Well, they’re basically a cross between Johnny 5 and Sir Killalot from Robot Wars. They don’t look like speedy, stealthy killers but they certainly do look like they could cause a lot of pain and damage if allowed to. Which the director does, no problem.
I know, deep down, that I shouldn’t like this as much as I do. I know that many others won’t really like it as much as me. But they can write their own review, this one is mine.


Sunday 20 March 2011

My Neighbour Totoro (1988).

It’s easy to look at reviews of any movie by Hayao Miyazaki and just roll your eyes at the way people seem to fall over themselves to praise every one of them but it’s also worth remembering that the movies get so much praise because, more often than not, they ARE actually that good.

This outing from Studio Ghibli concentrates on young Satsuki and her little sister, Mei, as the two girls help their father clean up their new home and make it hospitable for the day they all hope will be coming soon – the day that their mother will be well enough to return to live with them. As children often do, the two girls make a lot of things into games, including the cleaning of the house (which involves chasing away soot sprites). When Stasuki starts at her new school, Mei is left to her own devices for the day and finds her way into a hidey-hole occupied by the large, fantastical Totoro. Nobody believes little Mei but eventually Satsuki starts to think that there is some truth in the tale, especially when it looks like Totoro may prove helpful during this difficult period of adjustment.

Now the plot synopsis I have just provided is both inadequate and also slightly misleading. My Neighbour Totoro is not a movie all about magical figures and childish stories and yet it IS about those things, in a way. Some people may watch the movie and think I am clearly talking nonsense but the movie, for me, was more about the way children find to deal with difficult situations and possible pain. Children are hardy little creatures, thanks in large part to their imagination and their undiluted reservoirs of optimism, and this movie is all about that childish ability to deal with change and to keep coping.

Yes, there are the usual moments featuring wondrous creatures and strange supernatural entities but it could be argued that these things are all in the minds of the children. What can’t be argued is just how well Miyazaki captures that feeling of childish exploration, that time of your life when every dark area was to be approached with the mixture of fear and excitement thumping in your chest.

My Neighbour Totoro is about the big titular creature, a cat/bus thing, little soot sprites and flights of fancy. But it’s also, equally, about moving into a new home, making new friends and worrying about a loved one who is ill. The whole thing is quite a delight.

Wasting Away (2007).

AKA Aaah! Zombies!!

Wasting Away is a decent, enjoyable zombie comedy in a subgenre that has become quite crowded lately and it brings something different to the table. It’s not a great film though.

The story itself concerns Mike (Matthew Davis), Vanessa (Julianna Robinson), Tim (Michael Grant Terry) and Cindy (Betsy Beutler) all being afflicted with a very serious case of brainfreeze after Mike creates some ale ice cream with, unbeknownst to him, ingredients contaminated by some nasty stuff that zombiefies everyone it comes into contact with. When the group head out to the streets they see “infected” people moving at great speed, speaking incoherently and being prone to extreme violence. But it’s not those people who are infected. It’s our lead characters who are now the dangerous ones.

Director Matthew Kohnen (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Sean Kohnen) does a good job here of making the main characters likeable and bemused by the whole situation, until the penny eventually drops. The movie is filmed in both colour and black & white (with the latter showing the true depiction of events and the former showing the world as the lead characters see it) and juxtaposes differing views in amusing ways. Top marks go to the scene showing Mike and Tim’s celebratory dance moves in a bowling alley and the moment with Tim and Cindy passionately kissing each other – both moments had me laughing out loud. And yet the premise is SO good that you can’t help feeling this should have been even better, it should have had more big laughs rather than numerous little chuckles.

The cast all do well, most of our quartet having gained a lot of experience through some quality TV work (Davis in The Vampire Diaries, Terry in Bones, Beutler in Scrubs) and it’s a testament to their likeability that you still want things to end well for them even when they realise just how the situation really is and who the monsters really are. Colby French is also very good as a man who believes that he’s a super-soldier, Richard Riehle is as enjoyable to watch onscreen as he usually is and Oren Skoog (who was also in Transylmania, a movie derided by pretty much everyone except . . . . . . . . . me) is good for a few laughs.

Clearly working within a low budget, and doing quite well with it, the movie deserves to be seen and enjoyed but I can’t help feeling that there should have been so many more one-liners packed in here and lots more comedy. The script isn’t as tight as it could be and there are a number of visual gags that rely on FX work that the production couldn’t really afford. They’re amusing enough but rely on the viewer forgiving the cheap look of the thing, something that didn’t really have to come to the fore if the comedy had been tweaked in a number of areas elsewhere.

It’s something a bit different but Wasting Away is not up there with the better zombie comedies that we’ve seen in recent years (ie, Shaun Of The Dead, Zombieland and Fido).

Friday 18 March 2011

Tales From The Crypt (1972).

It’s an anthology horror movie from Amicus (contrary to popular belief the studio DID make other types of movies  but they will forever be tied to their portmanteau legacy) and based, of course, on the popular E.C comics of yesteryear. As well as Tales From The Crypt the movie also takes some story ideas from The Vault Of Horror, another popular title, but I couldn’t tell you which story comes from which source as I am far from an expert in comic books.

What I can tell you is that Freddie Francis once again directs from a screenplay by Milton Subotsky, as was the case with Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors, and the results are almost as enjoyable.

The framing story concerns a number of people who get lost while wandering around a crypt area, funnily enough, but the fun is to be had in the separate, twisted tales that The Crypt Keeper (Ralph Richardson) reveals.
Story 1 – Joan Collins plays a nasty woman who bumps off her hubby on Christmas Eve but then finds herself trapped and unable to call the police when a madman dressed as Santa comes prowling around the house.
Story 2 – Ian Hendry plays a husband about to secretly leave his wife and kids until fate intervenes.
Story 3 – The ever-brilliant Peter Cushing plays an old man who upsets his affluent neighbours by not selling up his house, looking after a number of noisy dogs and being loved by the local children for the re-conditioned toys that he gives out to them. The affluent neighbour plans to spoil everything for the old man but things, inevitably, go too far.
Story 4 – A fun, knowing take on the classic horror tale, “The Monkey’s Paw”, that revolves around a husband and wife who may have found a way to make wishes come true.
Story 5 – Last, but by no means least, is the tale of Maj. William Rogers (Nigel Patrick), a man who becomes the head honcho at a care facility for the blind and who ends up causing so much upset that the residents (led by Patrick Magee) plan a particularly nasty bit of revenge.

Tales From The Crypt is one of the better anthology movies from this period thanks to it’s decent cast, the choice of tales and the fact that five stories are crammed into it’s 90-odd minute runtime so you’re never far away from either an enjoyable set-up or gleefully nasty punchline. The script and direction are acceptable, if unspectacular, but the main plus point here is in the delight the film takes in it’s own nastiness. This is a horror anthology movie a step or two ahead of the more austere entries in the subgenre and anyone meeting a sticky end meets a very sticky end indeed. Which makes for a lot of fun.


Monday 14 March 2011

Death Of A Ghost Hunter (2007).

Patti Tindall plays Carter Simms, a paranormal investigator out to discover proof of ghostly activity in the notorious Masterson home. She is joined by Colin Green (played by Mike Marsh), the man who will set up the video equipment and try to keep it in order, and writer Yvette Sandoval (played by Davina Joy). There’s also the deeply religious Mary Young Mortenson (Lindsay Page) who is there because the owner wanted her there.

Death Of A Ghost Hunter gets a few things right. It’s set up as a reconstruction which means that while we do get some shaky-cam moments and some night-vision happening here and there we also get scenes that are set up with the emphasis more on atmosphere and creepiness as opposed to 100% realism. It also doesn’t do too badly in keeping things mildly tense even while there’s not all that much going on. The exchanges between the people waiting around inside the house are quite believable and play out, within the context of the tale, realistically enough. I’d even say that some of the actual scientific evidence gathered is impressively low-key and realistic. Though much of it isn’t.

But the many faults just add up to weigh this movie down so low that it can never rise to anywhere even close to the average mark. The acting from almost everyone involved is quite bad, especially from leading lady Tindall who sleeps through her role and gives the impression that her character couldn’t even spell out EVP. Green and Sandoval almost get by, almost, but Mortenson is allowed to go so ridiculously over the top in her performance that it ruins every scene anyway.

Director Sean Tretta (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mike Marsh)  seems to have good intentions and there are moments when you think Death Of A Ghost Hunter might just creep into territory that makes you class it as “decent” but then along comes another fumble that undoes the good work.
When the scares become overt and obvious we’re stuck with some poor effects work and execution that’s reminiscent of something from The SyFy Channel and when we get into the second half of the movie everything just becomes a bit boring and bland when it should really be ratcheting up to a tense, twisted finale. One or two little touches save it from being a complete disaster but that’s definitely faint praise.

It deserves points for trying, and for not just jumping on the whole “found footage” bandwagon, but everyone involved should have gone all out to shoehorn actual scares in here and make the thing more of an intense journey than a spooky Hallmark TV movie (which is what it feels like).

Sunday 13 March 2011

Paintball (2009).

Have you ever seen footage of paintball games? People who all look pretty similar shooting at a team of other people who all look pretty similar, that’s what I recall seeing.

So I’d think that if you were going to make a film involving a game of paintball that’s gone horribly awry you would probably want to get some memorable characters in the mix, some moments that the viewer can invest in as the tension grows and some great death scenes.

Alternatively, if you’re director Daniel Benmayor or writer Mario Schoendorff, you may decide that you want none of those things and instead populate your movie with a lot of irritating folk who do absolutely nothing to establish themselves as individuals (Jennifer Matter being the one exception, arguably just by being given enough screentime). Then have most of the main death scenes filmed through a thermal imaging camera so that all viewers end up seeing is a mix of white, grey and black depicting death scenes far tamer than most seen nowadays on any of the major gaming platforms.

I would say that all of these failings let the movie down and that it’s a shame to ruin such potential and . . . . . . so on and so on . . . . . . . . but I’d be lying.

Paintball gets into the thick of the action quite quickly but that action turns out to be highly derivative and unexciting. The whole thing is one big wasted premise thanks to a lack of thought, originality and care. One or two moments still manage to do just enough to impress (one death involving mines was particularly inventive though, yet again, annoyingly shown through the thermal imaging camera) but the overall outcome is something that doesn’t even satisfy on a simple, “brain switched to off position”, level. 


Thursday 3 March 2011

Choke (2008).

Sam Rockwell plays a sex-addicted conman named Victor Mancini in this adaptation of the novel by Chuck Palahniuk that is often as darkly amusing as it is offbeat and disturbing.

Starting off at a meeting for sex addicts (a scene that immediately, and inevitably, brings to mind the central character from Fight Club seeking solace in the various meetings he attended), we quickly get to know Sam Rockwell’s character as someone who really doesn’t care for anyone other than himself. Well, okay, there’s his best friend (Brad William Henke) who can’t stop playing with himself and there’s his hospitalised mother (Anjelica Huston) but everyone else seems to be weighed up in terms of potential dollars or potential sexual gratification. As things unfold, however, we find that there is something more to the man. This becomes much more noticeable when he finds himself drawn to Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), a young nurse helping to care for his mother.

Director Clark Gregg (better known nowadays, arguably, for his appearance in the latest wave of Marvel superhero movies but who also wrote the screenplay based on Palahniuk’s novel) certainly shows talent here though he’s helped immeasurably by a central performance from Sam Rockwell that ranks up there with some of his very best (and that’s high praise indeed considering how much I enjoy almost every one of the man’s performances). Rockwell easily moves from venomous slimeball to manipulative smoothie to defensive manchild as the story demands and his bad qualities are just as watchable as the good. Anjelica Huston is also superb in a role that shows her playing a senile, elder figure in the present day and then a radical, off-kilter parent in a number of flashback scenes. Brad William Henke provides many of the easier laughs while Kelly Macdonald is very easy to like. Everyone in supporting roles, including the talented Mr Gregg, do very well.

Choke has a number of points that it makes well, some for comedic effect and some to provoke a bit of thought while you’re enjoying the onscreen antics (e.g. the whole choking scam that Rockwell utilises to make money, hence the title of the movie), and it does this without sticking them down our throat, no pun intended. And then in the next minute it gives us something as hilarious as a pretend rape that proves to be just too demanding for the “attacker”, who just can’t get anything the way that the “victim” wants it.

I REALLY liked Choke. It certainly goes way out there at times, especially in the sub-plot that reveals information about Victor’s father, but it’s always still just got one foot touching the ground, thanks to that central performance from Rockwell.