Movie Reviews 226 – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

July 4, 2015

The Serpent and the RainbowWes Craven has given us a lot of great movies over his illustrious career from his debut with Last House on the Left, right on through the Scream series of movies. But his production has been decidedly peppered with a few clunkers along the way and The Serpent and the Rainbow is one of those that missed the mark.

A story of Haitian voodoo and zombies (long before Zombies were über cool I might add), the plot is superficial at best, devoid of any real thrills or action, and even boring at times.

After dabbling with some of the local concoctions doled out by a Haitian shaman and being surprised by the potency of the hallucinogenic results, scientist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) returns home where he is approached by a pharmaceutical firm with a special request in mind. Presenting evidence that they believe proves the existence of a miraculous anesthetic, they tell Dennis they want him to go back and find the source. The ‘evidence’ purports that a man buried seven years earlier has been confirmed to be alive and well and to be stalking cemeteries.

Dennis, however skeptical, returns to Haiti where he meets a nurse, Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) who helps him in his quest, but not before he falls under the suspicion of the dreaded “Tontons Macoutes”, the paramilitary force sustaining dictator ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s corrupt regime. The cat-and-mouse game between Dennis and the commander of the Tontons Macoutes, Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), includes both induced visions and genuine acts of aggression, but that is what the rest of the movie boils down to.

How the presence of a zombie is supposed to prove the existence of the anesthetic is never made clear, but that’s the least of confusing parts of the film. Evidently an allegory for the evil regime being represented by the evil’s encountered by Dennis in his quest, the best the film has to offer are a few light scares and actor Paul Winfield in a too brief role as friendly Voodoo priest.

Wes must have been indulging in some of that elixir when he made this one. Skip it and check out many of his much better films like The Hills Have Eyes, Cursed, or even any one of the Scream quadrilogy.

Movie Reviews 225 – El Mariachi (1992)

June 18, 2015

El MariachiI’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez for some time. Quentin Tarantino’s best buddy and partner in crime is a multi-talented director, cinematographer, musician and applies all those aptitudes in every film he makes. He’s got horror and action cred and even charms the kids (and adults) with his Spy Kids series of movies, and best of all knows how to make a film look slick even on a measly budget.  But the one thing that consistently pervades any Robert Rodriguez movie is his unabashed love for his Mexican heritage (while not his home country) and fellow Latino film talent.

El Mariachi was Rodriguez’s first feature film, a simple tale of mistaken identity which lands an aspiring traveling Mariachi player (Carlos Gallardo) in trouble when he arrives in a new town.  As he lugs his black guitar case from one establishment to another seeking work as an entertainer, a local gangsters who also happens to use a black guitar case as a weapon carrier has just escaped from the local jail. But the gangster, Azul, wants his share of the money from the heist that landed him in jail. The gang leader Moco isn’t in a sharing mood and decides that killing Azul and his loyal men is easier.

El Mariachi is caught in the middle and can’t figure out why a bunch of thugs are trying to kill him. Luckily he finds a sympathetic restaurateur willing to put him up in her place. As it so happens, Domino (Consuelo Gómez) also happens to be Moco’s old girlfriend. And things really get out of hand later when the two guitar cases get switched.

There are chase scenes, gunfights aplenty, and the occasional sweet ballad as El Mariachi slowly connects all the dots together and falls for Domino who tries to save her new beau.

El Mariachi it isn’t a fantastic movie but it has all the earmarks and charm of Rodriguez’s later films and is more than entertaining enough to warrant a watch.

¡A huevo!

Movie Reviews 224 – Project X (2012)

June 13, 2015

Project XMove over Jonah Hill, Micheal Sera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse! Where Superbad was just funny, Project X takes that same basic story of three young guys trying to stake their territory in the teenage partying scene and raises the raucous events to a new level of insanity.

When I first picked up this DVD all I knew was that was going to be some ‘party gone wild’ movie and the first few minutes even had me worried that this was just going to be a cheap rip off of Superbad. Three young seniors want to party and two of them take advantage of the third when his parents leave the house for the weekend by coercing him into having a rogue birthday party. The ill at ease and unsure host Thomas (Thomas Mann) is egged on mostly by the boisterous Costa (Oliver Cooper), with ‘fat kid’ JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) adding the last push to finally convince him.

The scene of the crime is a beautiful house with a huge pool, and of course daddy has left behind his precious sports car with the strictest ‘don’t touch’ instructions. Of course we all know the car isn’t going to survive the night and the house will be a wreck before end of the movie. But even so, the route from A to B is filled with unimaginably funny side trips to drug pushers and an party invite plan that goes viral. It doesn’t take long for the slow starting party to evolve into a category five storm of sizzling and intoxicated bodies and several war fronts with police, neighbors, irked drug front-men and a midget just for good measure (pun intended).

But as in all good movies, it’s not just the events, visuals or gags that make it exceptional. The main characters are fully developed, and there is a lot more going on than just the fun. The movie take a stabs at high school cliques, jocks, love interests, parenthood, and even explores the aftermath of the eve of destruction.

And to think when I ordered this movie based on the title alone, I was hoping it was going to be the Matthew Broderick space monkey flic. (Yeah there really is such a movie.) Sheesh!

Movie Reviews 223 – The Legend of the Psychotic Forest Ranger (2011)

June 8, 2015

Legend of the Psychotic Forest RangerWith a title like The Legend of the Psychotic Forest Ranger, I couldn’t resist getting this DVD when I saw it. (In fact I accidentally ended up buying it twice, but that’s another story.)

I don’t mind film makers using the same cliché storyline of kids going to a remote cabin for a little innocent (and not so innocent) fun, but it only works when they bring something new to the table and don’t just retell the same story over and over. Aside from some Smokey the Bear and Yogi Bear jokes the rest of the film lacks any bite (Smokey, Yogi or otherwise) and was barely (bearly?) tolerable.

A dimly presented preamble of some forest ranger having gone a little insane a few years in past, we cut over to the kids making their vacation trek. Instead of ending at their intended destination however, they get lost, run out of gas, and stumble upon a conveniently isolated and empty house in the woods. The mismatched foursome are soon joined by another group where each of the kids in group A conveniently match with a counterpart in group B. And then the loonie, excuse me, psychotic, ranger starts taking them down one after another.

There is an over reliance on fake scares coming in a steady stream, followed by one lame joke after another. Most of the gore is splashback blood from psycho’s kills although there are one or two where they actually spent a bit of budget to show some FX.

The psycho ranger (Michael G. MacDonald) maintains a smirky grim at every appearance delivering at least one corny line of dialogue before every kill. I’ve got to admit that he does come off with a slightly chilling demeanor, but even that gets tiring and repetitive after a while. Once you’ve seen his evil grimace a few times it becomes a ‘by the numbers’ performance without any change.

The movie doesn’t live up to the great poster art (as so few do), although there are some nicely lit shots of the Ranger is shadow. Another odd thing about this movie is that most, if not the entire movie, seems to have been re-dubbed and voiced over. Not sure if this was intentional, due to problems recording, or maybe even due to some quirky sound editing which only made it sound re-dubbed, but it just added to the list of annoyances.

Instead of a “Hi ya Boo Boo!” this one gets a “Bye Ya Boo Boo” from me.

Movie Reviews 222 – The Funhouse (1981)

May 27, 2015

The FunhouseDirector Tobe Hooper will forever by synonymous with his classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but he has given us a few other great flicks over the years including Poltergeist and Life Force. While it had all the right ingredients to become yet another cult classic, The Funhouse which he directed amid all those other hits, isn’t all that fun and misses the mark just like in a rigged shooting gallery.

A kid whose life revolves around creepy things goes too far in pestering his older sister (he actually bursts into her showering to stab her with a rubber knife while wearing a latex monster mask) and as a result she reneges on her promise to take him to a traveling carnival show.

Warned by her parents not to go herself, she is persuaded after being goaded by her boyfriend and a couple of other friends. The carnival features the usual assortment of freakshow, thrill rides, hammer game and even a “Girls, Girls, Girls!” adult exposition (well you’re going to have to make your own judgment on the definition of ‘girls’) all whipping up public frenzy by carny barkers. The highlight is The Funhouse coaster ride that carts couples into a maze of creepy mannequins and animatronic nightmares which is manned but a rubber handed and facemasked ‘Frankenstein’ creature.

Towards the end of the night one of the kids has the bright idea of hiding out in the The Funhouse for overnight stay and some lustful frolicking. Nestling on the tracks on the second floor, their late night passion party is pooped when they hear and see “Frankenstein” in the floorboard cracks trying to buy the favors of the Psychic Fortuneteller with his keeper’s petty cash reserves. When he is repelled by the greedy clairvoyant (guess she didn’t see what’s coming) he kills her, but not before his mask is discarded and the kids learn that the horror under the mask is worse than any Frankenstein monster.

Meanwhile the kid brother has snuck out of the house and has made his way to the carnival on his own and having seen his sister and friends enter The Funhouse and then failing to exit, knows that they are inside. As he is helplessly locked out the older kids are locked in and at the mercy of the creature and his keeper. From there it becomes a bloody body count to see who survives.

I was particularly envious of the young brothers bedroom decorum, a kiddy dream room with tons of Universal Monster posters and toys, but the entire plot line featuring the kid is almost neglected after he makes his way to the carnival. Instead of adding to the story in any significant way, the character is disposed without use or consequence.

The horror and gore during all the chase is fine, but the highlight is makeup artist Rick Baker’s gruesome split face creature design which stands along some of his finest works. If only it could have been used in a more solid story.

Movie Reviews 221 – Curtains (1983)

May 22, 2015

CurtainsWhat kind of personal gain could entice an otherwise peaceful, law abiding citizen to become a (literal) cutthroat serial murderer? Money? Sex? Drugs? How about the leading role in a play? The yearning for fame on the stage has been a movie premise since it was immortalized in the original silent-era The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, albeit in that case it was not personal fame, but rather favoring one particular artist and just clearing the way for her.

Curtains, another fine Canexploitation film from the 80’s, not only revisits that premise but also happens to have a freaky mask wearing antagonist.

Seasoned stage actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) wants the lead role in Audra, a play about a psychotic woman. So desperate is she to play the part that she concocts a plan with her friend the director Stryker (John Vernon), to fake insanity so that she can spend time in an real asylum.

But Stryker has plans of his own. He instead puts out a casting call for the part while she languishes in the nut house and soon a handful of beautiful young hopefuls arrive at the reclusive mansion where Stryker wants to assess all the girls over a few days. Even before the last of the girls arrive one of the hopefuls is killed and just as Stryker begins his auditions he is surprised to she that Samantha has managed to escape and intends to retain her promised leading role even if she has to compete with the others.

Thus begins the expected cycle of women meeting grisly and gruesome ends one at a time as we, the audience, try to figure out which is the killer. The story is spiced up with casting couch antics, hot tub frolicking, a weird creepy doll that seems to be everywhere and a memorable ghastly looking hag rubber mask that is not only worn by the killer but is also an innocent prop in other scenes.

Is it one of the jealous girls, Samantha being the obvious leading suspect? Stryker’s weird cabana boy helper? Or is it Stryker himself who set up the audition and has already shown he can’t be trusted?

Aside from the confounding the lack of clarity on that damned doll this is a good, if not great, cheesy thriller. The scenes featuring the masked killer are alone worth the watch, and both Vernon and Eggar are at their maddening best. Let the play begin!

Movie Reviews 220 – Phantasm II (1988)

May 13, 2015

Phantasm 2The first Phantasm movie was unlike anything I’d never seen before. A movie that defies comparison by creating a unique mood from a blend of horror and fantasy, but falling into neither category. The story of a young boy named Mike who gets a glimpse into the mysterious on goings of a towering undertaker who transforms dead bodies into midget zombies with the ultimate goal of world domination, the human element was magnified by the fact that the boy recently lost his parents. The indie acclaimed hit by writer-director-producer Don Coscarelli featured a mausoleum with a portal to another world, metallic flying balls with spring loaded blades, suped up cars, an ice cream vendor confidant and a reality bending ending. What more could you ask for?

Filmed nearly a decade later, and with the tagline “The ball is back” Phantasm II picks up that same mind bending vibe without missing a beat with the exception that the role of Mike is played by James LeGros, a different and more subdued actor for this installment in the franchise.

Mike, now in an mental institution, convinces his keepers that he has accepted that his crazy story of a Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) exhuming the recently deceased in order to transform them in midget hooded zombies was nothing but his imagination. But as soon as he is released he heads for the cemetery to dig up his parents grave to confirm that they were indeed victims of the Tall Man. Joined by his brother’s old buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister), he tries vainly to convince him that what the experienced in the first movie was all real, but at this point Reggie has doubts and even exposing the empty graves doesn’t convince him. It’s only as they return home and when Mike’s dream of an explosion killing Reggie’s family becomes a reality that Reggie joins Mike on a armed mission to hunt down the Tall Man and they begin their hunt going from one small town to another.

Meanwhile another girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) has also had dreams of the Tall Man and after her grandfather dies her grandmother is snatched by the Tall Man. Her rescue journey puts her on the same path as the boys and with the addition of a mysterious hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) the newly forged quartet finally confront the Tall Man and his minions in small town Périgord, Oregon.

There are plenty of cool shenanigans including a priest gone wild, acid tainted embalming fluid, chainsaws and of course the requisite brief portal excursions to the Tall Man’s planet. It’s as insane as the first movie with the expected slight decrease in novelty, but just as enjoyable as the first time. I did miss the old Mike (formerly played by A. Michael Baldwin) but the producers corrected that mistake in the two installments that followed, and the fifth movie that is still awaiting a release.

I want more balls!

Movie Reviews 219 – Fist of the Vampire (2005)

May 1, 2015

Fist of the VampireOverextended prologue scene. Pounding metal music. Group fight scenes that seem to pop up every ten minutes. Terribly underlit cinematography. Any of this sound familiar? It should because that in a nutshell was my review of Curse of the Wolf, from this very same director on the same Midnight Horror Collection: Blood Predators multi-movie DVD. So it’s no coincidence that Len Kabasinski delivers the same recipe for Fist of the Vampire as he did for lycanthropes, this movie in fact being made a year earlier and sharing a number of cast members. You would have thought that he learned from his mistakes here before repeating them again in Curse of the Wolf.

The hollow story is about a cop infiltrating an underground fight club in order to get closer to the ringleaders who are … you guessed it, vampires. But not only have these vamps been up to no good recently, they were also responsible for the grisly death of a family back in 1977 with a young boy as the sole survivor. Do I really have to spell out the big mystery of what happened to that kid? I figured it out watching the prologue.

This Fight Club with fangs just doesn’t cut it no matter how hard it tries. Everything is excruciatingly stretched out to the point of boredom including the scant sex scenes. Whether there is a fight going on or people are making out, I just wanted to shout “Enough already!” and get this movie moving on. And that was the problem. There was nothing to move on to other than yet more fights. There was a smidgen of hope when they started developing a love interest in the cop and another undercover agent, but that relationship hardly had time to develop and end up just as frustrating as the rest.

Movie Reviews 218 – Curriculum (2006)

April 23, 2015

CurriculumI had some good luck watching some of distributor Black Flag’s Spanish movie offerings so this time I dipped into some of their saucy Chilean tenders via a triple DVD set of director Patricio Valladares movies and taking on one of his earliest efforts with Curriculum.

The original language title of Curriculum Vitae is slightly more accurate since the movie features two contract killers who spend a fair portion of the movie itemizing in detail their many contract (and some gratuitous) kills, bragging to one another and extolling how they are better than the other. One the one hand we have the senior seasoned ‘Italian’ (Serge François Soto) who clearly favors style, etiquette and decorum and waxes poetically over his finest work. His elegant slices are compared to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou. In the other corner Patricio ‘Pato’ lliro (Fabian Padilla) his ‘new kid on the chopping block’ contender has adopted the more direct chainsaw approach, but does have a soft heart and castigated the elder for having once killed a child.

At the center of it all, both literally and figuratively, is the scantily clad victim (Carolina Aguilera) who is tied and bound to a chair as the two dueling killers argue whose contract she really belongs to. The interest builds as we discover that she may not be the victim at all, and the real targets are the killers themselves.

I’ve got to admit that the beginning was disappointing as I could see that this was as much an ‘artistic’ movie as a straight up story. It was immediately clear that viewers were going to have to endure cheap video effects, incomprehensible flashbacks and dream sequences and other erstwhile film techniques. But stick with it and there is also plenty to enjoy especially once we put the pieces together and some of those annoying scenes start making sense.

It was a delight watching the scenes depicting how each of the killers got this latest contract in the first place, the Italian in the midst of butchering another victim in a bloody bathtub, all while playing hardball during negotiations, and ‘Pato’ just coming home from another kill and realizing he’s misplaced his victims head. Now if I can just understand the dream sequence where the Italian dances with ‘the victim’ in a forest clearing…. oh well.

Not the best of movies but quite interesting and a decent first movie for a director whose own Curriculum Vitae has improved over the years and is now hitting his stride with movies like Hidden in the Woods.

Movie Reviews 217 – House of Flying Daggers (2004)

April 15, 2015

House of Flying DaggersCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may have introduced worldwide audiences to flying Asian warriors using bamboo trees as catapulting launchers, but House of Flying Daggers managed to put whole armies in those trees.

As the populace grows tired of an evil and corrupt Tang dynasty emperor and his minions, a rebellious and mysterious new vigilante group called the House of Flying Daggers emerges across the countryside. Local police forces are ordered to quell the rebellion and after they manage to kill the clan leader, it falls upon two local small town constabularies, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to find the new leader. Having been tipped off that a young new hospitality dancer, Xiao Mei (Ziyi Zhang), is reputed to have ties with the outlaw group, the policemen devise a plot wherein Leo arrests the girl only to have Jin come to her rescue and after gaining her confidence, infiltrate the group to find the new leader.

Thus begins a story replete with layers of lies, deceit, mysteries and many surprises as the true picture is patiently unveiled. In the end we are left with a complex love triangle and deadly duels.

But the plot is merely a vehicle for the true star of the movie, the breathtaking cinematography and set designs. Dazzling battle displays, never ending cycles of lavish colors from the lush green forests, kaleidoscopic dance cathedrals and even the blood red splattered battlegrounds are the canvas that make up this film’s print.

And don’t think for a moment those flying daggers merely serve to enhance an exotic sounding title. There are more flying daggers here than you can shake a bamboo stick it at. In fact, most of the daggers are the pointed bamboo stick variety and perform incredible mid-air path acrobatics that you won’t believe. And the magnificent effects not only accent the battles but encompasses  props throughout, from flowing scarves right down to flying bean treats.

A stately addition to the list of accomplished far east movies that needs to be seen in order to be fully appreciated.


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