Movie Reviews 307 – The Val Lewton Collection

July 22, 2017

When we praise a set of movies by the creative talent behind them, we usually identify them by either the actors or directors involved as they are the ones that have the most significant contribution to the works in question. But as a producer Val Lewton had as much influence on his films than the directors he hired. So much so that when referencing any of the films he had a hand in, his name is recalled as much as that of the director or stars. This high regard for his films has earned him something no other producer has been accorded, a DVD box set of his own. The Val Lewton Collection released in 2005 is a five DVD set featuring nine movies and a documentary on Lewton’s career.

Lewton’s films can easy be characterized by his cerebral approach in providing psychological horror instead in lieu of physical and creature scares. The nine films in this set, all created in the 1940’s at RKO, are – with one notable exception – fine examples of chilling stories primarily directed by three directors. Jacques Tourneur basically made his reputation on the very films he created for Lewton, while Mark Robson and Robert Wise both started their illustrious careers with these films.

Here is a rundown of the set with the exception of the documentary Shadows in the Dark, which ashamedly, I have yet found the time to watch.

Isle of the Dead (1945): Boris Karloff stars in a tale of the mythical Vorvolaka of Grecian folklore. After setting out for a desolate island with a war reporter, a cold-blooded general discovers that fears that a plague is rampant and therefore he must quarantine the island in order to prevent spreading of the disease to the mainland. But is it just a medical contagion at work or something more sinister?  [Dir. Mark Robson]

Bedlam (1946):  A young socialite trying to better the forgotten social castaways of the wards in the Bedlam asylum suddenly finds herself committed within its very walls by the evil master (Boris Karloff) running the institution. A testament to how politics and the powers that be could eliminate social reformers as well as a glimpse into how mental illness was dealt with before scientific and medical advancements even touted the notion of it being a treatable disease. [Dir. Mark Robson]

The Leopard Man (1943): When the manager of a dancer at a nightclub decides to give her a live leopard in order to rouse the jealousy of a rival dancer, the leopard escapes and begins a killing spree in the New Mexico town. But signs point to something else. This film was a early example of how horrors unseen and only hinted at could be as effective, if not be even better, than visual depictions. Aside from the silly dancer names, KiKi and Clo-Clo, the movie posits both the possibility of a real escaped leopard as the culprit or the more sinister option. [Dir. Jacques Tourneur]

The Ghost Ship (1943): A newly arrived third officer on a merchant ship finds that the authoritarian captain has gone crazy. But despite the captain killing of members of the crew, they are all loyal to him when the officer tries to sound the alarm he soon finds himself captive on the ship at sea and without any means to get help. The film is actually much better than the simplistic plot as the two play a game of cat-and-mouse as the tension mounts throughout the officer’s ever growing dire predicament. [Dir. Mark Robson]

Cat People (1942): Probably the best known movie in the lot and also reknown for the 1982 remake with Nastassja Kinski. When Irina a Serbian woman who believes she is cursed falls in love she tries to rebuff the man fearing that she will turn into a ferocious feline and kill him. But she succumbs to his advances and  thereafter battles her own beliefs amid a spree of murders. Another great example of how hints and symbolism replace actual displays of horror, but just as or even more effective. [Dir. Jacques Tourneur]

The Curse of the Cat People (1944): A direct sequel to Cat People, this one takes the odd perspective of a young girl who can communicate with the ghost of the Irina character in Cat People while her parents struggle to comprehend their child’s fantasies. Not necessarily a bad film but more fantasy than horror or even thriller and so different from Cat People with only the most tenuous of links that most will be disappointed. [Dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise]

I Walked with a Zombie (1943): This is ‘old school’ zombie as in Caribbean voodoo somnambule walking dead. A nurse living in frigid Ottawa, Canada (yay!) is hired as a caretaker for a patient the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. When she gets there she suspects that the mental state of her charge may be cured by the locals and their traditional rituals. Her problems stem from the dysfunctional family and having to deal with sibling rivalry and of course falling in love. The only scares are from the native, stalking bug-eyed Zombie guard but that is more than enough. [Dir. Jacques Tourneur]

The Body Snatcher (1945): Not to the be confused with Invasion of the Body Snatchers this horror with both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi delves into the age old question of moral ethics and medical research. When a young paralysed girl is refused treatment by the arrogant but learned Dr. MacFarlane, his young student and lab assistant Donald, who has just learned that a grave robber is supplying the doctor’s cadavers, makes a deal in which he will keep the secret as long as MacFarlane treats the girl. When Donald discovers that the robber isn’t bothering to wait for people to die naturally, his conscience is torn before he learns an even darker secret about MacFarlane. Karloff is at his best as the grave robber in this film which both references the real life case of grave robbers Burke and Hare who killed 18 people and essentially is a retelling of those events. [Dir. Robert Wise]

The Seventh Victim (1943): A very strange mystery in which a woman, Mary (Kim Hunter), goes looking for her older sister Jacqueline who has gone missing. Tracing back Jacqueline’s last business which she seems to have purposely abandoned, Mary discovers that her sister rented out a room in which she keeps only a chair and a hangman’s noose. With the help of some of Jacqueline’s acquaintances (some who have secretes of their own), Mary pieces together her sister’s involvement with a Satanic cult. But even the evil worshiping cult abides by a strange ‘non-violent’ pledge which proves problematic.  [Dir. Mark Robson]

Movie Reviews 306 – The China Syndrome (1979)

July 14, 2017

We can all laugh now after watching those old 1950’s instructional videos of school kids being told to ‘Duck and Cover’ in the event of a nuclear war.- like hiding under a school desk was going to offer any protection for a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb dropping out of the sky. Growing up in the Cold War 70’s we were still living with the threat of a thermonuclear war breaking out any second but we still managed to add another nuclear wrinkle to our worries; home grown nuclear accidents from the growing number of local nuclear power plants. Hollywood films sensationalized the threat of nuclear war in numerous films – Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, and War Games to name just a few – but it wasn’t until The China Syndrome that the fear of a nuclear meltdown was tackled head on.

Languishing as a budding TV news reporter relegated to providing the daily upbeat local event stories, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) sees an opportunity to advance her career while working on a story about the inner workings at the local nuclear plant. The visit is purely an instructional promo piece for the hosting power plant authorities until an incident is surreptitiously captured on camera by her spirited and rebellious cameraman friend Richard (Michael Douglas). The soundless images capture control room personnel trying to address what begins as a routine alarm and then growing increasingly nervous as supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) fixates his eye on one particular ominous sensor reading. After an interminable few minutes of concerned gazing the event ends with shouts of relief, smiles and claps of approval. But exactly what happened in those few minutes?

While Kimberly and Richard are not sure of the exact nature of what transpired, they know they have something and don’t believe the official press releases downplaying the event with jargon. When attempts to air the footage are scuttled by station management Richard steals the footage, intent on having experts examine the evidence while Kimberly prods Jack who initially tries to allay fears claiming that ‘the system worked’. But Jack himself has other doubts having sensed minor tremors within the plant leading up to the incident. Digging into the technical specifications, architecture drawings and component testing results he uncovers a darker truth that has him scared.One that the plant operators will go to extremes to bury and enough to push Jack over the edge.

Part techno thriller, part dystopian warning, the movie addressed a palpable horror that the world glimpse a mere 12 days after this movie’s release with the first recorded nuclear facility at Three Mile Island and which we’ve sadly gotten closer to with Chernobyl and again in Fukushima.

I have to admit that for myself the inclusion of Jack Lemmon in the cast is enough of a reason to watch this movie (he did earn an Oscar nomination for his role as did Fonda) but this movie has a lot more bite than just good performances. Some of the plot is overly dramatic in a few places but in general the film has stood the test of time. And the warning remains as relevant as ever.

Movie Reviews 305 – Onechambara: Bikini Samurai Squad (2008)

July 8, 2017

The problem with making movies based on video games is that the games have to have a fairly deep and layered story to begin with if anything of relevance is to be culled from the source, which of course is not usually the case.  If you are going to attempt to make a film based on a “hack and slash” video game, as is was the case with Onechambara here, the only hope is that the writer stretched their imagination way beyond the gameplay to deliver a cohesive well plotted and most importantly, interesting story.

While the movie does make an effort to have at least a semblance of a plot, this is as threadbare and predictable as they come. For the most part I felt like I was watching a game as much as I was watching a movie. That said, as one would expect there are some interesting visuals and I’m not only referring to “Bikini Samurai Squad” subtitle.

Set in the year 20XX (That’s not a typo or me just forgetting the exact year, that’s exactly how they define the time period in the intro text), the postapocalyptic world is overrun by zombies that were unleashed by a rogue scientist from the D3 corporation – D3 being the name of the company that created the original game of course. Our bikini wearing, katana wielding heroine is Aya who glumly roams the land accompanied by her chubby sidekick Katsuji. She’s on a mission to avenge the death of her father at the hands of her own sister while Katsuji hopes to find his own little sister Saki who he abandoned long ago. Along their journey they meet leather clad, motorcycle mama Reiko, intent finding the scientist responsible for the zombie mess.

The backstory of how Aya’s sister was jealous of her fighting abilities since they were toddlers is played out as the trio battle one zombie horde after another until they find the evil Dr. Sugita who is still madly churning out the walkers with now with Aya’s sister at his side.

The CG effects when not outright laughable are annoying, with blood spurts that break the 4th wall between the set and the viewing audience as droplets on the screen. I was tired of this the second time they used the effect and just plain indignant as it continued well into the film. Aya is as short on words as she is in fighting prowess. As many martial arts movies as I’ve watched, there is usually at least one or two attempts at a novel fighting move but you will find all of these here repetitive and even boring. The finale battle introduces a facsimile of chain whip brandishing Gogo Yubari from Tarantino’s Kill Bill that is somehow supposed to entertain us when she is neither original nor combat worthy like Gogo. And before anyone points out that Tarantino himself based Gogo on a character in Battle Royale the difference is that he gave depth to Gogo and kick ass fight moves and did not just blatantly create a carbon copy image.

A pointless cash grab aimed at the enthusiasts of the video game, this has nothing to offer to those ignorant of the game, and probably stung worse for those fans who wanted to see a live action version of their dear franchise.

When it comes to this film I want my quarter back and I was never happier to see the “Game Over” ending.

Movie Reviews 304 – Night of the Living Dorks (2004)

June 24, 2017

The Germans were at the vanguard of horror movies in the silent era of the early 1920’s and even the cinema industry as a whole until Hollywood took over. Turning out classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and The Golem, they trailblazed the path for future horrormeisters to follow. But after that seminal spurt and soon preoccupied with other irritants like inciting World Wars, the Germans contributions fell silent as others moved the stakes. It took until the turn of the century and the Zombie revival craze to bring them back into game with the surprise comedy Night of the Living Dorks (original title “Die Nacht der lebenden Loser”).

The story begins with a Haitian family besieged by a stalking zombie which gets sizzled by the torch wielding mother. The family are about to inter the zombies ashes when the burial urn is snatched and we follow it being exchanged from one trader’s hands to another as it makes it’s way to Europe.

There we are introduced to three dorks, Philip Fleischhacker (Tino Mewes), Weenie (Manuel Cortez) and Konrad (Thomas Schmieder), part of the ‘out’ crowd at their high school. Konrad is the most pitiful of the trio, keeping a valise full of spare eyeglasses as they get broken so often by bullies. He also keeps a detailed diary recording of every person who has harassed him over the years. Weenie is the chemically unbalanced and horny one who pilots a stolen van. And then there is our protagonist Philip, the common everyman who is infatuated by the high school princess Uschi (Nadine Germann) and clueless that his longtime friend and neighbor Rebecca (Collien Fernandes) – now hanging out with the Goth crowd – is secretly harboring a mad crush on him.

Desperate to get Uschi to go to the prom with him, Philip asks Rebecca and her Goth friends if they have any mystical love potion that can help him. As it so happens Rebecca and her Satan worshiping friends had a cemetery ceremony planned for that evening having gotten their hands on a urn (yeah, that one) and were planning on reviving the spirit of Kurt Cobain. But when the dorksome trio arrive at the graveyard that night they find that Rebecca’s friends Gunther and Frederik are more hopeless than themselves and the ashes wind up being blown onto the dorks entire bodies.

The next thing the boys know is that they are waking up in a morgue but chalk it up to being a dream or prank. When the boys finally realize that they are in fact now ‘living dead’ they first have a little fun with their newfound strength and abilities. But soon body parts start falling off and they get busy with staple machines keeping them together as Philip tries to get them out of the mess. Konrad on the other hand has decided that revenge can be sweet when you’re a zombie and after a falling out with the others begins tracking down all his former tormentors. Eventually Rebecca’s Necronomicon-like spell book gives them hope for a cure but for that to happen the boys have to handle hurdles that include Philip’s parents coming home, Uschi’s boyfriend and getting Konrad back.

The social media reviewers and ratings have not been kind to this film for some reason, but having seen scores of these ‘Zombedies’ myself (including Shaun of the Dead, the yardstick by which all such movies are compared to) I put it way ahead of most of those peers. While some of the sequences are predictable I found most of the gags to be genuinely funny and with a lot of originality as well. The goofy Goths are hilarious as they take Satanic ceremony shortcuts. The zombified dorks end up hosting an impromptu house party as Weenie lusts over a MILF teacher who incessantly brings up her past drug-fueled orgies. Philip is constantly harassed by Wolfe, Uschi’s jock boyfriend, and then there are his parents to deal with, a straight laced, stern father and a mom who wants Philip to get laid as long as it’s with Rebecca.

I also found there were a number of ‘easter egg’ type of gags such as Philip’s family name being Fleischhacker (Fleisch is German for meat), his friend being call “Weenie” but in the original German version his name is “Wurst” which means sausage (hence the English translation to Weenie). And I got a good laugh reading the sign for the school gym, the “Friedrich Nietzsche Gymnasium”.

Don’t let the ratings fool you, this one is worth watching.

To all my German cinefiles I say “Ich bin ein Zombie”!

Plans Diaboliques – Dany Dagenais (2016)

June 21, 2017

Not my usual reading fare, but in the name of national linguistic unity I thought I’d read a French book for a change and do my part to coalesce the Two Solitudes here in the Great White North. I also needed to reinvigorate those brain cells dedicated to that task as I get to practice my French oral deftness at work but rarely do any reading in the language. I do read French on occasion but not as much as I did in elementary and high school when I hated doing it. At that time I was even forced to read a few novels as part of the curriculum, but hardly the types of novel that pique my interests. Being so out of practice, what I needed was something I could digest in smaller doses like a collection of short stories. Luckily I happened to picke up just that from author Dany Dagenais at a local comic convention last year. Plans Diaboliques contains an entertaining assortment of stories that range between horror, science fiction and just a touch of the bizarre in snippets that are easy enough to understand and teach me a few things along the way.

The pocket sized glossy softcover – who’s uncredited cover artwork should be attributed to Sv Bell judging by some of his previous work – comes in at a moderate 156 pages contains the following eight stories

6 Degrés de Séparation: “6 Degrees of Separation”

A fast paced alien parasite story in which a neck burrowing, tentacled invader hops from one person to another chasing some ultimate unknown goal. As new characters are introduced they just as soon become the next host for the alien and are then used bring the alien one step closer to that goal. But’s that goal remains a mystery during the deadly journey.

Destin: “Destiny”

A simple but entertaining take on a visit to a clairvoyant by a highly skeptical woman. Despite some evidence that the gypsy seems to know personal information the skeptic makes a mental checklist of the typical ploys and tactics used by con artists to garner repeat business. When the psychic dispenses the three staples – Money, Love and Death – the woman is satisfied she is a fake. When some of her predictions begin to become true in a impossibly short time the woman steadfastly she refuses to believe the last ominous one.

La Chose Dans Le Sous-Sol: “The Thing in the Basement”

One of the longer stories in the collection about a man who discovers a … well a “Thing”, in his basement after tracking down the source of a recurring noise. Transitioning from fear to fatherly concern, the relationship develops until the man decides to introduce his new friend to the woman who recently left him, convinced that it was just a misunderstanding.

Le Fossoyeur: “The Gravedigger”

What does a young gravedigger do when he starts hearing shouts and banging coming from the coffin he is about to inter? A highly predictable outcome but the scant few pages make for a fun few minutes of reading.

Le Banquet: “The Banquet”

When little oversized orphan Xavier finally gets adopted by a wealthy couple, it appears like a dream come true. Living in a mansion, lavished with gifts, taking exotic vacations on a personal jet are all perks bestowed upon him by his new parents. But having a personal chef attend to his every culinary whim is the best fringe benefit of living the high life. He can hardly wait for the big annual feast his parents arrange for all their friends.

Une Bonne Journee “A Good Day”

A little magic restores a meat butchers vigor to run his business despite a few bad apple customers who harangue and complain in the face of all his efforts to please. An odd form of revenge in this decidedly weird tale.

Marie-Jeanne “Mary-Jane”

When young Thomas and his girlfriend are caught indulging on a bit of weed by the girl’s father he is surprised that not only is the father not mad, but has a tale to tell of his own drug laced adventures. But the father, barely able to contain his annoyance with greedy and simple-minded Thomas, has a surprise and hallucinatory ending.

La Thérapie de George le Peureux “Scared George’s Therapy”

George has a fear complex that bundles more than a few phobias. In fact his panic spans to just about everything you can imagine. As he pours his heart out to the patrons in a local bar, rather than pity the poor man, they give him a solution. One that changes his life in the literal sense.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection (available at indiepress.net and look forward to reading his next collection – Slinger Sister – which I also recently picked up. Et je suis sûr que mes compétences en lecture française se sont améliorées.

Movie Reviews 303 – The Wild Bunch (1969)

June 16, 2017

The western was once a Hollywood staple, born in the silent era at the nascence of the film industry itself, it reigned supreme along with the romance and crime mysteries from the 40’s on through the 60’s. It competed with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the form of the weekly serials used to entice kids to return for Saturday matinees. Legendary stars including John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and even director John Ford were synonymous with the format. But somewhere along the late 60’s it began to lose it’s lustre and fell out of favour, and the genre has been only sporadically revisited since.

The popularity of westerns in it’s heyday could be attributed to one factor: the promise of some action  But while those old westerns featured gunfights, showdowns and Cowboy and Indian war battles, the inflicted wounds were moderated to keep them mostly family friendly – well as family friendly as a gunshot or piercing arrow can be – bloodless and without realistic injuries. Director Sam Peckinpah changed all that with The Wild Bunch, throwing the sugar coated oaters a dose of reality.

The story is about a band of grizzled outlaws who roam along the periphery of the Mexican border as they pull their heists. The movie begins with the gang disguised in cavalry uniforms entering a small town and staging a bank robbery. But just as they are about to make their getaway they notice guns poking along the nearby rooftops. But the lawmen, forewarned and waiting for them, have not planned well. Evident that they are about to be ambushed by the waiting posse the outlaws take advantage of a badly timed celebratory parade including women and children leading right up to the bank porch. The outlaws exit the bank with guns blazing, instantly barraged by return gunfire. What follows next is a prolonged scene of frenzied carnage that leaves casualties on both sides, but mostly with the young and innocent bystanders. This opening scene clearly establishes the realism to follow.

The ragtag group of outlaws keep one step ahead of their pursuers while at the same time try to get one last good robbery with visions of a comfortable retirement dangling before them. Their trail is hindered not only by the lawmen and bounty hunters hot on their trail but also by a former gang member who got caught and coerced into cooperating with the gangs capture. Their escape plans are further complicated by the Mexican revolution, rebels, corrupt authorities in both factions, arms dealing, gang infighting and another thwarted heist.

Amid much soul searching and questioning the meaning of life, the grim outlook is inescapable leading to both desperation and eventual resignation. The gun battles are palpable and with blood red flowing freely along with bits of body and flesh. The handguns and shotguns are reinforced with a prized machine gun with becomes the centerpiece of a bloody finale. Other brutal acts which include a slit throat and a man dragged within and inch of his life are just as authentically portrayed.

The stellar cast is led by William Holden as the gang leader, Robert Ryan as the former member leading the hunt, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and even Strother Martin as one of the feckless bounty hunters.

Not for the faint of heart, the brutality in the film still stands as a benchmark today. The film also pushes the realism and ruthless boundaries in other ways such as showing kids torturing scorpions engulfed in ants and how ragged Mexican women would prostitute themselves for a few gringo coins, subject matter that would normally be hinted at and not explicitly shown on camera.

Peckinpah would once again adopt this ultra-violence format in Straw Dogs, another film that was proved to be controversial, but just as great cinematically.

Movie Reviews 302 – Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

June 10, 2017

The Horror genre can be broken down into various categories that are vastly different from one another in ways to deliver the anticipated scares. Most horror movies rely on physical aspects, be they creatures or human attributable violence. The more ephemeral ones employ ghosts as a foundation, but even those can be overt ghostly apparitions or mere observation of ghostly influence on surroundings. The subtle brands of horror are the psychological films that have scant jump scares and rely on emotion and implied dread. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death adds another dimension to this latter form of horror giving us a protagonist that has a questionable state of sanity to begin with before introducing the horror at hand.

Recently released from a stay at psychiatric institution, Jessica (Zohra Lampert), her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) make a brief stopover in the Connecticut town that is near a farmhouse the couple recently purchased. Beginning with a tepid reception from the ferryman once he learns of their destination they get even more abrasive encounter from the townsmen hovering the porch of the local goods store.

Ostensibly the couple bought the house to get away from the big city but the underlying reason was for a fresh start  for Jessica and hoping she is really over her mental issues. But even before arriving at their new home Jessica has visions of a young girl and also begins hearing whispers, all of which she keeps to herself while beginning to question her sanity.

Once their hippie painted hearse arrives at the fog enshrouded, turreted Victorian house they are surprised by Emily (Mariclare Costello) a young homeless vagabond. Evident that Woody has taken a shine to her, Jessica convinces Duncan to let Emily to stay for a while. Jessica soon regrets this noticing an attraction between Emily and her husband. Jessica is further strained when they hold a seance that night as suggested by Emily hoping to contact those that have died in the house.

Low on funds as the trio intend to farm the grounds around the house, the couple pilfer the house contents and furnishings to see if they can sell some of the stuff to a local antique dealer. One particular item that catches Jessica’s eyes is an old silver framed picture she finds in the attic. In the picture are long departed residents of the house, the Bishop family. The picture includes the Bishop’s daughter Abigail who legend has it died on her wedding day and is now a vampire roaming the area. Notable is the fact that Emily is the striking image of long dead Abigail.

Soon after learning the story, Jessica notices that all the townsfolk are physically marked or impaired in some manner. The one ‘normal’ person they met, the antique dealer is soon found dead by Jessica after being lured to the body by the girl in her apparitions. But when Jessica drags Duncan to the location of the body it is no longer there. This convinces Duncan that Jessica needs to return to see her doctor, which splits the couple apart. Each new revelation further traumatizes Jessica, bit by bit, until she reaches the breaking point.

What makes the movie effective is the heavy handed and unrelenting strain on Jessica. While the main actors are all in top form, Lampert’s portrayal of Jessica is unnerving. Jessica is always smiling but it’s a tension filled smile. Viewers feel her vulnerability and self doubt. The film enhances this effect by sharing her thoughts as audible dialog along with the constant whispers, “I’m still here. You’ll never get better…”.

While clearly a vampire movie, that aspect is almost inconsequential from the horror perspective as it takes a back seat to the horror in Jessica’s mind. The movie has a ‘distant’ feel that makes it an underrated classic. The title says it all and it highlights the horror in the film. Thankfully the filmmakers did not use the original title they were considering. I suspect the movie would not be as cherished today if it was called “It Drinks Hippy Blood”.

Movie Reviews 301 – Cleopatra Jones (1973)

June 3, 2017

Lets just start by being clear on one thing. Tamara Dobson is no Pam Grier and Cleopatra Jones is no Coffy. That in a nutshell summarizes this mid seventies sub genre of blaxploitation flicks featuring chic but tough ghetto savvy women that kick ass and drop jaws at the same time. But just because Cleopatra Jones may not be the best entry in the genre but it is not to be dismissed either. In an odd way the imperfections are part of the charm making this one worth your while as long as expectations are kept in check.

The lavish intro zooms in on a camel caravan in the remote desert which I assume was designed to lure audiences into thinking that this Cleopatra may have more of an exotic Egyptian link than the poster would have us believe. But the illusion is shattered when a whirling helicopter enters the panorama and then lands and we get our first glimpse of our enchantress Jones (Dobson). With a assembled delegation that looks like a United Nations cast of generals, suits and arab nobility, Cleopatra oversees an order to have a military jet fly in out of the blue and before the eyes of the shocked contingent strafes and torches a field of poppies.

Her remark “That’s $30 million of shit that isn’t going into some kids veins.” sets the course of the film firmly as an anti-drug message movie which then shifts the action into Jones’s home-turf of a Los Angeles ghetto being torn from within by the scourge of drugs. Cleopatra is a special agent secured by the President of the Unites States no less – her id card says just that – working to rid the world of narcotics but especially in her home hood where the local addict recovery house is run by Reuben Masters (Bernie Casey), Cleo’s beau.

Part of Cleo’s problems are rogue cops giving Reuben a hard time but that is nothing compared to “Momma” (Shelley Winters) a local drug lord who was to receive some of the drugs that would have been made from that desert crop. This is where the movie starts to show some of it’s loose threads as Winters’ portrayal of Momma sticks out like a sore white thumb and whose every appearance in the movie shifts the otherwise gritty mood to farcical comedy with inept goons. It’s just  jarring and does gel with the tone of the rest movie at all.

Thankfully other characters ease the pain, the real standout being Antonio Fargas (“Huggy Bear” to Starsky and Hutch aficionados) as Doodlebug, one of Momma’s street distributors mounting a coup and incurring the wrath of Momma. Doodlebug is the real thing, cocky and corny and prideful of his Afro coif but ruthless at the same time.

Speeding along in her signature Corvette and wearing more fur than an entire Eskimo village’s wardrobe Cleopatra has to placate the cops, rescue the recovery house and put Momma in the doghouse and do all that looking mighty fine. A few acting debacles aside – including Dobson herself to a degree – there are enough muscle car chases and crashes and Jive Talkin to complete the blaxploitation checklist promised. One last notable missed opportunity is the unsatisfying funk score as the producers opted to mimic some of the ghetto hits of the time instead of using ‘the real thang’. Well, ya can’t have every thang, I guess.

 

Movie Reviews 300 – Demons (1985)

May 26, 2017

This being my 300th movie review post, the number three has been on my mind of late. I have often referred to members of the triumvirate of Italian horror divinity, namely Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and last but not least Lucio Fulci, in some of my past reviews. They not only defined the slasher genre before Hollywood jumped on that bandwagon, but also resurrected the “giallo” style of murder mysteries. But their far reaching influence not only inspired others, but also fostered projects among themselves and their extended family of collaborators and relatives.

Demons, directed and co-written by Lamberto Bava – Mario’s son and horror meister in his own right – and produced and also co-written by Dario is a cult favorite of the 80’s salvo of European flavoured horror and appropriately begins with a young girl (Natasha Hovey) travelling within Berlin’s marbled foyer subways. Believing she is being followed by a youth sporting a half-face mirror mask, he surprisingly hands Cheryl an invitation card to a free movie event that very evening for which she convinces her friend to accompany her.

The “Metropol” movie venue is an old gothic cathedral whose interiors have been converted into a quasi-museum with neo art sculptures and art pieces woven between the traditional movie posters. The clientele for the evening’s movie is just as eclectic. A boisterous, pimpish dude with his two disco divas (one even sporting a ‘Rick James’ corn row braided coif), a teen couple more interested in making out that viewing anything that will appear on the screen, the blind and spectacled Verner with his lascivious looking wife Liz, Liz’s maistre who is just as interested in making out with Liz as the teens, and two young boys who immediately take a shine to Cheryl and her friend.

As the night’s film reel begins to be projected onto the theater screen ‘this’ film alternates its point of view from the cinema goers to being the film they are seeing themselves which is a horror movie featuring teens in a graveyard and tomb. As the teens discuss Nostradamus’ foretelling of events and find a mask just like that worn by the ticket dispenser Cheryl encountered, the ‘on screen’ movie soon becomes a creature infested slaughter. At that same time one of ‘real world’ the disco divas is having a bit of a problem of her own in the bathroom and is soon screeching, fanged and oozing pulsating puss which is the beginning a infestation that will soon have the entire movie audience scrambling and avoiding one another as the malediction spreads.

Before long theater seats are flying, bodies are piling up and there seems to be endless chases within the stairways, hidden rooms and passageways. To spice things up a bunch of drugged up punks roaming the city also end up breaking into the Metropol in order to avoid some polizei hot on their tails after some late night hijinx.

The action comes to a crescendo with an in-theater, limb slashing, Samurai sword swirling motorcycle chase that would make The Great Escape’s Steve McQueen proud. And that’s before the helicopter drops in! If that does not categorize this as ‘must watch’ I don’t know what will.

While not featuring Goblin music it does include some notable 80’s heavyweight bands and songs while Claudio Simonetti’s score hits elevates the energy.  The masked ticket man was played by Michele Soavi who was assistant director and a frequent collaborator of Argento’s. While Argento’s daughter Asia later became a scream queen (debuting in Demons 2 no less), here his lesser known daughter Fiore has a small role.

Argento and Bava would reprise their production roles for the sequel Demons 2 a year later and while I have yet to track down that movie to assess it myself, based on the Demons 2 trailer on this disk I take it to be much of the same madness.

Movie Reviews 299 – Cronos (1993)

May 14, 2017

Director Guillermo del Toro is one of those creators who rose from the ranks of fandom, honing his craft over the years to ultimately become one of the greatest directors of horror and fantasy genre movies. With notable entries that include The Devil’s Backbone, Mimic, the Hellboy series and his magnum opus; Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has garnered the respect of colleagues and fans alike by having a solid story foundation and then having solid characters to drive them. As auteur taking on the roles of writer, director and producer, his creations are thoughtful, imaginative, compassionate and always contain some element of horror.

And all this began with Cronos, his first feature film at the tender age of 27 which immediately caught notice and garnered accolades that gave him ever increasing leverage and budgets to do more. Fans of his other films will notice that it is also the movie that lays other foundations that will be familiar in his later career, be it professionals team ups with actor Ron Perlman, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and a penchant for insect and bugs and steampunk mechanics – before steampunk was a fad.

When elderly antique shop dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) observes that one of his shoppers has taken notice of a particular angelic statuette his curiosity is aroused. As soon as the shopper leaves he scrutinizes the figurine more closely and discovers an ornamental gold scarab-like device hidden inside. Clutching the palm sized jewelry it momentarily comes to mechanical life gripping his hand with clenching legs and extruding a scorpion like stinger that pinches him.

The momentary pain is followed by a euphoric sensation but in the following days he also notices a return to vigor and even his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) notices a slightly more youthful appearance. Doting over his pride and joy, granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath), he begins regularly – sting sessions which he believes to be a fountain of youth.

But the shopper that first lead his attention to the statuette was no regular customer but in fact one of many hired scouts searching for just such a figure at the behest of one Mr. De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), a dying rich man living in a sterile room. Upon hearing of the newfound statuette De la Guardia sends his nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to purchase it, but is dismayed to learn that not only has the device he was seeking gone, but that Gris was draining the source of its powers.

Now, not only does Jesus have to deal with Angel trying to force him to give up the device, but he also learns it’s true secret, which is not exactly the nirvana he thought he had stumbled upon.

Rife with symbolism and allegory – in case you did not pick up on the suggestive religious connotations of the character names amongst other hints – the film is both profound and suspenseful. The secret of the device built by a 16th century alchemist and it’s internal workings shown in detail are both amazing and shocking.

This movie really has everything that del Toro fans have come to love without skimping on detail despite not having the budget of his later films. Now he and Perlman can just give us one more Hellboy