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.

Movie Reviews 216 – The Woods (2006)

April 8, 2015

The WoodsYet another story featuring the prototypical child being dumped at a boarding school after other scholastic avenues have been exhausted based on the child’s penchant for mischief. This and many other horror staples are revisited in director Lucky McKee’s The Woods.

The ‘devouring forest’ horror cliché has been used often enough for all horror hounds to be familiar with whether it be the group of kids in a cabin or the party of hunters being both predator and prey. But this is the first time the forest actually leaves behind a body shaped mound of decaying leaves in the victims beds once the deed is done.

Lead actress Agnes Bruckner (Heather) is perfect in the role of the forlorn forgotten child while Patricia Clarkson plays the impassive headmistress Ms. Traverse so effectively that we’re actually convinced that she has all the girls best intentions in mind. But in this case, the school is being run by a coven of witches that are seeking long overdue release from being confined in this all girl academy in the woods precipitated by a visit of three young witches who unleashed their fury ages ago in a nearby village.

Heather sustains brief happiness with new found friend Marcy, but soon runs into afoul with the school administration and even more so at the hands of Samantha, the tall blonde fellow student with an attitude.

The witches have been killing off their pupils one by one over the years, keeping them in line with spiked milk and the forest whose tentacled branches crawl into the dorm rooms at night, enveloping their next victim. They have been waiting all these years for a gifted one that will release them from the school and Heather’s knack for magical tricks convinces the witches that their long wait is finally over. After getting rid of Marcy and other girls they finally get to Heather one night, but luckily Heather had managed to get word to her parents who come to her rescue at the last minute.

The background flashback depicting the witches introduction and association with the school and what caused the witches to be held captive is a bit murky. Other than having dreams of some of the past events, Heather’s only ability seems to be levitating objects or balancing them to be more accurate. So even exactly how she can help the witches is confusing.

As is often the case in such movies, it’s the interaction between opposing students and the school authority that presents the tension and drama driving the film. This is where this movie really shines. Heather is focal and how she interacts with those few other characters, Marcy,  Ms. Traverse and to a lesser extent Samantha and her parents, keep viewers glued to the screen. Her dad Joe is played by none other than Bruce Campbell (delivering a fine ‘serious’ performance for a change) who certainly knows a thing or two about witches in the woods.

Another big plus is the 1965 time era which adds seasonal fashions and wonderfully dated technology to add more charm to the movie.

My net impression of the movie? While the husk may be a bit rough and jagged, the film does manage to keep the underbrush creep factor garden fresh.

 

Movie Reviews 215 – Vampire Conspiracy (2005)

March 31, 2015

The Vampire ConspiracyMelding elements of human drama is a basic ingredient of any decent horror movie. But when the drama overshadows the horror, as is the case in Vampire Conspiracy you have to question why the horror element is there at all. Worse, when the drama itself falls flat, you have a mess of a movie that can neither be described as a horror, nor a drama. You have a snooze fest.

Taking a page from the script of Cube (and probably another half dozen movies) the film begins with a group of people, all strangers to one another, suddenly finding themselves waking up in a desolate closed room. After the obligatory general questioning, arguing, finger pointing and banging on walls, a vampire suddenly makes an appearance and spews a diatribe which, in a nutshell is ‘you have to figure it out yourselves’ and then disappears as magically as he came.

Doors suddenly appear now and then leading them to rooms with one of the Seven Heavenly Virtues written on the floor (more on that later). The corridors are also teaming with ‘the undead’ zombies that the prisoners have to evade. As the discourse continues and people divulge certain aspects of their past, pieces slowly fall into place and they realize that their past lives are all related and directly or indirectly hinging on a drug bust gone bad. Are they all guilty of some misdeed? And what was the motive for the vampire to round them up as he did?

This really could have been a more interesting movie with a little more effort but many of it’s faults are unforgivable. For one, they couldn’t even get some of the Seven Heavenly Virtues correct (or keep count for that matter) so that whole McGuffin is nothing more than annoyance. Trying to imply that there is a complex maze of corridors with many rooms when the real set consists of only one nondescript room and a single cornered corridor filmed from a hundred different angles can only go so far. Sure it’s a budget movie, but you need more than ten feet of corridor and more than one lousy room to make the effect believable. But the worst part is the script which, often boring, also has a lot of unconvincing and out of character dialogue. I give them credit for trying to create full characterizations but as soon as the characters say things they obviously would not given their situation, all the effort falls flat. The acting isn’t all that bad, which is more the shame given the lousy script.

The only conspiracy here is how this ever became a movie. This is another movie from The Midnight Horror Collection: Blood Predators.

Movie Reviews 214 – Troll Hunter (2010)

March 26, 2015

trolljägaren-(2010)After having a surprise hit with zombie Nazis in 2009 with Dead Snow, the Norwegian film industry surprised us again the following year with Troll Hunter picking up genre fandom awards and lots of great press.

After reading the rave reviews for this offbeat movie I was a little distressed to learn that it adopts the dreaded ‘found footage’ format, one that I’ve never been a fan of and one that I find filmmakers take too many liberties with. But I’m glad to say that the format works here for two reasons. The first  reason is that the movie is a light toned mockumentary so we’re not supposed to take the found footage too serious in the first place. The second is that it avoids the pit fall of using the format to conveniently obscure the ‘monsters’ the viewers are promised. On the contrary, if you’re watching with a hunger to see actual trolls, this movie delivers in spades. In fact one of that great achievements is the fantastic job they did designing the Trolls in great detail and doing it justice with the CGI.

A trio of young journalist filmmakers decide to follow up on the story of a bear poacher, one for which a particular reclusive hunter has been tagged by licensed hunters as the obvious culprit for the bear carcases that have been turning up. The trio start following the poacher to try to catch him in the act. Instead they learn that he is on a mission to stop trolls that have been popping up all over the countryside, and he uses bear carcases as decoys to explain away the actual prey the trolls has gotten to, the animals and the odd human here and there.

But the hunter is fed up of the solitude and secrecy he has been harboring for many years, all covertly sanctioned by a select few others, one being a government TSS (Troll Security Service) lackey. He rebels and decides to tell everything about the long history of trolls and troll hunting to his new found friends and brings them along for the hunt.

While lots of details remain obscure, the hunter gives us a taxonomy of trolls, from the smallest Ringlefinch to the mighty Jötnar. We learn why some have three heads, what they like to eat, and how they turn to stone (and occasionally blow up). It’s all good fun and a long overdue Troll movie since we were subjected to Troll 2.

I had so much fun, I’m going to dust off my other Norwegian DVDs post haste: Dead Snow and Cold Prey.

Ser deg seinare! (See you later!)

Movie Reviews 213 – Switchblade Sisters (1975)

March 17, 2015

Switchblade SistersQuentin Tarantino describes director Jack Hill as “the Howard Hawks of exploitation movies” and given that Hill created movies as diverse as Spider baby and Coffy and has also written movies like The Terror and Dementia 13, the comparison seems fitting.

Released as one of Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder feature DVDs, Switchblade Sisters, is part gang movie, part female prison and part girls gone wild. The ‘success’ (and I put that in quotes because you have to appreciate this kind of movie) is that it is really greater than the sum of all it’s parts. The acting is suspect, the script is a joke, the sex is only suggestive, the blood is scant, and even the promised violence (when not hysterically funny based on inexperienced stunt fighters) is lame. Even the climactic final death scene is only conveyed via a projected shadow. But somehow, when you put it all together, it’s fun to watch much like going back in time and watching a cheesy 60’s cop show. Only with a lower budget and standards.

Lace (Robbie Lee) is the lacy camisole wearing leader of a girl gang called the Dagger Debs, so named on account that they are the female constituents of the Silver Dagger gang, led by her boyfriend Dominic (Asher Brauner).  Wanting to impress the Silver Daggers one day at the local dinner, the Debs decide to clear out all the other customers so that they can take over the tables. But one lone innocent looking dinner they try to chase out proves to be more than a handful. Maggie (Joanne Nail) fights back and soon earns the respect of the girls. Well all the girls except for Patch (Monica Gail) who bore the brunt of Maggie’s defence in that first encounter. Holding a grudge, Patch decides to get even and does so by making Lace believe that Maggie has sights on taking over the girls and nabbing Dominic as well. Patch’s manipulation of Lace creates an ever growing wedge among the gang, one that soon turns deadly when a rival gang is forced to share territory.

The movie is rich with groovy street talk, funky cringe worthy clothes and roller skating rink scenes but the retro illusion is shattered by the simplistic dialogue and unrealistic situations. The movie tries to be both a high school comedy with corny classroom jokes and a tough gang movie that just doesn’t ring true. But if you can elevate yourself over the superficial aspects, it becomes enjoyable for what it attempts to pull off. Even though the characters are silly, you are drawn into all the scheming amongst the girls and want to see who wins out in the end.

Sadly Hill regular Sid Haig sat this one out. His acting skills could have been used as all the male actor’s really miss the mark and are unconvincing douches. When it comes to the girls, Lee’s high pitched nasal voice (which she later made good use of as a voice actor for kiddie shows) is beyond annoying here. But Nail and Gail are more credible which was needed to keep audience interest just enough. Not as good as some of Jack Hill’s other movies, but still a must for his fans.


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