Jul 2, 2020


In a crucial scene during the first act, Meryl Streep's Madeline Ashton saunters out of her mansion shared with her husband, Ernest (Bruce Willis), whom she stole from Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) to meet up with a young stud for a routine tryst, only to see that the man with whom she's been cheating has also been cheating on her. After she confronts him about it, he tells her, "You should find someone your own age, Madeline." Cue the rain that immediately pours down, the kind of poetic timing that only exists in film. Within the span of just a couple minutes, we discover so much about the type of woman Madeline Ashton is: vicious--in that she blatantly packs an overnight bag and exits the house in front of her husband; a paradox--in that, though she's willfully cheating on her husband, she becomes enraged that someone would dare do that to her; and finally, deeply sad, afraid, and alone--in that the only worth she could ever measure was her beauty, and now without it, she feels completely useless.

Beneath the EC Comic vibes of horrific violence and very black humor, there is a pretty potent discussion the film wants to have about the blood thirst between women vying for what they think they deserve, as well as the cog-machine-like machinations of Hollywood, which uses up actresses like Madeleine Ashton and then deposits them once they have out-aged their purpose. It's the kind of conversation that's being had right now, but one that director Robert Zemeckis, and screenwriters David Koepp and Martin Donovan, wanted to have nearly 25 years ago.

Even if we wipe away all the context on display and examine the film for what it is, Death Becomes Her is simply a hell of a lot of fun. Seeing the '90s-era versions of Streep, Hawn, and Willis take on such a goofy, gonzo approach to a film and screaming to the rafters with their performances is what makes Death so enticing to watch. Streep, especially, who is likely the most esteemed actress still working today, seems to be having a ball playing not just a bitch (which she'll do again famously in The Devil Wears Prada and The Iron Lady), but an undead bitch. With Death Becomes Her being Streep's sole contribution to the horror genre (she admitted during a Wes Craven retrospective that, prior to working with him on Music of the Heart, she opted not to watch any of his prior films because she didn't have the stomach for it), she lets it all hang out and leaves it all out on the field. Likely the chance to skewer Hollywood and its ageist approach is what led her to sign on to the film in the first place, but she is totally down with the more gruesome aspects of the story. Seeing someone so high-brow bring her usual level of Streep to something that might appear as if she's "slumming it" is one of the best aspects on display.

And not to leave Goldie Hawn out of the lovefest, who matches her co-star pound for pound, but can we all just sit back and enjoy Bruce Willis giving one of the best performances of his career? The man who famously sleepwalks through one direct-to-video action film after another is almost operatic as Ernest Menville. He's a shrieking, boozing, wide-eyed, scheming drunk, and it is so so so much fun to watch. He's never offered as much energy and actual performance, ever--not even during his five-time run as John McClane--and it's a shame we'll probably never see it again.

Rumors abound that Death Becomes Her was intended to be the launch of the Tales from the Crypt film brand, and being that the picture was released by the eventual distributor of Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood, as well as directed by Tales director and executive producer Robert Zemeckis, it's an easily believable one. It certainly has the make and model of the EC Comic aesthetic down: brutal violence, murderous schemes, ironic twists, sexytime, and gallows humor.

And also the special effects.

Zemeckis has always been a filmmaker, though talented, accused of letting his interest in special effects drive the narrative, instead of the other way around (which purists will tell you is the proper hierarchy). Death Becomes Her is no different, and though its the visual effects that take precedence, the physical ones are equally impressive. Hawn's temporary transformation into a bloated, overweight, cat-hoarding shut-in, for one, is still impressive even ten Eddie Murphys later. But it should come as no surprise that some of the visual effects, though not all, haven't aged well, which has always been one of Zemeckis' shortcomings as a director. In the same way I'm sure the effects for Back to the Future looked tremendous in 1985, and Contact looked tremendous in 1997, the effects in Death Becomes Her are coming up on twenty-five years old, and they wear their age appropriately.

Shortcomings aside, Death Becomes Her is just fun. It's hilarious in all the right places, and equally gruesome in others. Watching the likes of Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn--two legendary and respected actresses--do battle with axes, with one's head being smashed down inside her neck while the other has a broken handle speared through the giant hole in her stomach--feels like a novelty, but not the extraneous and ultimately forgettable kind. Despite all the goofball charm and somewhat limited appeal (mothers weren't quite prepared for this Meryl Streep film), Death Becomes Her feels like it's not just from a bygone era, but feels like a miracle that it was ever made at all. This type of concept is still made today, only they star actors who make a living in churning out straight-to-video rubbish, but that this time it involved the likes of Streep, Hawn, Willis, Koepp, and Zemeckis is what continues to make it such an event. Its appeal--much like Madeline and Helen--will never die.

Death Becomes Her feels like one of those films they don't make anymore, and they probably don't. With all this talk in Hollywood of unbalanced opportunities between men and women, and especially with the ageist issue that seems to dog some of our older actresses, Death Becomes Her is actually more relevant now than it was back in 1992. It's a delight to see its wicked cast take part in something so loony and dark, and it's also a delight that Shout! has resurrected it for a new life on blu-ray. In the same way people don't talk enough about Peter Jackson's The Frighteners, Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her deserves more accolades and attention than its received over the years. 

Jul 1, 2020


Puns for days, you assholes. 

If my extremely clever play on words hasn't clued you in, TEOS is taking the month of July to honor one of the most persistent sub-genres in all of horror: yes, like the flesh-ripping cannibals themselves, the zombie movie will never die. It's been with us "officially" since 1968, when George A. Romero (whose name I'm going to drop a LOT this month) lovingly ripped off Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic tale of survival I Am Legend, tweaked it for some additional bloodletting, and bequeathed unto the world Night of the Living Dead. With just one movie -- one gritty, low-budgeted phenomenon -- that bearded, safari-jacketed hippie legend created an entire sub-genre, and he'll never fully get the credit he deserves for that. 

During the month of Ghouly (and it's pronounced 'ghoul-eye,' don't be an idiot), titles great and not-so-great will be celebrated, along with titles that one never would've considered to be a zombie flick until I said it was, and what I say goes. 

So grab your braaaaains and join me for a month-long celebration of the undead.

And remember...


Jun 30, 2020


The drug film is a hard film to watch--at least if it's done the right way. For modern audiences, the most gut-wrenching experience to come along in quite a while is likely Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, a film which saw drugs tearing apart four different people in different ways, rendering their shared relationships obsolete and their futures cut very short. The Panic in Needle Park traverses the same ground, only it did so thirty years prior. Above all, its story focuses on the doomed romance (aren't they all?) between Al Pacino's Bobby and Kitty Winn's Helen, who meet randomly at a drug deal of sorts and who begin, unexpectedly, a savage and passionate romance that will see Helen fall victim to the same drug habit that Bobby claims he doesn't have. As you can imagine, it doesn't end well.

Director Jeffrey Schatzberg, who battled in getting this film made, has no romantic notions about New York City, or more specifically, "Needle Park" (a nickname for Sherman Square) where drug users were known to congregate and trade tips about who is holding, and where, and who might have the bread to get off. Settings like these, or broken-down tenement buildings, or prison-like apartments, are where the bulk of the story take place. (Ironically, the only scenes that contain any brightness at all are during Helen's pre-drug addiction scenes spent in a flat or a hospital bed where she is both temporarily recovering and suffering side effects from a botched abortion, respectively.) But as Helen follows Bobby down his drug-addled rabbit hole, the lights around them dim. Their romance changes face from idealistic, to hopeful, to dreadful.

In Al Pacino's film debut in a lead role, his Bobby is a tough-talking street hood defying authority at every opportunity while smacking gum or chain smoking cigarettes (sometimes both) in an effort to keep his mind off the fact that he hasn't used in a while and, well, he really really wants to. But the real showstopper here is Kitty Winn as Helen, whose slow transformation from innocent/fully naive to hopeless addict of both heroin as well as her boyfriend (and on-again/off-again "fiancé"), is where the sucker punch really takes place.

There's a disarming documentary quality to The Panic in Needle Park, where people interact with awkward sincerity, and where there's no happy ending in sight. Schatzberg has no qualms about letting the camera get in close to see Bobby, or Helen, or an array of the dead-ends who surround them, stick that needle into their veins and slowly inject themselves. For minutes at a time, the viewer has no choice but to watch. There's nothing else on screen they can use to momentarily affix their gaze while they wait for the needle nastiness to disperse. Schatzberg shoves this image into your eye-line because it should be shoved there. He also doesn't want his audience to escape from the ugliness, so when there isn't explicit drug-use on screen, he instead relies on the film's environment to convey that ugliness. The Panic in Needle Park takes place in the scummiest rooms and alleys and rooftops of the scummiest areas in New York City. Every interior features peeling paint or wallpaper, painted in a sickening green or a flat gray. Outdoors, we're treated to graffitied walls and litter-strewn streets. There is no escape, no matter where we go, and no matter what characters are on screen. 

Like Requiem for a Dream, The Panic in Needle Park is a film that effects rather than entertains, hewing closer to life than our happy-ending-wanting brains have come to expect, which is what makes it such a visceral experience. One could argue that the ending is a happy ending of sorts, if only for our characters and no one else. No matter the trials and tribulations they each experience, and no matter the depths they'll plunge, they always come back, and they always end up in each other's arms. Whatever battles they have to overcome, they'll find a way to do it, and they'll do it together. They are doomed, that's for sure, but doom is in the eye of the beholder.

The Panic in Needle Park is a tough film to watch, as any well-made film about drug abuse should be. And it's worth watching for two reasons, both similar and very disparate: the first would be to see Al Pacino in his film debut, who hits the ground running in an explosive performance and who is still celebrated today, but the second would be to see Kitty Winn, whose performance has been even more heralded, but who slowly disappeared from the world of acting after her turns in and The Exorcist (and its deplorable first sequel). As film's end, you won't be left feeling good, but being that was the intention, The Panic in Needle Park is a success. 

Jun 28, 2020


Like the American slasher, the Italian giallo can come in many forms. It can be a straight-forward horror-thriller, it can be like its American cousin the slasher, it can be a sleazy soft-core sex romp, or sometimes it can be something more: classy, with much more of an emphasis on mystery than on chilling murder sequences or titillating sexuality. That’s where Watch Me When I Kill (also known as The Cat’s Victims, neither title of which is relevant to the plot), comes in.

Directed by Antonio Bido (Bloodstained Shadow), 1977’s Watch Me When I Kill feels like the redheaded stepchild of the giallo sub-genre — not because it barely contains the same elements as more notable gialli like Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet or Deep Red, but because it contains just enough giallo elements to still be considered one. And again, like the slasher, the giallo commands certain concepts that help to identify the films that fall within its confines. Above all else, is there a killer, masked or otherwise obscured, committing murders? Once the killer is revealed, is there some personal vendetta tied to the person investigating the murders, who may have been a potential target from the start, or who then becomes one after his or her investigation puts them directly in the killer’s crosshairs? According to those parameters, Watch Me When I Kill falls into that sub-genre, and while I’m not saying it’s not a giallo, it’s not the kind of experience one has come to expect--not in execution, and certainly not during the final reveal. 

Watch Me When I Kill is carefully and maturely rendered. We’re far from the sleazy shocks of Andrea Bianchi’s Strip Nude For Your Killer or the psychedelic dreamscape of Sergio Martino’s All The Colors of the Dark (both of which happen to star the gorgeous Edwige Fenech), but closer to one of Lucio Fulci’s most respected works, Don’t Torture a Duckling. I’ve seen other reviews describe Watch Me When I Kill as gory, bloody, and graphic, and sure, with this being both Italian and a giallo, there’s a bit of blood in this, but I’d never use the words “graphic” or “gory” to describe it. Maybe it’s because the film’s finale has depressing and melancholic real-world connections and implications, or maybe the film benefits extra from having been viewed alongside another Italian almost-giallo, Paganini Horror, which is the antithesis of this experience, Watch Me When I Kill feels patient, focused, and I’ll say it again: mature. 

Watch Me When I Kill has remained somewhat obscure over they years, but recently enjoyed a new lease on life thanks to its Blu-ray release from Synapse Films. The distributor mostly known for its recent stunning edition of Dario Argento's Suspiria continues to do strong work with their titles, remaining true to their release schedule of only focusing on a few titles at a time and giving them their full attention instead of relying on the assembly line approach that other third-party distributors tend to do. I like that they’re shining an additional light on some of the subgenre's more unheralded titles. So long as you’re not expecting the kind of slasher-film experience that other gialli titles offer, Watch Me When I Kill gets an easy recommendation.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 26, 2020


Luigi Cozzi’s Paganini Horror is one of those movies that doesn’t serve much of a purpose—an Italian horror curiosity that’s neither good in general, nor bad enough to be “good.” Though it’s based on a lunatic concept—the “ghost” of long-dead Italian composer Niccolò Paganini coming back from the grave to avenge an ‘80s girl-pop band for stealing one of his last and unreleased compositions to save their fledgling new album—the movie simply doesn’t do enough with it. You might be thinking, “What more could you want?” but you’ve just answered your own question: more. Paganini Horror simply doesn’t know what to do, spending long, looong sequences with characters creeping through hallways of the crumbling estate where they’re staying while they record their new album, only intermittently killed by a masked madman dressed in old timey Halloween costume dudes. Is it truly the enraged spirit of the composer, or a member of the girls’ own party donning the garb to exact some kind of personal revenge, or is it none of the above? Being that this is Italian, just know one thing: regardless of the reveal, it won’t make a lot of sense, but the flick will be so in love with itself that it doesn’t care whether you buy it or not.

Paganini Horror actually proves to be fairly frustrating after a while being that the death scenes contain that perfect combination of gore and incompetence. In fact, the entire movie almost works as a garbage classic because of the hilarious, over the top dubbing, making the performances strange and heightened, along with the too-dramatic camerawork. (Italians love that zoom lens.) Among the cast is Daria Nicolodi, the ‘80s Italian equivalent of Adrienne Barbeau, in that she was romantically involved with a famous horror director (Dario Argento and John Carpenter, respectively), and appeared in many of her husband’s works, though it’s hard to comment on her performance, as it’s mostly overtaken by the hilarious dubbing. Sadly, the same can be said for Donald Pleasence’s very brief appearance as Mr. Pickett, which runs the gamut from appearing to be completely useless to being completely beyond belief. (Pleasence did not dub his own voice in post-production, so unfortunately it’s one less reason to ever try sitting through this mess.)

Even with a scant running time of 83 minutes, Paganini Horror feels like it’s crawling across the finish line. Among the more almost-trash-classic Italian flicks I can think of, they share one thing in common: a strong first act, a stronger third act, and a pitifully drawn out second act. Paganini Horror can’t even claim that, as after a very amusing and engaging opening act, the film remains a flatline through the very end, and not even a dummy crashing through a windshield and bursting into flames can save it.

Just after directing Paganini Horror, Cozzi directed 1989’s The Black Cat, also known as Demons 6: De Profundis, which actually has nothing to do with the Demons series, but was made to serve as an unofficial sequel to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. (Don’t ask. Fake sequels are a hallmark of Italian genre cinema.) Though it’s just as ham-fisted as Paganini Horror, it offers a better pace and a more engaging plot (being loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name), and I hope it proves to be a future release from any of our Italian-horror-resurrecting distributors. I was hoping for a fun, silly, and campy good time as essayed in other Italian horror flicks from this era, but Paganini Horror only proved to B flat ha ha! 

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 24, 2020


After watching 1980's Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, and then doing some research into the film after the fact, I'm still at a loss as to what it is I actually watched. Marketed primarily as a documentary about the life of Bruce Lee interspersed throughout a karate-style championship taking place in New York City's Madison Square Garden, Fist of Fear, Touch of Death is actually some kind of strange, experimental, horrendously unfunny comedy of sorts in which a group of disparate fighters take to the ring to prove who is the ultimate heir to Bruce Lee's legacy. Apparently, Blaxploitation star Fred "The Hammer" Williamson is one of them, though he spends the first third of the film lounging or walking around New York City while being repeatedly mistaken for singer Harry Belafonte. If you know your history, then you know that Bruce Lee was quite dead by the time this film went in production, having died seven years prior in 1973, which makes Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, one of several films made to capitalize on his death. (Another is the subtly titled Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave.) There are enough of these films that a phrase was coined to group them into one disposable bucket: Brucesploitation.

Fist of Fear, Touch of Death is a grody, low-budget, ugly looking film that has the appearance of being scraped off a city street. With 2020 eyes, it's also quite offensive. The film's main narrative push – that of the championship fight – is often interrupted with clips taken from some of Bruce Lee's earliest films, only they've been redubbed by clearly American actors so that the fictional characters are now meant to be Lee and his own family, including his domineering mother who impugns him for wanting to seek a future in martial arts. That the same "oriental" sounding stretch of music plays over and over in the background of some of these clips doesn't help, nor does the fact that these so-called explorations into the China-born Lee's earliest beginnings are total fabrications, including the hilariously offensive revelation that Lee's grandfather was a "samurai" – you know, the breed of warrior from the entirely different country of Japan. The whole gimmick actually manages to impress by being both racially and aesthetically offensive while also showing an ungodly amount of disrespect to the legendary Lee, as the film suggests that his actual history wasn't interesting enough to maintain interest in the audience. I should mention that the flick opens with an "interview" with a fighter who claims that Lee actually died by the so-called "touch of death" – yes, the finishing move that Beatrix Kiddo uses on Bill in the finale of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol 2. (The famed director found himself in a little bit of hot water following his release of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood for his own depiction of Lee, which was accused of being not just racially insensitive but also presenting Lee in his limited appearance as a show-boating, egotistical diva.) 

As a viewer, I'm normally open to the mockumentary approach to filmmaking, which so far has been utilized almost primarily in horror, though there are notable exceptions across every genre. Seeing that technique applied to Bruce Lee's legacy while exploring his legacy and effect on a new generation of "fighters" (read: Fred Williamson) had the potential to be something more. Director Matthew Mallinson, who it should come as no surprise was primarily an editor during his career, had ample ground to play around with bigger ideas, like the implications of being a legend, how that status can turn an ordinary human being with extraordinary skills into a larger-than-life figure, and what it's like for the next generation of fighters to exist in that shadow. Instead, we're left with some kind of half-assed comedy that manhandles Bruce Lee's legacy, botches his biographical history, and most damning from the audience's perspective, bores the hell out of you. In spite of Williamson having said of the film, "It was never meant to be a serious martial arts movie; it's a comedy and satire," IMDB lists this monstrosity as a "documentary," offering the false impression that Fist of Fear, Touch of Death contains real, actual information pertaining to the life of Bruce Lee beyond the most broad of strokes, like he was alive once, was a really good at martial arts, and then died. The rest is bullshit.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 22, 2020

ZARDOZ (1974)

Budding cineastes slowly developing their love for cinema in the Internet Age have likely become aware of Zardoz's existence through the infamous image of Sean Connery dressed as a viking by way of a Prince music video while grasping a rather modern looking pistol and smiling right into the camera. It's an image that invokes thoughts of, "Oh man, I need to see this...but, maybe later." 

Before it went out of print, home video distributor Twilight Time resurrected this strange title for another lease on life. The definition of a cult film, Twilight Time ran through its typical allocation of 3,000 units quicker than many of its other titles, and after having seen Zardoz for myself, I can understand why: it's so goddamned weird that it's clearly the kind of title that only appeals to a very few, and those to whom it does appeal, it appears pretty hard.

Frankly, I'm at a loss as to how I might adequately provide even the loosest iteration of Zardoz's plot, so I'm not going to try. Twilight Time's own synopsis:

Writer-director John Boorman’s fabulously bizarre Zardoz (1974) is a visually stunning science fiction/fantasy fable starring Sean Connery as the spanner in the works of a dreamily languid future society. A primitive Adam, Connery’s Zed charges like a bull through the china shop of a civilization from which all signs of lusty humanity have been drained.

Added to that: by film's end, Connery will end up in a wedding dress before he turns into a skeleton, all while holding hands with...another skeleton.

Zardoz is an entirely maddening, confusing, frustrating, highly amusing experience that cannot be easily summarized into mere words. To try would be to harvest from the film its identity, its uniqueness, and its complete lunacy. Zardoz is artistic expression unrestrained, anchored by the presence of former James Bond Sean Connery, whose involvement wrongly assures the most mainstream of audiences that he's made a film that appeals to everyone who enjoys going down to the cinemas on a Sunday afternoon looking for a brief slice of harmless escapism. Zardoz's "story" is baffling. Zardoz's "message" is baffling. That Zardoz was produced and distributed by a major motion picture studio is utterly baffling. But it's here: now, and for all time. It's recently turned forty-five years old, and its legend remains firmly intact. It's wonderfully and weirdly captivating, and deserves to be seen once. Though it may demand more than one viewing to fully appreciate how utterly mad it is, the jury will be forever out on who would ever do such a thing.

A good friend of mine put it best: "Sean Connery turned down both The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings because he 'didn't get' them, but he said yes to Zardoz."

You figure that one out.

Zardoz is less of a film and more of an experience. Like that fever dream you once had following your all-night puke-a-thon the last time you got that really nasty stomach bug from the half-KFC/half-Taco Bell, Zardoz probably makes sense somewhere in the outer-reaches of artistic creation, but here on Earth, it's frankly one of the most absurd and deeply abstract 105 minutes of your lifetime. What on the surface may look like a silly B-movie accidentally starring Sean Connery is actually an art-house experiment straddling the line between erotic thriller and science-fiction extravaganza purposely starring Sean Connery. Those interested by such a breakdown may possibly use Jonathan Glazer's 2013 film Under the Skin, another unorthodox film about cross-universe alien races driven by a deconstruction of sexuality, as a guide to determine what kind of experience Zardoz may provide. One thing is for sure: you've never seen anything like it.

Zardoz has spoken.