Jul 13, 2019

GIRLHOUSE (2015)


 [As Girlhouse has spoiled my night, I have now spoiled Girlhouse. Read on with caution.]

Kylie Atkins' father has recently died, so it's porn for her.

After giving it some very little thought, she accepts the offer of a well-dressed stranger to appear on the porn-centric website "Girlhouse," a Big-Brother sort of set-up where a group of people live away from civilization in an isolated house with cameras in every room that broadcast their every move, only instead of "people" it's "girls," and instead of "every move" it's "every orgasm, fuck show, and methodical soaping of breasts." Once she's dropped off at the super-secret "Girlhouse" location, she meets all her costars, all of whom eventually take off their clothes, and none of whom are particularly memorable or developed.

As Kylie begins her show, she "meets" an online user by the name of Loverboy, whom all the girls know and call a sweetheart. Loverboy soon fixates on Kylie after he sends her a photo of himself and she doesn't throw herself out the window in response, but later on, after another "Girlhouse" performer finds Loverboy's picture and shows it to everyone and they all laugh and mock his not-so-ideal appearance, Loverboy loses his mind and decides there's only one fair way to handle this: murder. (He's also really good at computers, BTW.)


A film that manages to ape its concept from Halloween: Resurrection while somehow resulting in something worse, Girlhouse was written by Fred Olen Wray, directed by Jim Wynorski, and produced by Roger Cor-ohman, none of that is true. It wasn't a wrong assumption to make, however; add some corny self-awareness and even more exploitative nudity, and Girlhouse would have felt exactly like product from the 1980s -- more specifically, from the team who brought us Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Sorority House Massacre 2, only with a hip and modern shot of adrenaline (which means now it has internet, cell phones, and terms like "IP address" and "firewall"). An important distinction, though, is that when Corman et al. made those deliciously stupid B-movies, they weren't trying to impart any kind of wisdom or moral stature on their audience: they were more concerned with finding girls with ample breastage who could fit into all that old wardrobe recycled from their last several hundred movies that had "slime" or "massacre" in their titles. They weren't trying to be socially relevant or needlessly (and, inexplicably) preachy and indifferent all at once. They were just trying to make their films fun. And that's where Girlhouse really misses the boat. For actually managing to bring to fruition such an absurd concept as "house of slutty website performers become locked inside by one of its users who gets all pissed off because they called him ugly," only to try and turn it into some kind of disturbing or visceral experience -- well, that was the first misstep of many.

The reason it's neither disturbing nor visceral is because we just don't care.


At no point is there an attempt to devote background or development to any characters. Kylie's sole decision to become a pornographic actress is because "the money is good" and she wants to send some home to her mother. Because her motivation for her decision is to be considered selfless and done out of love and worry, we're supposed to forgive her for getting into porn, but it would have behooved our filmmakers to, perhaps, include a scene where Kylie and her mother actually share a conversation -- in person would have been nice, but over the phone would have been acceptable -- to enforce the significance of this relationship. At least once. As it is, their entire relationship is confined to them leaving voicemails for each other, and the word "MOM" appearing on Kylie's cell phone when it rings...which Kylie doesn't answer.

As for Kylie's pornsemble: two of the girls are (quite quickly) established as lesbians involved with each other, one of the girls as threatened by Kylie's appearance in the house, and another girl, who it would seem was once an actress in the house before her heroin addiction resulted in her getting the ax, makes a surprise return. Pity that NONE of these characters' subplots offer anything to the film rather than cheap thrills of girl-kissing and an additional body to hammer.

Kylie is an irritating character, a girl who willfully gets into pornography, but for whom we're expected to sympathize -- not because of any attempt at her inner conflict with the job, but because she tells anyone who will listen that her father is dead and that's really sad and then equal sign pornography. Not terribly likable, Ali Cobrin still manages to give an okay performance, but as you watch you'll suddenly realize her remarkably similar appearance to actress Rose Byrne, who tends to make good movies, and then you'll become irritated all over again because instead of watching a good movie that stars Rose Byrne, you're watching Girlhouse.


I feel intensely bad for rapper-turned-actor Slain, thanks to his appearance in this mess as Loverboy, and not just because he's the only one attempting to bring actual depth to his performance (which vanishes following the start of the third act, unless we're being asked to believe that it was the actor himself and not an underpaid body-padded stuntman who wore the jumpsuit and girl mask to stalk his house of whores), but rather because he got a pretty good head-start on a career 2.0 when Ben Affleck cast him as the revered Bubba Ragowski in Gone Baby Gone. Affleck subsequently cast him again in his box-office and bank-smashing crime thriller The Town before director Andrew Dominik chose him to play a minor role in his Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly. And here, in... sigh... Girlhouse... Slaine is slumming it, with the kind of bravery needed to play a role of someone who dwells in a basement, subscribes to and depends on pornography, and who feels ostracized because of his physical appearance. The only problem is he's going through all that effort for the film Girlhouse. The actor deserves better.

Ironically, the makers of the film are selling Girlhouse as a "Halloween-type slasher," and by god are they testing the durability of the word "type," for the only thing these two films have in common is that someone wears a mask and kills some girls. Kylie is supposed to be Girlhouse's version of Laurie Strode, only instead of her character being virginal and pure by abstaining from acts and behavior that would force her to retire those traits, she instead embarks on her pornographic webshows where she willfully shows off her naked body to her viewers, but with the camera never showing her breasts: according to these filmmakers, that makes her virginal and pure. Added to Halloween are the nauseating references to Rear Window and its director, Hitchcock, who as you know reveled in cinema in which girls played strip-poker or strip-billiards and performed dildo shows on websites for users named "Tugboat" and "Cream_Slinger." Hitchcock would be sincerely proud. No, that's not sarcasm - not at all. I mean that, you idiots, he would love your dumb fucking movie.

Girlhouse is violent and filled with nudity, if you're into that sort of thing. I am, normally, but only when the actual movie surrounding the violence and nudity is worth a damn. Girlhouse isn't. Girlhouse is about as subtle as a truck carrying fireworks driving through a fireworks factory. It makes no bones about clearly endeavoring to satirize the "art" of pornography, but then doing absolutely nothing to either support or condemn it. Girlhouse offs a character by beating her in the head with a dildo before shoving it into her mouth and sealing her head with packaging tape so she suffocates. Girlhouse offs another character by having her commit suicide after her confrontation with the killer has left her mutilated because OMG, without pornography, she is, like, of no use to anyone. Girlhouse fucking ends with Kylie beating her killer to death with a camera. If that's not a failed idea at clever subtlety, ladies and gentleman, I don't know what is.


Jul 9, 2019

LET’S RAISE SOME HELL: ‘PET SEMATARY TWO’ IS A MASTERPIECE


[Spoilers follow for the entire Pet Sematary series.]

Oh, sequels. On paper, you’re so weird. You’re a continuation that was never meant to be. You’re glorified fan fiction sanctioned into existence by a producer or studio eager to continue a profitable story that was only ever meant to be just that story (unless, of course, your characters wear capes, because then we need thirty-seven of those, I guess). By now, it’s become common knowledge that most sequels are inferior retellings of their originators. Subsequent writers and directors who hop onto an existing franchise try to make their sequel as different as they can, but ultimately, they are still going to exist within the structure that’s already been established. No matter what else the sequel might try, we know that Terminators are going to travel back in time to protect or destroy, Michael Myers is going to kill, and Jigsaw is going to impossibly exist and rattle off dime-store philosophies while ripping money from your pockets and laughing maniacally.

Director Mary Lambert knows this better than anyone. With her 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, she nailed the holy trifecta of horror filmmaking: scaring the shit out of audiences, striking gold at the box office, and scoring a positive critical notice or two. Even today, it’s still considered newsworthy when a woman is put in charge of a major tentpole release, and though Pet Sematary wasn’t considered tentpole, it was still highly anticipated. It was, after all, the next in a long line of extremely successful King adaptations, this time inspired by what was deemed the scariest book he’d ever written. Could a—gasp—female director make a film every bit as dark, graphic, and taboo as the book written by a lovable man with a few loose screws? That answer was a resounding yes, and no one knew that more than Paramount Pictures, so when it came time for them to greenlight the sequel, they made sure Lambert was along for the ride.


I’ve had a strange relationship with Pet Sematary Two ever since seeing it at a young age. As weird and kid-inappropriate as it may sound, the first Pet Sematary was a childhood institution. USA Network used to run it back to back with another King title, Silver Bullet, and I would watch them every single time they aired. I was unrealistically scared of Pet Sematary, and never more than when Rachel’s bony sister, Zelda, was on screen. I eventually saw Pet Sematary Two a few years after it hit VHS, and even as a child, I could tell it was stupid. Beyond stupid. It had sacrificed anything legitimately creepy about the first film in favor of slasher-flick antics and sensational violence…but I can’t pretend I wasn’t scared of it at times, because I was. 

After recently shrugging my way through the pallid, lifeless Pet Sematary remake, I felt compelled to revisit this 1991 sequel I’d long ago dismissed in hopes of finding some new merit and satisfying the itch that the remake failed to scratch.

I’m so glad I did.

Pet Sematary Two is one of the strangest, darkest, and uncomfortably funniest horror flicks ever produced by a major studio—one directed by a woman, headlined by a 13-year-old kid with more star power than the guy playing his father, and which had absolutely no problem killing multiple children… and mothers… and kittens. (Though I didn’t find any of it remotely scary watching it with adult eyes, the parts that used to frighten me as a child still filled me with slight apprehension.) Originally, Lambert had intended on directly continuing the Creed story with a teenage version of Ellie (played by Blaze Berdahl in the first film), but in a stunning act of boundless misguidance, Paramount was leery about making a teenage girl the lead character in a horror film...even though the studio had just completed a successful eight-film run of the Friday the 13th series, in which the lead in nearly every single entry was…a teenage girl. In response, Lambert and screenwriter Richard Outten (Van Damme’s Lionheart) created an entirely new crop of characters, though obviously the action remained in the town of Ludlow—the site of the pet cemetery and the Micmac burial ground beyond it.

Meet the Matthews family: there’s Chase (Anthony Edwards, Miracle Mile), patriarch and veterinarian; his wife, Renee (Darlanne Fluegel, Once Upon A Time In America, which makes a cameo), actress of cheap looking gothic monster movies; and their son, Jeff (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), looking as exhausted and barely into anything as the actor normally is (or isn’t). A freak on-set accident sees Renee being fried to death by some “oops!” electricity, so Chase takes his son back to Ludlow to bury her in their hometown’s cemetery, and hopefully start anew. It’s there that Chase encounters a cold Gus Gilbert (an all-in Clancy Brown), Ludlow’s sheriff and a former flame of his deceased wife, where he's quick to remind the bereaved widower—at her funeral, no less—that he and Renee used to bang something fierce. Jeff eventually befriends Gus’s stepson, Drew (Jason McGuire), and after his dog, Zowie, meets the wrong end of Gus’s rifle, the boys bury him in Ludlow’s whispered about burial ground. 

Things…escalate quickly. 


Tobe Hooper struck his own gold with 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so when Cannon Films came knocking at his door to direct the sequel, Hooper agreed, but decided he was going to make as different a film as possible while remaining true to the basic components that the prior film had established. If the first Chain Saw were an exercise in pure terror, the second would be an exercise in black comedy quirkiness featuring ironically used Oingo Boingo and a duel-chainsaw wielding Dennis Hopper. Lambert seems to have taken the same approach, because while Pet Sematary Two is a direct sequel in terms of concept and character dynamic, it’s not at all a spiritual follow-up with respect to tone, sincerity, or any attempt at mature horror (of which there is zero). Pet Sematary was trying to be a good film, whereas Pet Sematary Two is trying to be a fun film, and boy, is it ever. Nah, scratch that: Pet Sematary Two isn’t just fun—it’s fucking looney tunes, a gonzo masterpiece of weird characters, ace gore effects, befuddling dialogue, and the purest, vicariously palpable sense of, “Can you believe Paramount is giving us money to make this?” 

The screen story never strays too far from established structure, involving a family looking for a fresh start, a person burying a cherished pet in the cursed burial ground, and the ante being upped as dead human beings begin to replace dead animals as burial ground fodder. Pet Sematary Two even slightly tweaks the patriarch, turning him from a medical doctor to a veterinarian, maintaining the prior’s institutional and sanitized philosophy of death as normal and necessary (read: better) while doing it in a more on-the-nose way. (One of Chase’s first scenes has him gently putting a dog to sleep, telling its crying owners, “It’s better this way.”) (Read: dead.) If Pet Sematary wants to break taboos by killing a four-year-old on screen, albeit in a total freak Orinco truck accident, then Pet Sematary Two is going to murder two children, but age them up a little so the act of doing so feels less soul-crushing and more deranged. Basically, when Gage bites the big one in the first film, Lambert wants her audience emotionally pulverized to more easily buy into his father’s descent into madness, but in the sequel, when Drew and the local scarf-wearing bully, Clyde (Big’s Jared Rushton), both meet their untimely ends at the hands of a resurrected Gus, the audience isn’t that upset. Sure, it’s unfortunate to see Drew and his mother (Lisa Waltz, The X-Files) lose their lives, but as sad as that makes us, we’re even more glad about Clyde’s face being chewed off by his rear moped tire because he was such a dick. This, seemingly, is part of Lambert’s design: she wants her audience to embrace the gory death of that 13-year-old bully, and her design is correct, because we do. Clyde sucked! 


Wes Craven once mused about the difference between directors who scare their audiences legitimately, and those who make the audience believe that said director is “dangerous,” and willing to show them anything to elicit that desired scare. How far is this director willing to go? That’s the beauty of Mary Lambert and her approach to Pet Sematary Two: its goal is to break rules and encourage pure insanity; it goes freely with the flow and adopts every half-cocked idea someone on-set can muster. If there were any suggestions proffered during production that Lambert decided would be going too far, dear lord, I would love to hear them, considering the things we did get:

Monster/humanoid wolf-head nightmare sex? Check.

Zombie rape? Check.

Flesh-melting, pun-hurling, undead mothers? Check.

A leading role for Clancy Brown? Hard check.

Speaking of, no one has ever had more fun playing a psychotic undead murderer than Clancy Brown. He is Freddy Krueger, swapping out the Christmas sweater for a pair of sheriff beiges, but certainly keeping his knack for dark-humored kill-lines and his vile sense of humor. (“Why did you dig up my dead wife?” “Because I wanted to fuckherrr.”) Brown seldom gets the chance to enjoy a lead role, so while that could be part of the exuberance behind his performance, it’s really because—as many actors will tell you—it’s so much more fun to play the villain, to be let off the proverbial leash and to go as big as you want. (Brown would go on to star as the villain in another King-inspired project soon after this one—The Shawshank Redemption—and I like to believe that director Frank Darabont saw his nutso performance in Pet Sematary Two and said, “Oh, definitely that guy.”) As the resurrected Gus Gilbert, Brown chews on every piece of scenery not nailed down, and it’s his legitimate testament as an actor that he doesn’t always go big to imbue his undead Gus with the strangest of personalities. One of his best scenes is a total skewering of the generic dinner table set piece, during which his undead muscles barely function and he ends up dropping a bowl of veggies off the table. When his annoyed wife mutters and stoops to clean up his mess (and who, I might add, he’d necro-raped in a previous scene), he very subtly glares at her with narrowed eyes as if asking, “What are you so sour about?” Still, when Brown goes big, aw hell—what a blast to watch. The Cheshire grin he flashes while chasing down his family to kill them, sliding on his sheriff’s hat before he delivers their deathblow, is the stuff of cinemagic. 


Pet Sematary Two is filled with this kind of craziness—a collection of scenes so inspiring that they force you to stop and reconcile that, yep, you’re really seeing all this in a film made by Hollywood. Take the scene where Chase kills the undead Zowie and then finds Gus inside the modest Gilbert home, asking him, “What are you doing, Gus?” The resurrected sheriff looks down at the shot-dead Zowie, and then says, with detectable wryness, “Well, I was building a doggy door.” Sure, it’s a stupid line, throwaway in nature, but what makes this such a magical moment is that this hulking, demonic, undead corpse actually was building a doggy door for his hulking, demonic, undead dog. Forget all the warm-blooded people that demon Gus definitely wants to kill—that all momentarily stops to build a tiny door for his demon dog

You guys, this is a movie where a young boy is being murderously pursued by his undead stepfather, and with the zombie-maniac hot on his heels, the boy races into his house, shuts and locks the door, and then CALMLY HANGS HIS HOUSE KEYS ON THE KEYHOOK BEFORE LOCATING A GUN TO SHOOT THE GHOUL MAN TRYING TO KILL HIM.

WHO WROTE THIS?

And that ending, holy shit. What morbid mastery. What unabashed fuck-it filmmaking. The fiery finale that concludes in the attic of the Matthews’ house, which features not one but two resurrected bodies trying to kill father and son and turn them into the walking dead, is a carnival sideshow of horror chaos. Undead Bully Clyde doesn’t just show up, but he shows up with a voice five pitches deeper, very little face, and grasping an ax, which he swings with the brute force of an able-bodied stuntman (you know, the one obviously playing him). The real showstopper of this scene, however, is the return of Jeff’s mother, which actually starts on a sad and creepy note: she beckons her son to join her in the afterlife, a moment that threatens to touch hands with honest-to-gosh pathos…but that’s before things descend into utter madness, which happens pretty quickly. The fire spreading around the attic soon begins licking at the ends of her burial dress as all the work her mortician had done begins to melt off her face, and she begins repeatedly screaming “DEAD IS BETTER!” in absolute, chill-inducing, operatic, Argento levels of unhingement until she turns into a fucking STANDING, BURNING, SHRIEKING SKELETON. 

Frankly, it’s the ending we needed and deserved.


No matter how much King’s output has declined in quality over the years, he’s never written anything as farcical as Pet Sematary Two, but that doesn’t mean the sequel doesn’t manage a handful of Kingisms. (King actually requested that Paramount remove his name from any marketing having to do with the sequel, so he was obviously not a fan.) First, there are the two shaky relationships between fathers and sons, which he’s explored in more than one of his novels (The Shining comes to mind), and then there’s the unrealistically evil bully who could give IT’s Henry Bowers a run for his milk money any day of the week. The first film was about a parent losing a child; meanwhile, the sequel is about a child losing a parent and navigating the grieving process, which King later explored in his excellent short story, Riding the Bullet. There’s also a nod to The Shining when Gus busts a hole in Drew’s bedroom door with a hammer, but instead of sticking his face through the hole and bellowing  “Heeere’s Johnny!,” he verbally ponders if Drew understands the Miranda rights he’s been rattling off, or if he’s “too fucking stupid.”

Ever since its release, critics and fans have derided Pet Sematary Two, and it’s a sure-fire inclusion on many “worst sequel” lists. (Amusingly, Variety “praised” the sequel, calling it “about 50% better than its predecessor, which is to say it's not very good at all.") Pet Sematary Two isn’t a patch on the original, and it’s so tonally different that the two don’t appear to be part of the same family beyond their titles, but I’ll be damned if Lambert and co. aren’t going for it, and that’s what makes it so special. Whatever Pet Sematary Two may be, it’s all part of Mary Lambert’s gloriously gonzo plan, and that’s all that matters. One thing is certain: 2019’s useless Pet Sematary redux proved it’s better to be a goofy, red-headed stepchild but still have your own identity than to be completely without one.  

Jul 8, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: GRINDHOUSE RELEASING'S 'THE TOUGH ONES' (1976)


One of the most popular European cinematic sub-genres of the ‘60s and ‘70s was the giallo — a hyper-stylized approach to filmmaking pioneered by Italian filmmakers Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and largely credited as the inspiration behind the slasher sub-genre. Another movement also came to prominence during this time, spearheaded by European filmmakers less interested in depicting the ghastly crimes and more in the ensuing police investigations that looked into them—poliziotteschi: dark and gritty cop and crime thrillers that often offered the same kind of pulpy thrills and graphic violence, but in far less amounts. In American terms, films like Dirty Harry and The Laughing Policeman would fall under the poliziotteschi label, even though they were less graphic than their European colleagues. While poliziotteschi weren’t necessarily graphic with horrific imagery, they often could be.

Enter 1976’s The Tough Ones (aka Rome Armed To The Teeth – god I love Italian movie titles), directed by Umberto Lenzi (the giallo Seven Blood-Stained Orchids). Leaning back on the prior example of Dirty Harry, The Tough Ones tells your typical story of a police detective making it a personal mission to stop a killer while skirting “official channels” and “the book” in order to make that happen. Detective Leonardo Tanzi (the Frank Nero-looking Maurizio Merli) is that official channels skirter, furious with a system that coddles instead of punishes, and will absolutely, positively get his man -- by any means necessary. That man? The very Scorpio-ish Vincenzo Moretto (Tomas Milian), a hunchbacked slaughterhouse worker involved in much bloodier business than merely slicing cows down the middle, and who somehow manages to out-ooze Dirty Harry’s Andrew Robinson. (“I shat this out just for you,” he tells Tanzi at one point, holding up a bullet that Tanzi forced him to swallow in a total act of male dominance earlier in the film. Talk about having explosive poop! I’m sorry!)


The Tough Ones is hard-hitting and angry. Everyone is angry at everyone else. Tanzi hates Moretto, who hates him back. Tanzi and the police chief share an equal and mutual hatred. Tanzi, at times, even seems to hate the very woman he’s dating (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), as she basically represents the liberal society that releases all of the criminals he arrests on a daily basis. Like other films from this time period, and especially with it being an Italian production, The Tough Ones is very much indicative of its era. It’s impatient and cynical like lots of ‘70s cinema, with the added discomfort of pure misogyny, perpetrated against every single female character, and often at the hands of our lead hero. At the worst of them is a random rape attack committed by a group of thugs, most of which is thankfully left to the imagination, along with a disturbing insinuation that, post-rape, the victim was additionally sexually assaulted with a tree limb. There’s more than one instance of a woman being slapped, or talked down to, or outright threatened – not a single female character walks away unscathed in some form or another. Most cinephiles already well versed in this era of filmmaking likely won’t be surprised or turned off by this, but for those of you just getting started, best prepare yourself now.

Most importantly, Lenzi knows how to stage exciting action sequences, with the standout being an extended car chase that directly leads into the finale. The chase never reaches the heights of the graceful automotive ballet Bill Hickman achieved during his stunt driving in the likes of The French Connection, Bullitt, and The Seven-Ups, but only because Lenzi wants the car chase to look manic, gritty, and very dangerous instead. Leading up to that is an impressive barroom fight, which sees Tanzi taking on a Van Damme level of henchmen and reigning supreme. (A punk gets his head smashed through the glass top of a pinball machine and it’s the most satisfying thing.) The shootout during the climax, also, gets that blood pumping – that fun, unrealistically bright kind not seen since Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. Like most Italian genre flicks, the plot doesn’t fully gel, and the editing can sometimes make the film’s events hard to follow, but, like Bullitt, the plot of which is near incomprehensible, Lenzi’s visceral way of presenting the story and the action make up for the weak cohesiveness. 


From a technical perspective, The Tough Ones looks and sounds fantastic, lovingly restored for a 4K presentation. The release comes with both English and Italian audio tracks, along with English subtitles for the Italian track only. You can attempt to watch English with English, but the subtitles barely match; the intent is the same, but the dialogue is always different. (One of the best examples of this is when someone calls someone else a “dummy” onscreen, but the subtitles replace it with “proletarian,” which I found very amusing.)

As typical for a title from Grindhouse Releasing, this new edition of The Tough Ones comes absolutely packed to the gills with special content, not the least of them being a third bonus CD of the film’s soundtrack by Franco Micalizzi. Most viewers will likely start with the new interview with director Lenzi, which runs 55 minutes in length. Lenzi starts at the beginning of his career, talking about how he got started, along with his admitted comfort in working in the crime genre over horror, despite his having contributed several titles to the latter. But if there’s a must-watch supplement on this release, it’s the 90-minute(!) interview with Tomas Milian. He explores similar ground as far as his start in filmmaking and acting, but his interview begins with a deeply personal and sad account of his childhood at the hands of loveless and abusive parents. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be hooked on his every word following this stunning admission.


The complete list of special features included on this release is as follows:
  • NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE UNRATED AND UNCENSORED DIRECTOR'S CUT OF THE FILM
  • Optional Italian language soundtrack with optional English subtitles
  • Audio commentary by Mike Malloy, director Of Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The 70s
  • NEW in-depth interviews with director Umberto Lenzi, actors Tomas Milian, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Sandra Cardini, Maria Rosaria Riuzzi and Corrado Solari, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, and composer Franco Micalizzi
  • Special tribute to Maurizio Merli with appearances by Enzo Castellari and Ruggero Deodato
  • Vintage VHS intro by cult movie superstar Sybil Danning!
  • Original international theatrical trailer
  • Liner notes by Italian crime film expert Roberto Curti
  • Deluxe embossed slip cover
  • BONUS CD – original soundtrack album by Franco Micalizzi – newly remastered in stunning 24 bit/192khz sound from the original master tapes
  • AND OTHER SURPRISES...
  • LIMITED BONUS - Custom 30-Caliber Metal Bullet Pen – Strictly Limited to 2500 Units

The Tough Ones is now on Blu-ray from Grindhouse Releasing


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jul 6, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: PET SEMATARY (2019)


[Contains spoilers for the novel and both adaptations of Pet Sematary.]

A remake of Pet Sematary has been bouncing around Hollywood since 2006, ever since George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh attempted to produce it through their then-new company Section Eight Productions, which had also done Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia. Clooney was even set to star as Louis Creed, patriarch and serial burialist of the Creed family. That, obviously, didn’t happen. But, after a decade of development hell, Pet Sematary has arrived, and…this is what we got.

Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch, the directorial pair behind the creepy and successful indie Starry Eyes, had their work cut out for them. Doing a remake is thankless. From the very beginning, you have two choices: stay faithful to the source material (King handled the screenplay for Mary Lambert’s 1989 take, so it’s nearly identical to the book), which will have people asking you, “Why bother?” (see: The Omen remake), or find ways to stay true to the spirit of the story while taking new chances. The danger with this latter approach is making changes that devout fans will see as arbitrary, but something about which the filmmakers can say, “See? It’s different.” Pet Sematary does this a lot—makes small, seemingly unnecessary changes. Yet, if you sat down with the redux for any five-minute segment without actually knowing what you were watching, by the end of those five minutes, you would know. It’s a familiar story with familiar characters, and certainly a familiar concept; Pet Sematary never strays so far as to become unrecognizable, but if you’re already intimate with the story, you can’t help but think, again, “Why bother?”


To its credit, Pet Sematary wants to include as much as it can from the novel that the filmmakers consider “essential,” but with everything vying for space, significant portions of these elements are spread too thin. Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) is barely utilized, reduced to such a footnote that you have to wonder why the filmmakers felt compelled to include him; and despite a far more graphic head wound, complete with pulsating brain, the specter doesn’t come close to matching the former’s onscreen presence. Additionally, we’re robbed of Louis and Judd meeting for the first time, given the dynamic the two men will share and the things they will experience together; instead, we find that the men are already politely acquainted halfway through a throwaway dinner sequence. Weirdly, there’s a complete lack of acknowledgment regarding the connection between the existence of the pet cemetery and the very dangerous road that cuts through the Creed and Crandall estates, being that canon explicitly states the former exists because of the latter. Meanwhile, the Timmy Baterman story, one of the creepiest sequences from the original, is downgraded to a newspaper headline. The character of Zelda, the most terrifying part from the original and the novel, is reduced to a pile of rubber bones and limbs dropped repeatedly down an elevator shaft. (Seriously.) The mishandling of this character in particular is Pet Sematary’s worst offense.

From the first frame, even before a single “scary” thing has happened, Mary Lambert’s 1989 original adaptation oozes dread. You can feel that things will go very badly for the Creeds, and already your chest begins to tighten. For example, she knows everyone has read the book, and she knows everyone will be waiting with bated breath to see little Gage lose his life in the road. That’s why she, wisely, cunningly, even sadistically, introduces the Orinco truck several scenes before the final encounter, because she wants to milk that suspense for every ounce, interrupting a happy-go-lucky picnic more than once to cut back to the truck speeding down the road toward them. Now, when the Creeds 2.0 pull up to their new rural home, you already know bad things are going to happen—not because of any induced dread, but because you’ve experienced this story twice already, so no shit. Yet, there’s a complete lack of suspense or ominousness. The admittedly beautiful opening overhead drone shot of a burning house, which we all know to be Judd’s, is another immediate reminder that, yep, bad things are afoot, but it still doesn’t quite help stoke those brooding fires. Nor does the surprisingly lifeless score by Christopher Young, who ordinarily dominates the horror genre.  


Pet Sematary makes the same mistake as another high profile remake, Rob Zombie’s terrible Halloween: whenever the filmmakers deviate from the story audiences know and love, you can feel their spark, their interest, their excitement in exploring this new direction. But when leaning back on the mainstay elements from those same stories, you can feel their obligation to just barrel through and begin tackling all their material—to infuse the property with their identity, to put a stamp on a title that they’ve temporarily borrowed before sliding it back onto the shelf. Pet Sematary doesn’t fully come alive until, ironically, Ellie does—from the dead, that is. Obviously, this is the biggest change in this new iteration, as the filmmakers felt using Ellie as the resurrected child would provide additional pathos. With Ellie being older and in a position to understand what was happening to her, she could better echo those sentiments to her god-playing father, which was meant to boost the film’s philosophical look at death. 

But what, ultimately, did we learn from this? 

What we already knew from the novel and the original adaptation.

Sometimes, dead is better. 

As for the ending, it’s dreadful; very strangely borrowing from Pet Sematary Two, it’s made even more frustrating by the fact that the alternate ending included on the home video release is far better—gloomier, more ominous, more satirical, and more tonally appropriate. The one that went to theaters was the stuff of Hollywood hokum, rendering whatever mature goodwill the film had achieved as kaput. Screenwriter Jeff Buhler says this is because they wanted the audience to leave with a smile, which seems like a bonehead decision, being that smiles don’t belong anywhere near Pet Sematary, a manuscript King found so vile that he shoved it into a drawer upon completing it, deciding it would never see the light of the day because he’d finally gone too far. 


In spite of all the whining, Pet Sematary isn’t a bad flick, and there are several things lending to its favor. Ellie’s post-resurrection appearance is subtly but deeply unnerving; a drooping eye hints at major damage going on beneath the surface (that bathtub sequence…Jesus), and young Jeté Laurence is incredibly creepy in the role before the film falls victim to the pitfalls of the “evil kid” genre. After a while, she’s reduced to a pint-sized zombie kid using “scary” glaring eyes and coming a little too close to rattling off ironic Chucky-like threats. Amy Seimetz as Rachel is easily the film’s most interesting character, and Seimetz’s performance is a large reason why: she ably sells Rachel’s extremely mangled view of death, due to her childhood experience with her sickened sister, Zelda. Lithgow, too, does fine with the role of Judd Crandall, made iconic by Fred Gwynne, though he sheds Gwynne’s folksiness in favor of curmudgeonness. He also doesn’t even attempt a New England accent. (Not a single a’yuh! What gives!) Lastly, there’s Jason Clarke—an actor capable of much more than the scripts he signs onto. It feels weird to say, but his take on Louis never reaches the same emotionally tormented heights of the original’s fairly unknown Dale Midkiff (whose “NOOOOOOOO!” is still one of the best anguished screams in cinema). 

The filmmakers poke fun at their audience by presenting sequences they think they know, only to see they’re heading off in different directions. (Judd’s death is a perfect example.) Additionally, and I don’t know this for sure, but I’d swear they lifted audio from the original flick, borrowing one use each of Zelda’s screechy “RAAAAACHEL!” and a growl from an undead Church. There also several loving nods to King’s other works, one of which includes an off-screen Judd telling a guest at Ellie’s birthday party about a rabid Saint Bernard. Widmyer and Kölsch’s design of the deadfall and the Indian burial ground behind it is ripped right from the film cells of old fashioned monster movies like Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, depicted as dreamlike and different, since this part of Ludlow’s woods are meant to be evil and mysterious. As a concept, this is tremendous, though it suffers in execution from some surprisingly shoddy green-screen. 


Paramount’s Blu-ray contains over 80 minutes of special features, including the before mentioned alternate ending, along with “Beyond the Deadfall,” which runs an hour in length across four different “chapters.” This supplement is rich with information and content, and goes beyond your standard EPK to delve heavily into the film’s genesis and production. (Stephen King does not appear.) Sadly, however, this is yet another studio release that lacks a commentary with the directors, and in its place are strange and very brief narrative pieces where several of the flick’s major characters have their own unique nightmares about the burial ground. Finally, we do get the story of Timmy Baterman, but in a weird one-man show where Lithgow, in character, sits down and presents the story as a campfire tale to us, the audience. 

Far worse adaptations have come from Stephen King, and if you asked the man himself, even he would probably rank this new version of Pet Sematary above bonafide classic The Shining, an adaptation he never misses the chance to impugn. Even so, it’s ironic that Pet Sematary’s main conflict comes from “those damned Orinco trucks” speeding dangerously back and forth, being that this new version of the story is standing directly in the middle of the road.

Pet Sematary is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jul 3, 2019

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)


Happy Return of the Living Dead Day!

My love for the horror genre was written in the stars long before I ever fired out of my mother. But certain films along the way cropped up early on during my wee-one years just to make sure I stayed on the right path: Don Coscarelli's Phantasm 2 was there to show me that not every battle between good and evil had a happy ending. Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street proved that no place--not even your bedroom--was safe. And Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead proved that "horror" could be hilarious.

Rumors suggest that following the bungled release of 1968's Night of the Living Dead, in which the filmmakers lost copyright to the entire film following a last-minute title change, George A. Romero and his partners John A. Russo and Russell Streiner parted ways, each divvying up this potential new zombie franchise to take in different directions. Romero was awarded the partial phrase "of the Dead" for all future "official" sequels while Russo and Streiner walked away with "of the Living Dead" for less official spinoffs. Now, is this true? As Donald Drumpf says, all I know is what I read on the internet. But it sounds so silly and spiteful that I wouldn't be surprised if it were. Having said that, Romero obviously went on to create two celebrated sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, along with...some others...while Russo, Streiner, and Night alum Rudy Ricci would wait to seize on their creative cinematic rights until 1985, which saw the release of The Return of the Living Dead.


Despite all the contributors (ultimately the Night veterans had very little influence on the final product), The Return of the Living Dead is fully a Dan O'Bannon film. Twenty years before Shaun of the Dead brought comedic zombies (or zombies at all, really) into the mainstream, O'Bannon rightly realized that rotting, wailing, running zombies chasing down a bunch of angry punk teenagers was actually kind of funny, and so he played up the humor of the situation to maximum effect. Imbuing his story of the resurrecting dead with a wry sense of humor containing sarcasm, slapstick, and Vaudevillian timing, what O'Bannon does that's even more clever is give the horror aspects of his screenplay real bite (sorry), making scenes of marauding hordes of the dead sprinting--sprinting!--after their victims much more terrifying. Forget "removing the head or destroying the brain"--this time the living dead are wholly unkillable. ("I hit the fucking brain!" Burt [Clu Gulagher] says angrily after putting a pick-axe into a zombie's skull without it doing a thing.) By comparison, Romero's slow-moving, easily killable ghouls were barely a threat. O'Bannon ups the terror, but brings the humor with it. (He claims that naming his two leads Burt and Ernie was entirely coincidental, and he was completely unaware of the duo's long-running residence on Sesame Street, but when two of the film's hapless and doomed paramedics eaten by the living dead are also named Tom and Jerry, you really have to wonder.)

During one scene where they look to Night of the Living Dead to provide answers on how to kill the undead (destroy the brain!), Freddy (Thom Matthews) asks, "What do doctors use to crack skulls with?" Frank (James Karen) answers, "Surgical drills!" at the exact moment Burt re-enters the scene holding a pick-axe. Humor like this seems very broad, especially when compared to today's standards in horror films where someone would stop to ironically muse on the meta of the conflict before continuing on, but it's a sadly extinct, wry sense of comedy that, for anyone who has ever seen or read an interview with Dan O'Bannon, senses was a part of his genetic makeup.


O'Bannon, famously, opted to make his take on this somewhat new zombie universe more humorous in an effort to avoid treading directly on territory he felt strongly was owned entirely by Romero. But at the same time, in lieu of this respect, you get the sense that O'Bannon was also having a hell of a time sending up this genre that, maybe, people shouldn't be taking so seriously after all. (Romero's zombies were flesh-eaters; O'Bannon's zombies seem only interested in braaaains, which they shout while chasing down a victim.)

Despite the slight misinformation in the above synopsis, it's during a routine training session where Frank unleashes the zombie-resurrecting 2-4-5 trioxin from barrels stenciled with Property of the United States Army, which douches himself and his new hire, Freddy. This is part of the overall palpable sense of distrust O'Bannon shows toward the American military throughout, beginning with Frank refuting any inference that the barrels containing infected corpses might leak (even though they do), and ending with the very downbeat and cynical finale which sees the military dealing with their "missing Easter eggs" with the only way they know. And in between, brief scenes with Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry) present him as a dry, bitter, and disillusioned man who orders nuke strikes like other people order pizza.

But even out of this anger comes further opportunities for humor. When Freddy asks why those tanks of diseased bodies ended up in the basement of a medical supply warehouse, Frank smiles slyly and says, "Typical Army fuck-up." It's the word "typical" that gives his response its meaning, as if it were part and parcel among the many other Army fuck-ups worth mentioning. After shit hits the fan and one character logically suggests that they call the number stenciled on the side of the tank, Burt looks besides himself as he demands, "Do you think I want the goddamned Army all over the place?," as that would be worse than the recently resurrected corpse screaming and pounding on the inside of the walk-in freezer.


The Return of the Living Dead's use of somewhat dated and primitive techniques for special effects is the thing--among many things--which make the film so lovable and enduring. Seeing the Tar Man or the female half-a-corpse strapped to the table opening their mouths once, but somehow emitting multiple syllables, of course doesn't look all that convincing. It makes no sense that their very tongueless and lipless mouths can emit 'S' and 'P' sounds. But it somehow goes along with the spirit of the film, which leans heavily on, "Fuck it, let's just have fun."

After all, have you seen the poster?

They're back from the grave and they're ready to party!

Calling The Return of the Living Dead the greatest zombie film of all times feels like an insult to George A. Romero, being that its existence directly stems from his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, but also because O'Bannon avoided doing a more serious-minded zombie film, as he felt it would tread too closely on Romero's territory. However, where Romero was able to carry respectability through his zombie series up to and including Day of the Dead (which was pulverized at the box office the same year by O'Bannon's film), multiple attempts to sequelize The Return of the Living Dead--either maintaining the humor or not--proved that it wasn't so easy. Inspired by what came before, The Return of the Living Dead was still lightning in a bottle, made from a perfect combination of sensibilities, willing performers, and grisly special effects. 


Jul 2, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: ESCAPE PLAN: THE EXTRACTORS (2019)


The first Escape Plan is an unremarkable but admittedly fun throwback to high-concept action fare typical of the 1980s. Nearly every action star had his own prison flick during that era, and in Stallone’s case, he did it twice. (Tango & Cash totally counts.) By the time he and Arnold Schwarzenegger joined forces in 2013 for what was originally called “The Tomb” and which eventually became Escape Plan, even the critics who enjoyed the film accurately observed that such a team-up would have been the stuff of action fans’ dreams…had they done it 20 years ago. 

Escape Plan did so-so business at the domestic box office, but was a major title in China (as tends to happen with big dumb Hollywood spectacles), so when Lionsgate announced not one but two sequels, cynics were both amused and confused. That they would be mostly funded by Chinese production companies, and would star Chinese actors alongside returnees from the first film, made sense of Lionsgate’s decision. 


The first of these was Escape Plan 2: Hades, directed by master hack extraordinaire Steven C. Miller, who has had the distinct pleasure of working with Bruce Willis (three times), Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and Malcolm McDowell but without ever making anything even approaching watchable. That Stallone doesn’t even appear in the sequel beyond a contractual 20 minutes was the icing on the cake of mediocrity that effortlessly proved why movie goers avoid direct-to-video titles whenever possible. 

Escape Plan: The Extractors, following on the tail end of this, seemed doomed.

Imagine my surprise.


Directed by actual filmmaker John Herzfeld (15 Minutes, the underrated Tarantino ripoff 2 Days in the Valley), and with nearly every surviving cast member of Ray Breslin’s team returning (except for Amy Ryan, who is replaced by Jamie King), Escape Plan: The Extractors feels like a bonafide sequel to the first film in every way that its predecessor, Hades, didn’t. As if knowing how much of a turd the previous flick was, Escape Plan: The Extractors has dropped the “3” from its title to more closely associate only with the first film. Better yet, there’s no bait-and-switch this time. Stallone is definitely your lead hero AND actor this time out, though he shares the screen with a bodyguard named Shen (Jin Zhang), who works alongside Breslin to rescue a former asset that’s been kidnapped by the film’s primary villain. And it’s not just the familiar faces that help render this connection to the first film, but the sequel’s conflict ties back directly to the first film’s events—specifically the resolution of the character played by Vincent D’Onofrio (who appears here courtesy of stock footage). One can look at this connection and groan and say, “of course a direct-to-video sequel to an okay action flick is pulling this,” but I’m fine with it: if Escape Plan: The Extractors wants to riff a little on Die Hard With A Vengeance, I won’t stand in its way.

But okay, the action: that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? Like most other quiet direct-to-video/VOD releases from Lionsgate, Escape Plan: The Extractors suffers from some really poor CGI during the action sequences, but thankfully, director Herzfeld relies on practical effects whenever possible, dialing back gunfights in favor of some genuine, hombre-on-hombre fisticuffs. The final fight between Stallone and villain Devon Sawa – yes! the cutie boy from Little Giants! – is a brutal ass-handing, with Stallone landing such heavy hits that you’ll swear you can feel them.


Future Expendable Dave Bautista returns from the second film to lend a hand in all the ass-kicking, even getting to enjoy the rare novelty of fighting his own body double/stunt man, who plays a nameless villain within the Estonian prison where the third act plays out.  Bautista, who also barely appears in Hades, is finally given something to do, and while his screen time won’t please his most ardent fans, he appears enough that no one should feel ripped off about it. (There’s very little 50 Cent, which suits me just fine.) 

The Blu-ray release offers a respectable dose of special features: a commentary with director John Herzfeld and actors Sylvester Stallone and Devon Sawa, along with a pretty typical ten-minute behind-the-scenes/interview EPK that sees participation from almost all cast and the director. Stallone talks specifically about the final fight scene and how he approached doing it, which was—for the first time in his career—to just wing it, instead of relying on careful choreography. (The fight scene is rawer and angrier than one would expect, so his experiment was a success. It lacks any kind of polished grace in favor of brute force brutality.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I could never responsibly say that this latest sequel is a good movie. The script contains some hammy dialogue, which leads to some hammy performances, and again, the conflict is ripped straight from the school of cliché, but if we’re being fair, the first flick didn’t exactly have a well-oiled script, either. In fact, since comparisons are inevitable, I can’t even responsibly say that the first Escape Plan is a good movie, but it is fun, and good for what it was. Escape Plan: The Extractors is a darker take on this world, dialing down much of the humor (a lack of Arnold will do that, I suppose) and even offering a couple of genuinely shocking moments that one wouldn’t expect to see in such an under-the-radar title. In that regard, it’s fair to say that The Extractors is a low-fi but worthy follow-up. 


Will there be further Escape Plan sequels? As of right now, none have been officially announced, though the ending teases a new adventure. Based on the reception of Hades, the future of the franchise hinges on how the world takes to The Extractors. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on Escape Plan 4, but if there’s one thing Stallone is good at, it’s proving me wrong.

Escape Plan: The Extractors hits Blu-ray today from Lionsgate Films.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]