Jun 30, 2020

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971)


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

WATCH ME WHEN I KILL (1977)


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

PAGANINI HORROR (1989)


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

FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH (1980)


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.


Jun 20, 2020

OFFICER DOWNE (2017


If we can thank the bloated 2007 double-feature film Grindhouse for anything, it would be the impending encouragement to filmmakers who appreciate the obscure, pulpy, over-the-top features from the 1960s and ‘70s that allowed its filmmakers to side-step more traditional story presentation. Together, though it wasn’t a total success, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez unashamedly cobbled together a well-meaning grindhouse theater experience, complete with a host of trailers for fake films weaved in between. One of these, Hobo with a Shotgun, would later become a feature film starring Rutger Haur in the titular role. And from those loins it would seem that Office Downe, though based on a graphic novel of the same name, would emerge.

In a sort of mishmash of Robocop, Batman, and perhaps Bill Lustig’s Maniac Cop trilogy (coming soon as a series from producer Nicolas Winding Refn and Universal Soldier sequels director John Hyams), Officer Downe takes all the primary colors, unrelenting violence and insanity, and sense-assaulting presentation of Hobo with a Shotgun and implants it into a more (kind of) accessible story (and I use that term loosely, and in comparison with its cinematic roots). Designed with a Gotham City/Arkham Asylum mentality, the very proactive Officer Terry Downe works his way up the crime ladder of Los Angeles, encountering one strange group of bad guys, led by one strange semi-lead villain, after another, until he reaches a mastermind with whom he eventually meets his match. The villains are straight out of comic books, complete with garish wardrobes, operatic presentations, and a metric ton of dastardliness. Which is appropriate for all kinds of reasons.


The main reason to see Officer Downe is for its outlandishness, as well as Sons of Anarchy's Kim Coates having a grand time hamming it up, bad-ass style. Much like other grindhouse films both new and old, the gimmick is what draws in its audience. Very few grindhouse flicks felt the need to engage its audience with any kind of social message, though if you wanted to look hard enough I suppose you might find one every so often (mostly in the Blaxsploitation movement). It’s not that Officer Downe is about nothing, but it’s much more about spectacle than it is about substance. In real life, our relationship with the police has never been shakier, and seeing an undead(?), immortal(?) cop systematically resurrected from the dead to continue his very violent assault against the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles neither assuages nor solidifies our real fears of the police. The closest Officer Downe gets to a message is that we need cops like Terry Downe to do the things that we know need to be done, even if we have to play God in order to do it. But, when your “hero” spends much of his screen time blowing the heads off villainous nuns or mutilating a squadron of enemy ninjas, it would probably be wise to check your brain at the door and enjoy Officer Downe for what it is, rather than what you think it should be.

Fans of Grindhouse, Hobo with a Shotgun, Sin City, and other heightened silliness should have a reasonably good time with Officer Downe. Very low on substance but high on spectacle, violence, flying limbs, nudity, outlandishness (animal-masked villains, intentionally poorly dubbed villains, all the practical and CGI blood you can stand), Officer Downe never professes to be anything more than what it presents in its trailer: hard-bitten carnage courtesy of a beloved supporting actor enjoying a rare lead role and relishing in every moment. Casual film fans should look elsewhere, but those who seek the offbeat and the depraved should, at the very least, enjoy the ride, even if it’s a one-way trip.


Jun 18, 2020

THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (2016)


If nothing else, give The Last Witch Hunter credit for one thing: it doesn't attempt, yet again, to concoct a period horror piece draped in drippy surroundings, Viking beards, and really heavy-handed themes about God and faith (which were a lot more relevant back then, being that there were only about thirty people on the entire planet, and 28 of them believed in God). Filmmaker Christopher Smith has already had the first and ultimate word on the subject with his excellent and criminally overlooked Black Death, but then a major studio felt we needed a cheap imitation, and so they made their own version with Nicolas Cage. (It was Season of the Witch. It sucked.) Though The Last Witch Hunter may lack in most areas, at least the writers and director Breck Eisner had the idea to fast-forward the plot after its plague-era opening into modern times. It's a silly concept, made sillier by seeing how it actually plays out, but if a film is going to be mediocre, at least it can do so in the streets of New York and not slimy caves or muddy swamps where the audience has no choice but to be depressed and underwhelmed.

The Last Witch Hunter plays out in a very post-Supernatural world, making sure to include small batches of people working toward the cause of eradicating a supernatural threat (in this case, witches), along with the idea that witches just kind of hang out with each other in dusty New York lofts, so taking them out in large chunks at a time is pretty easy. Runes, sigils, finely dressed monster hunters, and a horde of CGI is on-hand to invoke the endless debacle of the Winchester Brothers, only this time it's not a decade-running horror series that actually started off excellently and then began running out of ideas halfway through, but a bloated feature film that pretty much didn't know what to do right from the start. In a film called The Last Witch Hunter, the titular hero hunts exactly one witch...twice. He may be the last, but he certainly ain't the best.


Vin Diesel isn't an actor so much as he is a performer. He is frequently cast because studios and/or directors want their audience to just know what kind of experience to anticipate before they ever see a single trailer or production still. Diesel, who hasn't given anything resembling a performance since 2006's Find Me Guilty, has skirted by all this time on his admittedly physically intimidating appearance despite the fact that he kinda/sorta looks like a giant cartoon baby -- a giant cartoon baby that, for sure, could rip my head off and throw it behind his over-sized crib. But intimidation can only get you so far. Predictable and similar critiques have been thrown at guys like Schwarzenegger and Van Damme over the years, but at least they had the foresight to embrace the why of their popularity and show signs of life every so often. Lack of acting abilities could be reasonably counteracted by charisma. Vin Diesel has not gotten this memo. He recites his dialogue like an idling engine, and if his face moves, that means he's trying to emote. He's infinitely more interested in twirling his head-smashing weapons behind him as they make that whoosh sound so his prey knows he's really, really good at head-smashing. Fill the screen with all the bodily mayhem and CGI you want, but if your hero is boring, then your movie is boring. That's movie science.

The supporting cast of Michael Caine (I'm still trying to figure out that one), Elijah Wood (Maniac), and the beautiful Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones; last night's dreams) threaten to offer much needed variety to the plot, but everyone's roles unfold with such telegraphed predictability that there's nothing left for them to do besides go through the motions: Caine looks sad and old, and says things sadly and oldly; Wood looks wide-eyed, precocious, and dorky; and Rose Leslie, well... The Last Witch Hunter's running time would've been better spent with her reading aloud from the script while every so often pushing a stray hair behind her ear and looking directly into the camera -- all while knowing she was looking only at me.


Director Breck Eisner hasn't exactly hit any of his films out of the park, as he's released one slice of studio tentpole escapism after another that have resulted neither in critical favoring nor box office success (although I unashamedly enjoy his redux of The Crazies). While he is capable of some decent directorial flare (again, I'm talking about The Crazies), The Last Witch Hunter drowns in so much CGI that it's hard to see what's going on around it. The buzzing flies and the smoky vapors and the screaming witch faces and the fire and the oh my lord it's all just so exhausting. The combination of Vin Diesel, Breck Eisner, and PG-13 monster violence was likely never going to result in a modern classic, but it could've at least made for 100 minutes of reasonable entertainment that, when it was over, didn't make you think, "I don't even remember what happened." Maybe it was black magic.

The Last Witch Hunter isn't Vin Diesel's worst movie, but it's not up there anywhere close to his best. If you're a fan of goth chic/GQ wardrobes, witches, and Vin Diesel smiling every half hour, The Last Witch Hunter has come to bewitch you.

"You're a witch!"


Jun 16, 2020

THE WAX MASK (1997)


If you’re a horror lover, and if you’re on this site you likely are, then by now you’ve likely seen Vincent Price’s 1959 horror classic House of Wax, itself a remake of 1933’s Mysteries of the Wax Museum. Based on the unpublished short story “The Wax Works” by Charles Belden, the concept about an owner of a wax museum moonlighting as a killer and turning his victims into wax dummies as a means to get rid of the evidence has been used numerous times, the most recent example being 2005’s House of Wax. The Price version is certain to go down as the definitive take on the story (with an honorable mention for Tourist Trap), but as you can see, that didn’t stop people from trying new iterations. 

One of those attempts is 1997’s The Wax Mask, produced by legendary horror director Dario Argento, who also provides the story alongside another legendary horror director, Lucio Fulci. Those familiar with House of Wax will definitely find similarities in The Wax Mask, right down to actor Robert Hossein, who with his pencil thin mustache bears a striking resemblance to Vincent Price. Despite the similarities to House of Wax, produced by Warner Bros., Argento and Fulci decided to lean on Gaston Leroux's short story "The Waxwork Museum" to offset any legal claims made by the studio. Somehow this worked, even though The Wax Mask is clearly borrowing many elements from Price’s most infamous feature, but if Italian filmmakers know how to do one thing, it’s skirt trademark infringement.


Though The Wax Mask bears the presence of several Italian heavy hitters, and though it’s both set in and shot in Rome, the most frustrating aspect of The Wax Mask is how un-European it feels. If you’re well versed in Italian films, you’ve come to expect them to feel a certain way: gaudy, opulent, and very stylistic. The Wax Mask is none of these. Directed by special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti after Fulci, who was originally going to direct, died in 1996, The Wax Mask feels less like an Italian horror production and more like something that would’ve been produced by Charles Band and his cheap mini-studio Full Moon. Subsisting almost entirely on close-ups, the scope of the flick feels stunted from the start, and though there is admirable costume and production design, one can’t help but walk away after having watched the production and thinking you’ve just watched something made for television or the direct-to-video market. Also missing, considering the personnel involved? Fun and gory set pieces. That’s not to say that The Wax Mask is a chaste production because it’s not. There’s plenty of flesh to stoke your fires along with some flying limbs, but when it comes to the latter, especially given the film’s concept, it doesn’t feel like nearly enough, which is odd, given director Stivaletti’s special effects background. The visual effects, though scarcely employed, are dreadful. However, the final twenty minutes are so ludicrously stupid that they more than make up for the previous plodding two acts. 

Italian horror consistently remains a watermark for many horror fans, who point to various aspects as the selling point for them, whether it’s the fluid style, the lurid content, or something less definable. As a film, The Wax Mask doesn't quite work. Though it certainly boasts some heavy Italian personnel, with Argento, Fulci, and producer Giuseppe Columbo coming together for one project, but it’s a shame that this Italian production doesn’t feel very Italian.  


Jun 14, 2020

DANGEROUS MEN (1984 / 2005 / 2015)


Filmmaking is the most communal artistic medium there is. The impassioned spend years watching and studying films, then attending film schools, and then striking out on their own and working on guerilla-style film sets just to hone their craft. And when everyone comes together, bringing their own specific expertise--whether it be writing, cinematography, or editing--a film happens, and it's through everyone's combined efforts that such a thing were possible.

The opening credits for Dangerous Men prove that everyone's been doing it wrong, as it proudly displays the names man that helped bring Dangerous Men to fruition:

A John S. Rad film.

Created and written by John Rad.

Original music, songs, & lyrics by John Rad.

Producer: John Rad.

Executive producer: John Rad.

Directed by John Rad.

A joke surely made a hundred times by now, that opening credits list perfectly sums up Dangerous Men: Rad. Rad all over. Rad through and through. Every inch of film, every stick of production design, every B♭on the keyboard is pure, 100%, unfiltered Rad. But you'll somehow realize this before a single Rad ever flashes on screen, because you'll already have witnessed the title--DANGEROUS MEN--roar onto the screen, only to crash into each other and explode. Following this, you will know there was only one man capable of creating what you are about to witness. Neither David Lean, Howard Hawks, nor Martin Scorsese, literally, could have ever made Dangerous Men. 


If you clicked on this review already having heard of Dangerous Men, then you likely know the backstory of the very complicated and unorthodox production. Entirely self-funded, auteur John Rad shot portions of the film when he had the money to do so. When there was no money, there was no film. The shooting just...stopped. As you can imagine, this approach made the shoot last just a little longer than usual--like, 22 years longer.

Do you know what happens over the course of 22 years?

EVERYTHING.

Actors quit; technology upgrades; "plots" can become lost over the haziness of time; calendars (seen prominently in the background) can say 1985 in one scene, and 1994 the next.

Haphazardly rewritten to conform to the changes that occur over time (like, say, a lead actress who quits after becoming injured on set), Dangerous Men's plot makes very little sense. Characters are introduced and then completely forgotten. Other characters are introduced at nearly the end of the film and somehow become essential catalysts to the resolution of the conflict. Even Wikipedia, which knows everything about everything, has no fucking idea how to explain it: "The plot of Dangerous Men is somewhat unclear, and changes abruptly towards the middle of the film."


Dangerous Men has something for everyone: unsexy sex scenes, terrible karate, ageless fathers, wet kissing, buttcrack knives, badly obscured accents, repeated attempted rape, childish/murderous bikers, tedious strangling, the line, "sweet like cake!"; multiple scenes of knee love; a stabbing-murder sequence shot entirely from the point of view of the human ass; an inadvertently sociopathic heroine; endless scenes of a naked British man dancing in the California desert; poor, poor, poor...just, the poorest acting; funky, upbeat, joyful synth scores used for scenes of rape, stabbing, murder, or, you know, whatever; zero-hour appearances of albino villains; inescapable scenes of belly-dancing; near-cunnilingus; and so so so much more.

Dangerous Men is completely incompatible with the art of film criticism. There'd be no point in calling out the horrendous acting, writing, directing, etc., or the numerous continuity errors, when you're dealing with a film that feels like a fever dream. It doesn't matter that shot composition is worrisome, or that the movie is clearly comprised of multiple film grades, when there are literally instances of actors reading their lines from on-screen scripts, or the same punch sound/"agh!" yell is used fifteen times in a row between two different characters during a fight scene, or the avenging heroine is obviously holding a boom mic almost-but-not-quite out of the shot, even pointing it back and forth to whomever is speaking at that moment. Critiquing Dangerous Men is like going to PetSmart and complaining that it's a shitty zoological exhibit. It's like licking the inside of a Chinatown dumpster and wondering why you feel so ill. Dangerous Men aims a nuclear-propelled rocket at a planet called "Merely Satisfactory Filmmaking" and falls short by thirty million light years. Dangerous Men trails in every election poll except the one called "Hilarious Tits and Stabbing." Dangerous Men shows up to your mother's funeral in Crocs and board shorts, but you honestly don't care because you LOVE Dangerous Men. Someone once tried to battle Dangerous Men with nothing but hyperbole, at which point hyperbole was added to science books as an official unit of measurement.

Dangerous Men can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop. Ever. 


Being that Dangerous Men was shot in chunks over the course of 22 years, some portions of footage look better than others. As you can imagine, the look and integrity of the film gradually improves as it plays on, being that it was shot in mostly chronological order. There are also signs of your usual mistreated footage--print damage, marring, speckling, etc. There's even a cigarette burn or two, which will serve as your befuddling reminder that, yeah, this fucker actually played in a theater. Along with that, the audio on this thing...it ain't great. If someone is sitting in a quiet room, dialogue is clean and clear. If someone is outside on the beach, say, getting almost-raped, or stabbed to death, dialogue is likely muffled by exterior elements, like crashing waves or steady winds. In the film's opening scene, set in a restaurant, all audio has been completely removed between dialogue exchanges, which also contain your usual amount of restaurant ambiance. The very very repetitive and tonally inappropriate synth score by (you guessed it) John Rad can also overwhelm dialogue at times. To summarize, Dangerous Men is capable of offering any kind of consistency when it comes to how it looks or sounds, but seriously, who gives a shit? You didn't even know this thing existed until a month ago, and now you're going to complain? 

For years now, people have asked me, "Why do you love bad movies so much? What's the point of watching something bad...on purpose?" Films like Dangerous Men are my answer. And it needs to speak for itself. If you're a bad movie connoisseur, run--don't walk--to the phone in your hand probably right now and order up this bad boy. You will not be at all disappointed.

Dangerous Men is now available on Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films.


Jun 13, 2020

HER NAME WAS PAMELA: 'FRIDAY THE 13TH' (1980) TURNS FORTY


The Friday the 13th series will always hold a special place in my heart, regardless of how dumb it became once Paramount Pictures’ eight-film reign ended and the franchise ended up with New Line Cinema. (Jason Goes to Hell is enough to cement my point, but the remake easily earned my hatred.) As a kid, and once the calendar fell on Friday the 13th, catching a mini marathon of the series on TNT, USA Network, or what was then known as the Sci-Fi Channel was always an event. I’d fire up the VCR, grab a VHS tape from the cabinet to sacrifice, and record as many entries as I could, stretching EP mode to its breaking point. Growing up with an old-school mother, the hammer often came down on the movies I rented, so I worked with what I was given, which were edited-for-content, commercial-ridden airings of the least mother-friendly horror series on the planet. 

Slasher fans seldom point to the first Friday the 13th as their favorite series entry, or even the best, which flies in the face of how these things usually go with long-running franchises: the original is almost always the favorite, and almost always the best, but with the franchise not even introducing infamous masked killer Jason Voorhees until the second entry, nor putting him in his famous hockey mask until the third, and with the overall series also going through an odd metamorphosis that saw entries vying to be murder mysteries (Friday the 13th), grindhouse sleaze (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), gothic monster movies of the golden age (Friday the 13th: Part VI – Jason Lives), paranormal tales (Friday the 13th: Part VII – A New Blood), or self-aware dark comedies (Jason X), it’s easy to see why certain entries appeal to certain people. Overall, and even extending into the lesser heralded New Line era, the Friday the 13th series is like a Rorschach Test: if you look deep enough, you’ll find something that calls to you.


Though Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is the most popular entry in the series (I won’t argue with that), I often feel that the 1980 original gets overshadowed and dismissed as being that weird entry where the killer is Jason’s mom instead of the marquee maniac we’d all come to love. Even with the maestro of mayhem Tom Savini in charge of the blood and guts, it doesn’t contain the same kinds of outrageous kills that the series would later feature, much like in Savini’s return to the series with The Final Chapter, or 1993’s Jason Goes To Hell, which has nothing going for it except the violence. But there are all kinds of reasons to celebrate the original, even if its own creators still admit to this day that it was a blatant rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Friday the 13th offers an honest-to-gosh attempt at creating backstories for its characters, regardless of their superficiality. Alice (Adrienne King) has unknown and unresolved issues in California, Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) had nightmares about raining blood as a kid, Ned (Mark Nelson) is the “funny one,” etc. There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here, and except for some outward capering, their backstories come solely from dialogue and not their performances, as Halloween was so keenly able to do. But that’s okay! Post-Halloween slashers didn’t strive for much beyond a passing resemblance to real life and some nifty kill scenes, and Friday the 13th handles that with ease. Though it’s primarily known as a slasher flick today, putting yourselves into the shoes of an unknowing audience those forty years ago instead reveals a murder mystery at its core, even if clumsily handled. Halloween never played around with “who” the killer was—it’s how the flick opens—and while Friday the 13th is happy to ape Halloween’s slasher aesthetic, it’s also eager to apply a bit of Ten Little Indians, sticking a bunch of characters in an isolated spot and painting several of them as potential killers. Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), who has a vague romantic history with Alice and seems against her leaving to return home, disappears into town just before bodies being to drop at Camp Crystal Lake, and all while driving a jeep…just like the unseen killer. Crazy Ralph (an incredible Walt Gorney) prophesizes all across town about how the camp is doomed, and how all those who stay there will “never come back again.” These red herrings aside, a cheap final act reveals the killer to be…someone who hadn’t appeared as an on-screen character until that very moment, stepping out of her jeep wearing her best church sweater: Jason’s mother (Betsy Palmer), known only then as Mrs. Voorhees. (She’d be given the name Pamela in The Final Chapter.) Though this reveal is a total cheat, in that audiences couldn’t possibly have guessed that the killer was a character they didn’t know existed (and that the on-screen hands of the killer throughout the flick are definitely a man’s—see the below image), the machinations of the film up to that point were mired in mystery, successfully keeping the audience guessing up until that “oh…” reveal.


Sean S. Cunningham does a commendable job for someone only a handful of films into his directorial career and working in the horror genre for the first time. Prior to Friday the 13th, Cunningham had worked exclusively (and amusingly) in softcore porn and family films, with one of the latter being a Bad News Bears rip-off called Here Come the Tigers. If you’re sensing a disingenuous flair with how Cunningham produced his earlier projects, you’re not wrong, but if we’re being fair, he wasn’t doing anything then that Hollywood’s not doing now.

Cast, director, and special effects aside, the real star of Friday the 13th—and almost every entry produced by Paramount—is the musical score by longtime series composer Harry Manfredini. If there were any justice in this world, the exploitative reputation of the Friday the 13th series would be forgiven and his work would be just as celebrated as the compositions in JAWS, Halloween, Phantasm, and The Omen. During this era, low-budget filmmakers were seeking cost-cutting synthesizers, but Manfredini stuck with real-live strings, giving Friday the 13th a lush and propulsive orchestral score that, if we’re being honest, the sub-genre probably didn’t deserve. (He also scored the 1986 slasher Slaughter High, where he treads much of the same very recognizable ground.)

For the last few months, fans have whispered about the rumored Friday the 13th Complete Collection that seems to be in the works, and seems to be coming from Scream Factory, which stems from a couple series veterans getting a little too loose-lipped on social media. With the series celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, it’s a ripe time for a new collection. Until that happens, Paramount’s steelbook reissue of the first film will have to do. While its release smacks of the kind of “blood from a stone” pattern of re-releasing the same titles over and over without new content, at least the studio, once ashamed of its affiliation with the series, is acknowledging its place in cinema history and celebrating its impact on the movie-going public. Interpret that as you will.



[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 12, 2020

THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)


You know how many found footage flicks are based on tapes or film cans being discovered and exhibited, reflecting footage that had been shot during an abstract past? There’s a tangible irony in that, being that’s not only the same deal for The Poughkeepsie Tapes’ concept, but because The Poughkeepsie Tapes is probably more famous for how long it sat on the shelf waiting to see release than anything else. The Poughkeepsie Tape was actually shot and completed alllll the way back in 2007 at the height of the found footage rebirth. Produced by MGM, who began going through a series of financial woes and lacked the means to properly market and exhibit their films during that period (which is how the MGM-produced Cabin in the Woods eventually ended up with Lionsgate), Shout! Factory stepped up to acquire the distribution rights so that horror fans everywhere without the inclination to use a torrent program could finally see the long-mooted film for themselves.

So after ten-plus years, was the wait worth it?

Not…really.


Before you let the term “found footage” steer you toward a certain expectation, know that there aren’t any paranormal/supernatural/metaphysical aspects in The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Refreshingly, it’s a straightforward and (mostly) realistic look at a serial killer, his victims, and the law enforcement angle that surrounds the investigation. And again, “found footage” doesn’t just mean that The Poughkeepsie Tapes is 90 minutes of raw serial killer home movies, but instead features sit-down interviews with law enforcement officials, family and friends, and more — along with serial killer home movies. From a reality point of view, this is the ideal way to present this kind of story while still maintaining the ultimate suspense question: how is this going to end? The problem is nearly half of the interviewees in The Poughkeepsie Tapes are clearly actors who are clearly focusing on trying to look natural and casual and end up giving a performance. For something billed as “reality,” it busts the illusion consistently throughout.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes’ content is disturbing at times, and during others, surprisingly violent. This is far less about titillation and more about disturbing viewers and making them uncomfortable. To its credit, The Poughkeepsie Tapes concocts some eerie images (the corpse being yanked out of the coffin via rope is especially eerie and it belongs in a far better film), but it also concocts some that are incredibly dopey. One interviewee preempts a coming sequence known as “the balloon footage” that one expects is going to be super disturbing, but instead shows a prostitute blowing up a large balloon, tying it off, and then bouncing on it. “Like this?” she keeps asking the off-screen perpetrator (which conjured images from The Greasy Strangler*, causing me to laugh), and the whole notion of it is just bizarre. If this is supposed to be funny…why? Because other than this, The Poughkeepsie Tapes doesn’t try to be. And if it’s not supposed to be funny, who on earth thought this was disturbing?


Ten years ago. That’s when The Poughkeepsie Tapes was completed and ready for release before Shout! Factory rescued it for a video release. A lot has changed in the horror genre since then, including the most important thing: found footage fatigue. But even if The Poughkeepsie Tapes had been released during a time when found footage was still considered a novelty, that still wouldn’t help its overall presentation — as an unconvincing, alternately silly and disturbing, but forgettable low budget horror flick that happens to feature the logo of a major film studio.

Very few films could be worth waiting ten years to see, and that very long delay has to be taken into account when determining its overall value. By now the more tenacious horror fans have already seen The Poughkeepsie Tapes, whether it was on a torrent, Youtube, or a bootleg DVD-r from a horror convention. MGM’s financial woes may have been a good scapegoat for the company to avoid otherwise releasing an almost unmarketable and disturbing film to the masses.



"Like this? Like this, Janet? I don't know if I'm doing it right, Janet. I don't know if I'm doing it right, Janet. Like this? Is this right? Janet? I don't know if I'm doing it right, Janet. Like this?"

Jun 10, 2020

THE SEVEN-UPS (1973)


Gritty cop thrillers from the late ‘60s and ‘70s are among some of my favorite films. The French Connection, Bullitt, Dirty Harry — hell, I’ll even throw a bone to the Dirty Harry-inspired John Wayne flick McQ, even if it’s the weakest of the bunch. Put McQueen or Eastwood in a trench coat; give him a cynical attitude, fast car, and a talkative gun; mix in a little Lalo Schifrin jazz flute; and I’m yours. The Seven-Ups hails from this same school, this time seeing JAWS’ Roy Scheider in the lead role of Buddy Mancino, leader of a secret police force investigating organized crime. It presents with the same kind of gutsy gusto as it predecessors, this time with the novelty of seeing Scheider in a lead role — a rarity for an actor who was usually part of an ensemble, or as director William Friedkin once called him, an actor more appropriate as “a second banana.”

The Seven-Ups was directed by Philip D’Antoni, who had previously produced Friedkin’s classic crime thriller The French Connection, though that’s not the only commonality between them. In fact, The Seven-Ups feels like a French Connection spin-off, this time focusing on Popeye Doyle’s partner, also named Buddy (and played by Scheider). There’s also the New York setting, along with, again, the grittiness of the real New York; the expertly executed car chases choreographed by legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman; the extremely atypical musical score by Don Ellis; and the essential presence of writer/former NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, whose exploits would go on to inspire the aforementioned films.


The Seven-Ups occasionally gets derided by critics for its loosey-goosey plot, which isn’t unfair; there are many moving parts within its running time, including lots of double-crossing, duplicity, and the eeriest car wash you could ever visit, and I can’t say with confidence it all comes together into one streamlined story. But, being that 1968’s Bullitt has an even more nonsensical plot and is even more celebrated, I’m totally fine with celebrating The Seven-Ups — warts and all. 

What’s most important is that The Seven-Ups is absolutely entertaining as hell, and Roy Scheider excels in this kind of role, along with the immensely talented and underrated character actor Tony Lo Bianco. In terms of D’Antoni’s presence, The French Connection may be the more well-regarded and more confidently plotted crime classic, but give me The Seven-Ups any night of the week. It’s viscerally thrilling in the same way as its counterparts, aided by a score by Don Ellis that’s so unexpectedly eerie you’d think he were instead scoring a horror film. And the car chase scene — holy shit. If Bill Hickman doesn’t have a lifetime achievement award, posthumously or otherwise, shame on the entire Academy.


Jun 7, 2020

GET OUT (2016)


Within Get Out’s opening moments, writer/director Jordan Peele manages to homage both John Carpenter’s Halloween – as the camera glides across leafy, suburban streets and an obscured humanoid threat shadows an innocent person in the wrong place at the wrong time – and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as this same person remarks about how those same suburban streets are “like a hedge maze.” This opening concludes with a simply done but expertly executed sequence which doesn’t linger long enough for its suspense to grow tedious; it’s over before you fully realize it’s begun, and as you see this play out before you, you’re taken with the bizarre notion that not only are you about to watch a horror/thriller from one of television’s best and underrated comedians – but that the guy knows his genre shit.

When critical praise for Peele’s directorial debut began rolling in – and for an entirely different genre from which he was previously known – it was during these commendations that reviewers insisted on downplaying the different aspects of comedy that were still pretty prevalent in what was marketed as a straight horror/thriller. From the more obvious broader moments of white-meets-black-culture clash, to the severe black comedy aspects of the admittedly over-the-top twist, Get Out’s creator was smart enough to know that making a film as still inherently angry as it was would go over better so long as it could rely on these multi-layered approaches to humor. That’s something that only the comedy genre – and especially the black comedy sub-genre – allows. That’s its biggest strength: that it can still reflect the anger and fears and frustrations of its writer or director, but without sacrificing the good time and titillation that audiences still want to experience in the theater. If you’re watching Get Out and not recognizing it as a black comedy, then you’re risking your enjoyment. Yes, it’s a horror film, but it is a comedy as well – just one very different than what Peele and his comedian partner Keegan-Michael Key farmed so well during their successful run of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele.


Get Out, a sort of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, exists in a post-Black Lives Matter and post-Trump world. Up to now, the stain of racism that will sadly always permeate throughout this country, had been dormant – not altogether extinct, but quiet. And then wave after wave of controversial police shootings began; and, like almost anything else in the era of Modern America, they became politicized. Liberals backed the victims; conservatives backed the police. It just became one more line drawn in the sand. And politicians seized on this. Trump fanned those flames and made hate speak socially acceptable. It’s no coincidence that hate groups have felt empowered following not just his victory on election day but since the earliest days of his presidency. As I write this, white supremacists are gathering – proudly – in New Orleans, bearing torches, to protest the removal of state symbols representing hatred and a “once”-divided nation. Drunken Texans are shouting slurs on beaches at Muslim families. Racist incidents are surging in schools

Schools! 

What the fuck is happening! 

For so long things weren’t racially perfect (nowhere near), but it was put back in the closet — only taken back out for special occasions or the random, isolated incident. But these days, it’s apparently not just okay to be a proud, outspoken racist — it’s your American duty. And those in the community who represent the target of this hate are speaking out against it. Everyone is finding their own outlet to do it. With Get Out, Jordan Peele is using his usual brand married to a horror approach — and if nothing else, the horror genre has proven time and time again that it can be used to tell (while disguising) the angriest stories told by the most frustrated filmmakers.


Some people – in their undying drive to become fake outraged via the Internet whenever they read something they don’t agree with — probably won’t like that, but this is a matter that has to be confronted if Get Out is to be fairly appraised and explain why it’s so relevant. [And the remainder of this paragraph gets into spoiler territory, so if you’re a Get Out virgin, then GET OUT…to the next section.] The idea behind Get Out – the crux behind the motivations of the Armitage family (I’m sensing another Carpenter reference there) – is absurd: the harvesting of strong and vibrant black men and women for their more desirable traits, with the leftovers being turned into soulless automatons serving their white owners in whatever ways they’ve been programmed. Taking that silliness from the film and examining the concept under the microscope of the real world, is it really that absurd? Society chooses to worship certain African Americans as athletes, as actors, as musicians. We adopt certain aspects of their culture and fashion and leave others behind. Sometimes we even elect them to political office so we can feel really good about ourselves and we can pretend that racism is that thing which died in the 1960s. (Yet we get annoyed that black Santa Clause decorations exist because THE REAL SANTA MIGHT BE OFFENDED.) But even as we shower our chosen few with adoration and celebrity worship, we discard the rest. We change the channel mid-news report about an unarmed black man or boy being shot by the police in a sketchy shooting. “I’m no racist, but,” begins the guy in your family who is obviously racist. “They’re not ALL bad, but,” begins the woman at your office who thinks they’re all bad. Get Out's message isn’t anything new, but it is conveying it in a different way. And the message is that racism hasn’t gone away — will probably never go away — and for all the time it’s here, those affected aren’t going to take it sitting down.

These days, in America, everyone is angry. I am, and you are. Even if you got the president you wanted, chances are good that you’re either feeling buyer’s remorse, or you were angry to begin with and voted for the orange Hail Mary hoping his magic wand would reverse everything you think is wrong with our country. But the thing to remember is you don’t have exclusivity on anger. No one does. Jordan Peele is allowed to be as angry as the rest of us, but while we all complain on the Internet behind avatars bearing anything other than our real faces and nicknames bearing anything other than what’s on our birth certificate, Peele is at least out there, first, contributing a solid title to the horror genre, but second, crafting something that kicks at the hornet’s nest in a way that’s both playful as well as furious. Though Get Out falls victim to predictability in certain areas and laziness in others, its uniqueness and bravery more than make up for it – and, above all, it wants to start a conversation that many of us aren’t ready to have.

Jun 4, 2020

MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970)



It's an undated 18th-century Austria, and two witch-hunters - Lord Cumberland (Henry Lom) and his apprentice, Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier), have come to a small village to root out its witchy influence. Already in attendance is Albino (pronounced Al-bee-no, and played by Reggie Nalder), the acting witch-hunter and all-around misogynist, who accuses any woman of witchcraft if she does not submit to his sexual demands. At first, Lord Cumberland seems to be rational, punishing Albino for his behavior and removing him from his service, but Cumberland soon lets the power go to his head and acts on his sexual desires much in the same way. His young apprentice has no choice to rebel, and that may have more than a little to do with the fact that he's begun falling in love with the beautiful and sultry Vanessa Benedikt (Olivera Katarina). Things soon spiral out of control as Lord Cumberland and his peons begin accusing the most random of people as being in league with the devil; the biggest offense, it would seem, is causing impotence in men. 

Talk about a limp reason! (Terrible.)


Goddamn, Udo Kier was handsome in his youth, wasn't he? What a handsome man! Look at those eyes! Why was he never cast as a James Bond villain? He's the perfect amount of handsome and miscellaneous European. They should have cast him in “A Man Too Handsome,” and James Bond would’ve fought how handsome he was. (This would have been one of the Timothy Dalton ones.) Man, I wish he'd come save me from Henry Lom!

Uh oh, I've really gotten off track here. I better get back to the film.

It goes without saying that Mark of the Devil, more than anything, is about men forcing their dominion over women, threatening them with torture and death should they not submit to their sexual whims. The majority of the men in the film are either villainous, or spineless and weak. Count von Meruh is the only decent male and ultimately ends up paying the price for it. Take that, add a few scenes of bodily torment, and what you have is an exploitation film masquerading as European gothic, but despite those specific tropes, Mark of the Devil did well enough financially that a sequel was commissioned, which maintains a religious vibe, retains Reggie Nalder in a different (and again villainous role), and tosses out the rest.

Mark of the Devil was a reactionary film based mostly off the success of 1968's Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price. Though the two films share a similar plot (that of witch-finding/destroying), Mark of the Devil is fine existing in shadow of the former so long as it gets to inflict all kinds of pain against its characters as well as revulsion against its audience.

Upon the film's premiere, sick bags were handed out to theatergoers who were there to see what was being marketed as "positively the most horrifying film ever made," which had been rated "V for violence." What that means in modern speak, by which time films that include a man's penis being bitten off and eaten by piranha have the potential to go theatrical, is that forty years later, it all plays rather tamely. Despite the tongues being ripped out and the bodies being stretched on the rack and the bed of nails poking all the butts, it doesn't quite retain the same amount of shock and horror as it did then. Normally that wouldn't be a big deal, since that's not the reason one should go see a film - regardless of it being horror – but that's really all Mark of the Devil had to which it could lay claim at that time. If we're being fair, it was an unoriginal plot conceived by piggy-backing off another infamous horror film (that underwent its own cuts to avoid getting a "V for violence" rating [just kidding, that doesn't exist]), but after all these years, the shock of the "violence" has worn off. Because of that, there’s not much else to carry the film beyond the array of very interesting and memorable performances (the best probably being the absolutely slimy role of Albino by Reggie Nalder).

Obviously, films have no choice, regardless of when they take place, but to reflect the zeitgeist of the times, and Mark of the Devil is no exception. While it was the brutality that drove audiences to see the film after word-of-mouth had begun spreading, it undoubtedly played much differently back then compared to how it plays today. Thankfully, though time has counteracted the appeal it once had, enough was left in place to justify first-timers to give it a chance. Of all the films made during this era, it's more that Mark of the Devil is one of the more infamous rather than the one of the better made, but that's okay. Sometimes that's reason enough.


Jun 2, 2020

DISTURBING BEHAVIOR (1998)


By 1998, screenwriter Kevin Williamson was dominating both television and cinemas with his teen-centric cry baby drama Dawson's Creek as well as his screenplays for Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2, and The Faculty. MGM, it seemed, was eager to get into the Williamson business, but instead of just flat-out soliciting him, they instead hired someone to mimic his style: teens in a perilous conflict inspired by a classic horror film, all while uttering overly complicated and abstract dialogue that doesn't sound at all realistic. Scream had sent up Halloween, The Faculty modernized Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or Puppetmasters if you want to be all Clea DuVall about it), so Disturbing Behavior became tasked with revisiting The Stepford Wives with a hint of Pleasantville thrown in for good measure.

The script by Scott Rosenberg (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead), who's been accused for pretty much his entire career of ripping off Tarantino's overly pompous writing, actually does an admirable job of mimicking Williamson's penchant for self-congratulatory dialogue indicative of imperiled teens thumbing through their worn-out thesauruses in between monster attacks. This dialogue tends to range from the unnecessarily flowery ("Don't worry about the snakes in your garden when you've got spiders in your bed.") to the downright befuddling ("Fail to be a tumor, Gavin!" "Sounds razor!"), but it never sounds at all casual. Along with this Williamson essence, the casting of Katie Holmes, still part of the then-current Dawson's Creek phenomenon, certainly didn't hurt in the "It's Kevin Williamson, we swear!" department.


Director David Nutter, who directed the best episodes of The X-Files and Millennium (including its excellent pilot) as well as Game of Thrones, gets credit for taking on an outlandish concept and injecting all the life he can into it, but the end result isn't something of which to be particularly proud. (Behind-the-scenes drama between himself and the studio apparently resulted in a whopping 27 minutes being removed from his preferred cut, which didn't help matters.)

An allegory about sexual repression and the social pressures of "fitting in," Disturbing Behavior, alternate title Kids Are Dicks: The Movie, works less as a film on its own but more as a '90s time capsule for both filmmaking and teen culture. Because Disturbing Behavior was released within the tidal wave of younger-skewing horror/thrillers started by 1996's Scream, it followed the same template, right down to the sampling of inoffensive alternative rock songs used for thirty seconds at a time, every 3-4 mins, just so kids could have trendy musical accompaniment while walking to math class. (Props goes to Shout! Factory for opting not to specifically identify "Got You Where I Want You" by The Fly's on their Blu-ray's subtitle track during the film's opening, instead using the wonderful descriptor "[cheesy rock]".)


But it's the second part of this "time capsule" outlook that's the most interesting, which comes from viewing a 1998 film about teen culture with modern eyes, being how much teen culture has changed. Nick Stahl's Gavin does the obligatory introduction of the various social groups at Cradle Bay High School—the jocks, the nerds, etc.—only now, those once-nerds being "bottom feeders" whose "music of choice is the sound of their 'Apple PCs' booting up" are now an entire generation of hipsters who have embraced their lord and master Apple, and whose childhoods spent reading comic books and staying out of the sun are now resulting in billion dollar film production companies, whose profits come not just from those nerds, but from everyone. 

These days, comic books are cool! Wearing dorky glasses are cool! The lone nerds have now become the majority.

In 1998, having an Apple computer made you a geek. Now, it makes you a chic American.


That's about where Disturbing Behavior stops being interesting. Not helping are its pallid characters, who are the cinematic equivalent of a flatlining heart monitor. (Some attempts at characterization appear in the deleted scenes, which is the kind of stuff studios love to cut out.) However, in the final film, we're really only given empty archetypes—some of which don't make any sense. The impulsively punchable James Marsden plays a drab empty leather jacket named Steve, who's bitter because his parents never want to talk about his dead brother, as he feels that would help them heal. Later, at school, when officials want to talk with him about his dead brother in an effort to help him heal, Steve says, "No thanks, I'm okay." And when it comes to Katie Holmes' Rachel, she's prone to dancing like no one is looking—right in the back of a pick-up truck, and to no music whatsoever. She's "trash." Also, Gavin's a stoner, and his albino friend (named U.V.—get it?) is basically braindead.

And that's everyone.


Not a total loss, Disturbing Behavior is worth a watch for a few reasons:

One: to see if you can count every single connection to The X-Files, whether it be the cast or the crew. (Spoiler: You will never find them all). The major ones are the presence of director David Nutter, composer Mark Snow, and 26(!) actors, among them Steve Railsback, who played Duane Barry, and Chris Owens, who played Agent Jeffrey Spender. Teen People called Disturbing Behavior "Part X-Files chiller, part Scream thriller!" and they weren't wrong.

Two: a very young Katharine Isabelle, who has been working loyally in the horror genre ever since, most recently in NBC's Hannibal. She's also gotten a lot better, as she's actually so bad here it makes her work in Freddy vs. Jason seem Streep caliber, and that's saying something, because everyone is terrible in Freddy vs. Jason.

Three: William Sadler playing his most eccentric character yet.

Four: Bruce Greenwood's  hilariously '90s porn-star mushroom haircut.

That's it! Good night!