Showing posts with label creatures and monsters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label creatures and monsters. Show all posts

Jul 17, 2020

SPLINTER (2008)


Low budget filmmaking is tough, especially when it comes to horror. If we're taking on just the low budget medium, a lack of financing can affect the final output. Lesser money can only afford the lesser actors, cinematographers, editors, composers, production designers, etc., and a weakness apart of any of these individuals can severely handicap a project. In the horror genre, you have all of these risky areas, but then in addition, you have the inherent prejudice against the genre for the years and years of cheap imitators, exploitation romps, depictions of "glorified" violence, and on and on. Lord knows I certainly feel this way, and I'm supposed to love this shit. Because they were grandfathered in, it's easy to forget that watermarks in the genre – Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Night of the Living Dead – were made on the amount of money you found beneath your car seat the last time you dropped your iPhone. Even today, Hollywood approaches to the horror genre – unless of course they're greenlighting a dripping CGI mess of an extravaganza – are apt to keep the budget low. In case you haven't noticed, Hollywood's track record in giving us decent quality horror films (the recent Insidious and Sinister don't count, as they were both made independently) are about on par with those low budget filmmakers who are either genuinely trying to make something good or simply trying to create something stupid they know they can sell for the bottom shelf at the video store. (Oh shit, I just totally dated myself.)

Enter Splinter, a little backwoods monster movie that nearly came out of nowhere and personified how so much could be done with so little.


Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo Costanzo, aka the stoner from Road Trip who believed he was destined for great things) are celebrating their anniversary of sorts in a far less glamorous place than Cancun or Aruba. Instead they're jeeping into the heart of the wilderness with nothing but dufflebags of clothes and some camping gear. Her idea more than his, he attempts to play the role of outdoorsman, but it becomes increasingly obvious he's meant for motel beds and flourescent lighting rather than tent assembly and gazing up at the stars.

Meanwhile, a mile down the road and standing outside a broken-down car, Dennis (the immeasurably cool Shea Whigham) and Lacey (Rachel Kerbs) are on a rendezvous of their own – one that has them fleeing from the law. Tensions run high between them, but Dennis has his sights on getting out of dodge, pronto, and Lacey has her sights on something else – anything else, desperately – as long as it comes in pill form.

Eventually, these two couples run afoul of each other, and at gunpoint, Dennis and Lacey force themselves into the car – and lives – of Polly and Seth. With one half of our on-screen couples taken hostage by the other, the new foursome simply drive down the desolate wilderness-surrounded road...until they run over something strange and suffer a flat tire because of it. Seth and Lacey find the thing they ran over...something covered in unnaturally large splinters...something that most assuredly be dead, but attacks them anyway.

The couples speed off in the repaired jeep, unsure of what they had seen, but Seth, who is currently in the process of obtaining his PhD in biology, attempts to make sense of the very dead thing covered in a blanket of splinters, which seemed to multiply across the ruined piece of roadkill, keeping it alive.

A hissing and smoking radiator has them pulling over at a gas station, where they encounter a former splinter creature victim, and one of their numbers becomes infected. Locking themselves into the gas station to hide from the strange things stalking them, they're forced to rely on their wits, a healthy array of convenience store items, and each other, if they want to survive.

And things get awfully bloody.


What we have with Splinter is a loving homage to creature features that came before it, mixed with zombie films that have directly inspired it. Clearly in love with John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, George Romero's Dead series, and holy crap, even TremorsSplinter takes the "rules" of the zombie film, marries them to the absurdity of the nature/science run amok sub-genre, and creates a wonderfully clever and at times disturbing resurrection-gone-bad grimy gore fest.

You will find no CGI here; nothing but a collection of unique and imaginative practical effects. A dismembered hand covered in needles crawling across the floor like a spider recalls The Thing (and perhaps Evil Dead II), and the ruined bodies of anyone unfortunate to become infected send-up Peter Jackson's early kiwi splatter romps. Added to this are a collection of camera tricks nearing one hundred years old in their construction and are still just as effective.

The best part of all this? Taking a page out of Night of the Living Dead, there is no explanation – no why – for the events unfolding. A brief, one-second shot of a sign – something about keeping away from an oil company's experimental extraction site – is all we're provided, and we've seen enough of these flicks before to let our imaginations fill in the gaps.

Shea Whigham's presence here is the smartest casting decision. With Denny, Whigham plays a total bastard, but one you know from the start you're going to end up rooting for. Yeah, he's a thief, and he and Lacey are on the run from the law, but his main want for freedom is not to avoid an indeterminate amount of time behind bars, but so he can get his drug-addict girlfriend out of the country and into Mexico, where he'll focus on trying to get her clean. Whigham plays this incredibly well; he is a bastard, but he's also the kind of bastard you'd hope to have around when shit hits the fan. He's got both a cowboy's balls and a thief's unscrupulousness, both of which come in handy as our characters find themselves confined to one place and warding off attacks from the slowly growing numbersof splinter creatures. And wouldn't you know it? Turns out he's a big ol' softy, too, just like the rest of us.

Whigham has done nothing but expand his increasingly impressive career. (Motherfucker's only been in three films nominated for Best Picture over the last two years, as well as appeared in both "Boardwalk Empire" and "True Detective.") Splinter was not one of his first major roles, but rather an interesting stepping stone for him along the way. He was far enough along in his career that he could have easily not taken part, but I'm glad he did, as the film is all the better for it. And despite all the bad-asses he'd already played, and all the bad-asses he'd yet to play, I guarantee he'll never do anything as bad-ass as shooting a shotgun one-handed, since his other arm has long been torn off, tossing it in the air to load another shell, and shooting it again. (Don't get me wrong, Wagner and Costanzo as the kidnapped couple forced to align with a "bad guy" in order to survive do just fine with their roles. But this is Shea Whigham's film.)

Speaking of smart casting, enjoy the appearance of the opening gas station victim, played by Charles Baker. Perhaps you know him by another name: Skinny Pete, from the pop culture phenomenon that is "Breaking Bad."


Toby Wilkins' direction over Splinter is just fantastic. The chaotic camera does a nice job of masking the assuredly cheap and simple creatures while also creating a deep frustration within his audience, because we just want to see this thing – every ugly nook and cranny. And among the many great set-pieces on hand, one in particular – which has one main character, er, let's say impaired, and making his way toward a getaway car – which will literally have you screaming at the screen for him to move his fucking ass. It's a sequence designed explicitly to have you wondering if he'll make it, and it works like gangbusters.

Toby Wilkins, where the fuck did you go? I mean, okay – The Grudge 3 didn't work out, and I don't at all blame you for hopping on board that franchise and working alongside Hollywood heavyweight Sam Raimi, even if the film was always fated to go direct-to-video. And I don't at all fault you for The Grudge 3 turning out kind of...well...shitty. Let's just pretend it didn't even happen. I don't look at such a film and even remotely think "a Toby Wilkins film." At best, I consider it a minor diversion on the road that will eventually lead you back to the world of horror features, where I know you'll once again give us something worth a damn.

Mar 28, 2020

FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)


Cult titles are funny things. Though some film aficionados will tell you they are a genre unto themselves, instead this label reaches across the entire genre spectrum, plucking titles here and there for the requisite amount of devotion, or sometimes obsession, from its fan base. 

Think Hard Boiled, The Big Lebowski, pretty much anything John Waters has ever made, or when it comes to the horror genre, Fright Night - films that don't do extraordinarily well either with critics or audiences during their initial release, but over time begin to accumulate more and more exuberant film fans ready to quote and analyze or just cherish ad nauseam.


Despite receiving a sequel in 1988 - courtesy of Halloween III's Tommy Lee Wallace - Fright Night took kind of a while to catch on, but once it did, and outside of your more established franchises like Halloween or Friday the 13th, there has never been more devotion to a clunky, kind of silly film from the 1980s - the time in which all cinema was seemingly clunky and silly. 

By now, Fright Night has become legendary for all manner of legitimate and accidental reasons, and there are very few horror fans out there unaware, at the very least, of its plot: that of Charley Brewster (Justified's William Ragsdale) and his new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Dog Day Afternoon's Chris Sarandon), who wastes no time in letting slip that he's a vampire by biting a chick in front of the open window that directly faces Charley's bedroom. Since his girlfriend, Amy, and best bud, "Evil" Ed (Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys, respectively) don't believe him, Charley only has one option: to seek help from Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), former horror thespian and host of a late-night spook-show called "Fright Night" to fight this blood-fanged evil that has moved in right next door.


Fright Night is the definition of 1980s horror, and that's okay. The clothes were big, the hair was bigger, but there was also a non-pretentious charm worming its way through the entire proceeding. Writer/director Tom Holland, no stranger to the horror genre with both Child's Play and Stephen King's Thinner under his belt, shows a bit of flare in what was still the early part of his career.

For the uninitiated, Fright Night is a tough sell, as having a love for 1980s "light" horror is nearly a prerequisite, but the reliance on physical and in-camera effects was a refreshing callback to a less exacting era of cinema (that sounds like a slight, but it's not) where the mindset seemed more to be "let's make a film" rather than "I wonder how far we can push the visual effects." As someone who was always more ambivalent about this title, I was curious to see what a many-years-later viewing of the film would hold for me; while my initial misgivings about the film's uneven tone and (to me) too-long dull stretches remained unchanged, it was refreshing to find myself appreciating certain aspects that I missed the first time for whatever reason: Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent gives the performance of the film, straddling that line between playing a total forgotten failure, to playing someone genuinely fearful, to then playing someone destined for heroism. He and Ragsdale have fine chemistry and their final fight with Dandridge and his mutant familiar, Billy, is an enjoyably slimy special effects light show. That, and the earlier mentioned charm of physical effects, left me feeling less dismissive and more disappointed that I don't share the kind of love that many, many other individuals share for this film.


Much has been said (and maybe too much) about the gay undertones present in the film: the subtle homo-eroticism between vampire Jerry and the curious Charley, who seems more interested in peering through the window at his new neighbor rather than pouncing on his girlfriend who's waiting in his bed and saying, basically, "Okay, we can sex now." Added to that would be Stephen Geoffrey's surprising foray into gay pornography in his later years, as well as Amanda Bearse's eventual coming out as a lesbian. All of this added together has painted Fright Night as "the gay vampire movie," which may or may not be accurate, depending on with whom you speak that were involved with the making of the film. (The gay theory is a common one for not-at-all-gay cinema.) While it's sincerely doubtful any of this significantly bolstered the film's infamy beyond trivial talking points, it certainly does add another layer to this film's otherwise harmless and enduring legacy.

I guess I'm a curmudgeon, but I don't see the big deal in this beloved cult title. Still, it 35 years later, it continues to climb to the top of most other genre titles released on a yearly basis that come, take a dump, and leave, and no one even remembers they were there. But Fright Night manages to live on, and as I've said before, especially about flicks that aren't my bag, remaining in the discussion this many years later is a triumph. 


Mar 26, 2020

BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)


If David Cronenberg had a sense of humor, he would be Frank Henenlotter. The quirky New York-based director of a very quirky filmography (the Basketcase trilogy is likely his most well-known offering) has built a career on exploring maladies of the body and through what circumstances they turn the kinds of mutantness, corrupted, or gooey that usually befall his lead characters. But during all this, Henenlotter is never not going for laughs. And he’s always been successful – so much that his early ‘70s tale about two brothers (one of whom is a freak of nature the size of a bowling ball with the appearance of a meatball found under the stove three years after it went missing, and which dwells in a large wicker basket carried around by his “normal” brother) managed to spawn a series – a series! – of films, with more and more freaks being added to the lineup with each sequel.

Brain Damage has the distinction of being Henenlotter’s most broadly entertaining film while also being the most direct about its message: drugs suck and ruin your relationships.

That’s about it.


It’s not a complicated message, and one that’s easily decipherable right off the bat, which works to the film’s advantage, because it allows the entire conflict to play out without constriction, enabling easily earned humor derived from the sheer absurdity of the plot. 

Every appearance of Elmer is funny, thanks to his turd-like shape and beady, friendly eyes, as well as the completely unfitting voice work by actor and Halloween horror host John Zacherle (who appeared in Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker, and who unfortunately passed away in 2016). Putting aside for a moment that such a loony concept would have ever existed outside of the imagination of Frank Henenlotter, one would see Elmer’s design and be tempted to give him a guttural and whiskey-soaked voice akin to Danny De Vito or Tom Waits. But no, Zacherle’s voice – and by extension, Elmer’s – is calm, smooth, and pleasant in a grandfatherly way, with abrupt articulation and diction. The aesthetically pleasing voice which comes out of Elmer makes the choice a complete 180 from what would be expected, but which makes it that much more amusing.


Like Cronenberg (early Cronenberg, anyway), Henenlotter has been pretty uncompromising when it comes to the films he wants to make, avoiding the studio system whenever possible to make sure the sheer insanity which emanates from his imagination goes from page to film without dilution. Brain Damage is kind of nuts, but in all the ways that make it great, and even if the film is about a purple poop parasite that feeds off human brains and injects goo into the back of its host’s neck to get them high, it still carries with it a message of value. Like all the best horror films, Brain Damage is a morality tale, but it’s also one that has a hell of a lot of fun conveying its message.

Frank Henenlotter doesn’t have a very expansive filmography, but where he may lack in quantity, he certainly makes up for with a collection of titles that are 1oo% imbued with his identity and his sensibilities as a filmmaker. Good or bad (many would probably argue bad), there is no simply mistaking a Frank Henenlotter film. From the grimiest of New York streets to the body horror aspects that pervade every frame of every film, he has successfully put his stamp on the horror comedy, and has managed to make it work time and time again. Brain Damage remains at the top of his filmography.


Mar 24, 2020

THE RIFT (1990)


With a mere two films, director J.P. Simon has done more for my life than other filmmakers who have made actual good films that I liked reasonably well. The first of these discoveries was Slugs, bought on a whim at a local record-and-tape trader I frequented for the sole reason of seeking random and obscure horror films. With the cover art of a dead woman’s bloody face leaning against a bathroom tiled wall, and with a slug right next to her — obviously the culprit — well, I knew I had to have it. And it was a wonderful, slimy mess of a film. At the time, it hadn’t occurred to me to look into Simon’s filmography; instead, I went on my merry way (and probably discovered Tourist Trap).

During this time, while perusing those “bad movie” compilations on YouTube, I became aware of the existence of Pieces, courtesy of Linda Day George’s repeated and increasingly dramatic screaming of “bastard!” into the sky above her. Again, such a fraction of the overall film was enough for me to know it was something I had to have. And I did. I’ve owned Pieces on multiple formats, including Grindhouse Releasing’s recent and beautiful Blu-ray release. It’s one which receives a decent amount of playtime because of how fucking happy it makes me.

Which brings us to The Rift.


Released in 1990 as Endless Descent, The Rift was originally destined for theaters before it did an about-face and instead debuted on video after a very select theatrical release. The finished film is your best explanation of why. The Rift is goofy as hell, but somewhat disappointingly, not as goofy as Simon’s previous goofiness. Ultimately the film falls somewhere into a no-man’s land; not quite dumb enough to be as celebrated as Pieces or Slugs, but certainly not at all good enough to be accepted by both critics and mainstream audiences, The Rift is just kind of there and only occasionally entertaining for all the wrong reasons. (The death scene for “Skeets,” played by John Toles-Bey, is definitely one of the highlights. And don’t start yelling “hey, spoilers!” because this was an ’80s horror film and Toles-Bey is black and them’s the rules.)

As usual, R. Lee Ermey plays a rigid and gruff military man (how non-traditional!) but manages to not come off as poorly as everyone else — and the entire film around him. Simon’s tendency to have actors loop most of their dialogue in post-production hinders nearly every performance, giving it that awkwardness of which only joint Italian/Spanish and American productions were capable. Jack Scalia suffers the most, as every line he recites seems to be tinged with disbelief and near over-enjoyment. Ray Wise is given very little to do except stare intently at a computer screen, at least until the third act, in which he’s…well…given more to do. Where The Rift doesn’t disappoint is with its less than effective employment of practical effects. Shots of the submarine submerged are hilariously model-like, and so many heads get blown off either humans or sea creatures that one can’t help but smile (because one is very sick).


The Rift is every underwater ocean thriller that came before it, taking its cue mostly from ones not-so-memorable. Deep Star Six, Leviathan, mixed with aspects of better sci-fi classics The Thing, Alien, and The Abyss — that’s The Rift. Not as well directed as Slugs (seriously, some of Slugs is downright great!), and lacking the grindhouse nastiness of Pieces, The Rift is a very okay way to spend 82 minutes. It’s hard to say how much rewatchability it has, except for the good parts, and it’s certainly not one of J.P. Simon’s more celebrated titles, but hey, if it makes someone out there as happy as Pieces makes me, then I’m glad for them. Internet high-five.

Not at all a “good” film, but sadly, one that also doesn’t quite scratch that “so bad it’s good” itch like J.P. Simon’s more celebrated titles, The Rift has moments of cheese that nearly reach the heights of bad moviedom. Things to love: the terrible dialogue, awkward performances, do-it-yourself special effects, and obviously nice helping of bloody chunkiness. Things not to love: too-long scenes of people staring dramatically at radar and looking shocked, or half-baked marital distress straight out of The Abyss that’s given very little room to breathe. The Rift is what it is, and what it is ain't great.

Mar 22, 2020

THE MONSTER MOVIES OF LARRY FESSENDEN


Larry Fessenden is kind of the crazy uncle of the horror genre, and it's likely you may have come to know him from his dozens of on-screen cameos in which he's probably killed. He's like the Sean Bean of the low-budget horror world: if Larry Fessenden pops up on-screen, chances are he'll be dead soon. And he'll love every minute of it. But to credit only his "Where's Waldo?" like appearances in the last twenty years of horror films would do the man a severe injustice. Because Larry, when he's not bleeding out on the ground for his fellow horror filmmaker colleagues, is not only producing some of the best independent horror out in the world right now (The Innkeepers, Stake Land, House of the Devil, I Sell the Dead), but also directing his own.

Fessenden's unique and recognizable style adheres to the slow-burn approach. It's making your audience wait, agonizingly, for the alluded horror to manifest into an undeniable foe. But even when other filmmakers, for instance Ti West (a frequent collaborator), finally let loose in the third act, Fessenden, while doing the same, still finds a subtly eerie way to go about it. You'll find no dripping-eyed specters in the dark or satanists in the basement. No, in fact, it's something a lot more deadly and a lot more...important.

Fessenden's pro-environmental agenda may slip by unnoticed if looking at his work in separate chunks, examining each film only as its own entity and not a part of something bigger. It's not until undertaking the grand slam marathon of his films that it starts to become noticeably thematic. And for the three out of four total titles included, that pro-environmental stance cannot be ignored. Film after film shows people from all walks of life disrespecting the very thing that's given them sustenance and shelter and and a sustainable world in which to live, and it all comes back to bite them in the proverbial ass in one way or another.


Even though Fessenden is known as a horror filmmaker, his films aren't terribly horrific - at least not in an obvious way. As he says in his commentary track for The Last Winter, he admits that his films would probably be considered "slow and dull" by general film fans, and that's probably true. His films are less about the horror our characters are experiencing, and more about how these characters are affected by the before mentioned horror. For instance, in No Telling, there's nothing supernatural at all. And except for mild sci-fi aspects, there's nothing presented that couldn't necessarily happen. No Telling isn't about some Frankensteinian creation brought to life by a mad scientist which then runs rampant through the countryside slaughtering the innocent. Instead, it's about the bastardization of man, and how someone can change and go to such grisly lengths for what he believes to be the betterment of society. Same goes for The Last Winter, which, though made in 2007, is more relevant right now given the "debates" on whether or not we should get off our ass and maybe try to save the planet. Are there monsters in The Last Winter? Sure, there are. But are they real? Or are they figments of the isolated driller crew's imaginations? And if they're not real, then what's left to think? Is it collective guilt in knowing the repercussions of their presence on the icy tundra creating their own monsters?

To reiterate, Fessenden's films are not for everyone. They are, in fact, surprisingly low-key, philosophical, and thoughtful, which doesn't jive with Fessenden's on-screen persona as a hammy joker with a frat-boy demeanor. The uninitiated should know this before tackling his filmography.


Warning: not for dog lovers. 

No Telling, one of the three environmentally conscious films in Fessenden's filmography (so far), might be the preachiest, but it's never done in a way in which you feel you're being preached to. The discussions of the evolution of the farming industry, and how it changed once large corporations got involved, is shared by our characters more than once. And, though one of those involved in this conversation is ultimately proven to have gone sick with power, every argument supporting his or her side doesn't come across as stacked in one's favor and against another. Everyone presents solid arguments on why he or she feels the way he or she does, and this is done purposely to show that while we like to think maintaining a pro-environment mindset by default is the way to go, we may not be considering all possible ramifications from not making those harder choices for the greater good.

Performances in the film are excellent, with special mention of Miriam Healy-Louie as Lillian, caught between the two opposing viewpoints of pro-nature vs. pro-progression, personified by the two men for whom she either maintains feelings of devotion, or for whom she's beginning to feel devotion.


Probably the most well-known of Fessenden's filmography, Habit temporarily hangs up the environmental bent in favor of presenting a more straightforward vampire film in the vein (no pun!) of Nadja and Abel Ferarra's The Addiction

Mostly a vampiric take on Taxi Driver, the idea behind Habit is to express the isolation many people feel even when stacked on top of and next to each other in stretching miles of apartment buildings. This somewhat sexually explicit film filled with subtle bloodletting explores human relationships and how they can change disconcertingly quick. Fessenden deserves tons of credit for playing the on-screen role of the victimized Sam, who seems intent on drinking himself to death at the same time that the mysterious Anna seems intent on drinking him to death.


Fessenden returns to his pro-environment tale, though in a far more subdued way, with his take on the Native American mythology of the wendigo, a shadowy figure presented as an intangible force resurrected to restore the natural balance. 

A sort of Straw Dogs meets The Shining, underrated actors Jake Webber (Dawn of the Dead) and Patricia Clarkson (Six Feet Under) play parents to their young son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, the youngest "Malcolm in the Middle" brother), who find themselves being victimized by a local hunter while vacationing at a winter getaway in upstate New York. Though based on a supernatural myth, Wendigo avoids being overtly supernatural, with the horrific images of a stick-assembled monster tromping through the woods a heavily implied figment of Miles' imagination. Its ambiguous ending is going to bother the hell out of some viewers, but it falls in line with Fessenden's aesthetic of leaving the horror as a matter of discussion rather than of obvious force which needs to be defeated.


A tremendous cast of actors brings the frigid events of their collective haunting to life as they confront The Last Winter. The most technically achieved film of Fessenden's career (and one finally shot in 35 mm), much like his other films, at first presents a straightforward concept before it transforms into something else. 

Sort of a spiritual sequel to Wendigo, oil drillers for a company called North Shore find themselves dealing with unexplained events following the disappearance of one of their own, followed by the subsequent discovery of his frozen eyeless corpse. One by one, the crew begin to exhibit strange and even dangerous behavior, all which seem to follow on the heels of a conflict spurred by the on-site foreman, Ed Pollak (Ron Perlman, Sons of Anarchy) and James Hoffman (James Legros, Zodiac). Hoffman, an environmental specialist brought to determine the site's stability, announces he's going to recommend that North Shore shut down the site's operations, which doesn't sit will with Pollak's alpha male. Soon the men and women of the base begin to see phantom images of transparent animals tearing across the icy tundra, or discorporated visions of their own departed appearing to them in their bunks. Another ambiguous ending - one of Fessenden's most haunting - is in store for those who dare to see if they can survive The Last Winter.


Larry Fessenden, the on-screen kill guy, might be a recognizable name in horror-loving households, but Larry Fessenden, the director, may not. He may never be as celebrated as John Carpenter or George Romero, but his devotion to and knowledge of the genre - and of filmmaking in general - cannot be denied. In Wendigo, a father tells his son about Robert Frost, the poet who took the road less traveled and it's made all the difference. That, right there, perfectly sums up the career of Larry Fessenden. (Plus he has really cool hair!) 

Mar 20, 2020

DOG SOLDIERS (2002)


The most important thing a genre aficionado can demand of his or her filmmaker is that he or she, first and foremost, be a fellow genre aficionado. It's this kind of mutual respect and love that often results in the most rewarding experience at the theater, and one can always tell the difference in horror films made by someone hired at random by a studio versus horror films made by someone who gets it. Neil Marshall gets it. Just based on the fact alone that his directorial debut was a werewolf film brought to life by practical affects, Neil Marshall totally gets it.

Though we have seen the military squad thing done ad nauseum in this and every other genre, Dog Soldiers actually manages to elevate the well-worn crutch by sincerely going out of its way to add identities to each of its men. Among them are genre faves Sean Pertwee as Sergeant Wells and Liam Cunningham (Davos!) as Captain Ryan, mirroring the conflict between Sergeants Elias and Barnes from Oliver Stones' Platoon. The cast's shared dynamic treads familiar ground - tough-talking, profanity-spouting soldiers eager to show off their masculinity - but this never gets in the way of properly presenting the characters, nor does it prevent the audience from coming to sympathize with them.


Though obviously existing within the wheelhouse of horror, Dog Soldiers is a love letter to all films, both within its plot - the war movie, the werewolf movie, the pack-of-misfits movie - and in its clever homages - from The Matrix ("There is no Spoon.") to Aliens ("Short controlled bursts!") while having constructed a plot based on equal parts Predator and Night of the Living Dead. Gallows humor, snappy dialogue, and a British stone of blood and guts makes Dog Soldiers a pulpy and vicious good time.

There have been a lot of werewolf films since Dog Soldiers' 2002 release, including a big-budget remake of The Wolf Man with an A-list cast along for the ride, yet none of them have managed to match the ferocity, ingenuity, and adoration for the sub-genre that Neil Marshall's film debut accomplished. Rightly considered a cult classic, and featuring a loving amount of practical effects, and without a single weak performance in a genre infamous for them, Dog Soldiers belongs on every horror fan's shelf.


Mar 18, 2020

PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING (1981)


Do you know how many entries there are in the Piranha series? You know, the series about hordes of mutant killer fish chewing people to bloody death?

Five.

FIVE.

And maybe except for the very first, none of them are what I’d consider to be collection-worthy, but, as the genre tends to go, one’s own sensibilities will determine the series’ mileage.

It may not surprise you to hear that the King of the World himself, James Cameron, has a pretty low opinion of his feature debut, Piranha 2: The Spawning (released in some territories as Piranha 2: Flying Killers), but then again, he seems to think Avatar was a pretty good movie, so who knows! The sequel follows the original Piranha, directed by Joe Dante and scripted by John Sayles, which contained a very subtle sense of humor and served primarily as a thinly-veiled parody of JAWS. The only sense of humor associated with Piranha 2 is the laughter coming from the audience watching it. A silly, absurd, and very cheaply made monster movie, Piranha 2 benefits/suffers (depending on what kind of experience you want) from being a co-Italian production, who tend to go for the throat in terms of badness.


Like the original, the titular beasts don’t get much screen time (I’d swear there’s even less piranha in this sequel than its predecessor). It’s to Cameron’s credit that the approach to Piranha 2 is laden with more sincerity than was probably required (or even asked for). After all, the piranha can fly this time, which one would thing would make for, at the very least, a whirlwind of a finale. But it would seem for every pair of plastic wings affixed to a plastic fish, said plastic fish would lose a minute of screen time.

Piranha 2 attempts to mine humor from the amorous elderly and the horniness of teenagers, but beyond that, it’s played mostly straight; normally I much prefer bad horror when it’s being serious, but I’m not sure a fully comedic angle would have worked in the favor of Piranha 2, anyway. It’s good for bursts of violence rendered by flying, carnivorous, warbling, shaking mutant piranha, but beyond that, it’s a struggle to watch.

If any good, non-ironic thing can be said about Piranha 2, it’s the (rare) lead performance from character actor and genre favorite Lance Henriksen (surname misspelled in the credits), whom I’ve spent years praising for being a dependable, talented, and severely underrated actor. Piranha 2 is dumb. It’s one of the most brainless horror movies you might ever see. But Henriksen’s typically serious approach to the character is the lone stabilizing presence the film has that helps to keep it grounded — or, at least, as grounded as a movie about flying, carnivorous, warbling, mutant piranha can be.




Mar 16, 2020

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)


When you hear someone refer to movies as "magic," titles like Mysterious Island are what they mean. As children, our imaginations are enormous, and they exist without shame or fear of embarrassment. Whether it was a horde of plastic army men doing battle against Godzilla, Frankenstein, or a handful of troll dolls (you played with trolls and combed their hair, admit it), a conflict was always present. There was a threat that always needed eradication, or a problem that needed resolution. And our limitless childhood imagination always found a way to solve that problem, and that resolution usually came about in the most unexpected way. For most of us unlucky souls, that imagination shed as we aged, making room for social pressures, fear, and this terrible ailment called adulthood. But some of us grasped at this imagination with a vice-like grip, managing to drag it with us into the ether. Ray Harryhausen, a man who needs absolutely no Wiki look-up in the presence of cinephiles, is one of those lucky few. Probably the most celebrated special effects man in the history of film, his contributions to cinema have been the stuff of legacy. He proved how someone could make so much with so little. To watch 1961's Mysterious Island with 2016 cynicism is to undo everything that Harryhausen and director Cy Endfield wanted to accomplish, and with the most pure of intentions: to entertain, enthrall - to transport their audiences to a faraway land filled with adventure, danger, and camaraderie. 2016 eyes would laugh 1961 effects off the screen. They would howl as they watched someone do battle with a giant plastic crab.

And that's a damn shame.


Based on the celebrated novel "series" from author Jules Verne, this adaptation of Mysterious Island tends to wander away from its source material, most notably during its second act, but I don't think anyone would find offense at the notion that it's the creations by Ray Harryhausen which transcend Mysterious Island from movie to magic. Whether you were a kid during the 1960s, the 1990s, or the right-nows, with the right mindset Mysterious Island entertains with its creations, its illusions, and its sense of exotic and tropical danger. That the admittedly very archaic special effects are still celebrated today, having captivated the likes of John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, and Martin Scorsese, speaks volumes about the level of ingenuity on display.

Newbie parents are quick to stock their ottomans with DVDs for Disney films, adventures with the Muppets, and a few random titles from their own childhood, but it would behoove them all to include titles like Mysterious Island. Before their children's minds are eventually oversaturated with the most cutting edge, reality-defying CGI, their exposure to things of such wonder and magic won't just infatuate their imaginations, but enhance them. Mysterious Island is a fun film, and an example of allowing spectacle to overtake its story in order to thrill their audience and transport them to another world. 

Mar 14, 2020

ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978)

 

Seeing Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is like a rite of passage. It's also one of the dumbest movies you will ever see, which obviously makes up most of its charm. Mostly a spoof of the radioactive scare films from the ‘50s that saw insects or animals growing many times its size and going after all the pretty blondes on the beach, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes hedges most of its bets on comedy (because, come on, not a single one of our celebrated horror directors could make mutant tomatoes scary). Depending on your sensibilities, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes offers an extremely polarizing experience, with viewers easily existing either in the love-it or hate-it camps. It doesn’t leave a whole lot of ground for the in-betweeners. Yet, somehow, that’s where I stand.

The comedy in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes vies for Naked Gun, and sometimes it’s successful, but other times it results in something akin to Epic Movie — awkward, unfunny gags that play out far longer than we could ever want. And, sometimes, it’s…a little racist, such as the Japanese doctor being purposely overdubbed by an “American” voice, who in one scene accidentally knocks a framed photo of the U.S.S. Arizona into a fish tank. And then, out of nowhere, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes will tread that line of pure absurdism; example: the only way to kill the marauding mutant tomatoes is by playing them the newest hit single, “Puberty Love,” which is as poorly performed as you can imagine. Because of this, the film makes for a hodgepodge of different comedic styles, some of which gels, and some of which doesn’t.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes boasts an innovative DIY aesthetic that’s to be absolutely commended, and it must've done something right, considering this goofball film is still being talked about to this day. It also boasts THREE sequels (one titled Killer Tomatoes Eat France! and one that stars a pre-fame George Clooney) and an animated television series. When a film’s a hit, it’s a hit, regardless if that success is mainstream or cult. To make something that stands the test of time is something most filmmakers could ever hope for, and — like it or not — Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is still with us.

Mar 12, 2020

TREMORS 6: A COLD DAY IN HELL (2018)


Ever since the screenwriters of the original Tremors, S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, left the series following the direct-to-video Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, the Tremors series hasn’t felt remotely like it used to. It’s still surprising to me that a modestly successful film from 1990 about a series of prehistoric, blind, and carnivorous worms living in the desert of Arizona was a concept ripe enough for exploration in FIVE more films, but, if a horror franchise has legs, it will never go away. 

And if you think Tremors 6: A Cold Day in Hell will be the last word on the subject — even if it’s the worst entry so far —  think again.


Despite the series going direct to video immediately with its first sequel, Tremors II: Aftershocks, it managed to maintain at least the spirit of the original along with its sense of fun, if not its magic. It goes without saying that every sequel to follow isn’t a patch on the original, but Tremors II: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, and Tremors 4: The Legend Begins at least felt like they belonged to each other, even with the fourth film being a prequel that had Michael Gross playing an old West descendant of Burt Gummer. Tremors 6, basically Tremors 5: Bloodlines – Part 2, continues the wrongheadedness of the series by maintaining Burt’s clearly Ash-inspired irascibility and pomposity and, regrettably, keeping Jamie Kennedy’s generic son character in tow. In fact, Gross has taken Burt’s sheer unlikability to new heights — no longer just a gun-toting but lovably conservative cartoon, he’s actually downright unpleasant, barking orders and hurling insults with such forcefulness that first-time viewers to this series would wrongly assume this is what made the character so popular: being an asshole. (Burt's journey to obtaining full Ash is now complete.)

To its credit, Tremors 6 stretches its budget as much as it possibly can, keeping the Graboids and Assblasters off screen for most of the running time, instead relying on air pistons firing cascading dirt into the air or feigning shaking sets as a John Williams JAWS theme-like sign of their unseen presence. And when the prehistorics do make their appearance, the CGI is very okay — somewhere between Weta and Sharknado. Storywise, it also tries out a couple new twists in an effort to keep things feeling fresh, even if it removes a major character from the finale, rendering it a little toothless. (And finding a way to shoehorn in a character who is supposed to be the daughter of Kevin Bacon’s Val from the original film not only reeks of fan service but it’s utterly unrealistic. The script also finds ways to make jokes about how Val is/was a terrible father, none of which land.)


Director Don Michael Paul has made a career of helming direct-to-video sequels to Kindergarten Cop, Jarhead, Death Race, and yes, he also made Tremors 5: Bloodlines. His style doesn’t entirely mesh with the aesthetic that the Tremors series has established up to this point, too often relying on handheld camera to up the “tension” — you know, tension in this movie that has monsters called Ass Blasters. Though the tricks used to skirt the budget often are laudable, sometimes, they also show through. (I’m fairly certain the opening sequence that’s set on an icy, snow-covered tundra was actually just filmed in a desert and color-timed to all hell, making the sand look white and the actors look blue.)

Whether you asked for it or not, there’s now a Tremors 6 — aka the prequel to Tremors 7: Shaky Ground, and probably Tremors 8 Everyone. It offers a modicum of mindless entertainment, depending on your patience for insufferable characterization, and I’m actually impressed that a PG-13 movie has this many heads and other body parts strewn all over the ground. Besides, we all know if you bothered to watch every Tremors entry up to this point, you’ll watch this one, too. 

You're part of the problem.

Mar 10, 2020

SLUGS (1988)


Never was a horror movie more deliciously cheesy than it was in the ’80s. Delicious, delicious cheese in the form of Slumber Party Massacre, Sleepaway Camp, and Pieces smashed the faces of film-goers everywhere — film-goers who wouldn’t know how good they had it until it was all over.

The ’80s were a time in which horror movies were allowed to be fun. They were filled with inconsequential characters whose first name you would be hard-pressed to remember as they ran from a killer with a drill, or from an animal/insect gone amok, or from what would turn out to be a 13-year-old hermaphrodite with a freaky face and a tiny dingle thing. Plots were allowed to be wildly ludicrous and it was OK to ask the audience that they suspend their disbelief, if only for a couple hours.

Sadly, this period of horror has come to an end, but it’s left in its wake numerous treasures, one of these being the greatest movie of all time to feature an army of slugs destroying the human race, asshole by asshole.


Yes, Slugs. The slugs crawl in, the slugs crawl out, the slugs get in your body, shoot maggots out your eye, and make your face explode.

Slugs is brought to you by the Spanish (particularly J.P. Simon, director of Pieces, and all-around king of ’80s horror). In fact, its release title in Spain during its run was Muerte Viscosa, which translates to “Viscous Death” (haha). The genesis of this production certainly informs the final product — not environmentally so much as aesthetically. Amusingly referred to as the “United Nations” of killer animal movies in one of the audio commentaries included on this release, Slugs features a very diverse cast of different nationalities (most of whom who were dubbed into English, including one very not-British actor suddenly becoming very British).

The plot is quite simple: a small town becomes overrun with carnivorous slugs. Not the sticky, slow, undeadly kind, but the sticky, slow, DEADLY kind.

These slugs first make their presence known by invading the filth-douched basement of Old Man Trash, which is filled with empty pizza boxes and other rubbish he couldn’t be bothered to, ya know, put in a garbage can. It’s this event which puts these slugs on the radar of the film’s main character and hero, hilariously named Mike Brady. Yes, the city health inspector and 1/9th of a Bunch of Brady’s will be the one in the Roy Scheider role as he tears across town trying to get officials to believe that they have a major shark slug problem on their hands.


There’s so much to love and appreciate about Slugs, and some of it’s not even ironic. Sure, it’s easy to laugh at one character, Don, being married to someone who looks much older than him (called “the mother/wife” during another commentary track on this release), and it’s especially easy to guffaw when an old man puts his hand into a slug-infested glove and decides the only way to remove it is to chop off his entire goddamn hand with a hatchet. But in the midst of all this madness, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Slugs is actually kind of well made. With this being a product of the late ’80s, practical effects were the name of the game and handily brought the slugs to life, and their victims to death. The gore gags throughout Slugs are hilarious but undeniably effective. Eyeballs hang out of sockets, faces explode, limbs are hacked off — sounds fun, doesn’t it? Here’s the thing though: IT IS.

Adding to Slugs’ enjoyment is the baffling musical score. The themes beg comparison to the music often found in instructional videos on how to use the card catalogue, or rejected cues from The A-Team. Some themes even end in a triumphant crescendo that should complement an Indiana Jones-ish character jumping off a rocky cliff for the just-out-of-reach vine (or something equally exciting), but instead is used to complement a person getting out of a car, or running into a municipal building. Another theme actually utilizes the sad trombone/wahh-wahhhh-waahhhhhh a la bad jokes from ’50s sitcoms.


Like other films not just in Simon’s career, but also general Italian/Spanish and American joint productions from the ’80s and ’90s, there’s a certain hamfistedness to their plots and a definite, tangible awkwardness to their productions. Simon, for instance, was infamous for having nearly all his actors return during post-production to loop their lines, which offers every scene a subtle offkilterness. And this isn’t a case of Spanish actors’ dialogue being replaced by English-speaking voice-over artists. No, English-speaking actors spoke English during their scenes, but then came back to loop their dialogue again anyway — still in English. Obviously it made sense for Simon to result to this, or else he wouldn’t have done it; the why doesn’t matter — it’s the effect that does. And the effect is total joy.

There are different schools of thought as to what makes a bad horror film “so bad it’s good.” Some people claim to watch Uwe Boll films over and over and laugh with glee, which makes zero sense to me, considering his stuff is basically bottled pain. And that Sharknado nonsense, forget it. That’s not fun. Slugs is fun. Do you know why Slugs is fun? Because Slugs is trying. It’s the ones that try, but still fail spectacularly, that bring about the most joy. That’s really the takeaway: you can’t manufacture bad horror without purposely descending into parody, in the same way you can’t set out to produce a film you know will achieve cult status. You — the royal you, filmmakers everywhere — don’t decide how audiences will react to your film, ironically or otherwise, and you don’t decide if audiences — even a small portion of them (read: cult following) — will love and remember your film for decades after you’ve made it.


This is why tripe like Sharknado isn’t just unfun, but poisonous to the genre. Because Sharknado isn’t trying. Sharknado mugs for the camera and demands Twitter to ask, “How crazy will this get?” Sharknado adds Scott Baio or one of those Wild ‘n Crazy Kids or some other washed-up nobody whose calls are answered only by the Sci-Fi Channel, throws a shark up in the air, and calls it clever. But it’s not, because Sharknado isn’t trying. Sharknado is phoning it in.

Slugs is trying. Slugs just wants to be loved. And it will crawl right down your goddamn mouth to prove it.

Real Facts about Slugs:

  • Slugs are hermaphrodites  and they have their own Facebook identity option.
  • Slugs can stretch to 20 times their normal length and then launch themselves into your soup.
  • Slugs can follow slime trails they left from the night before, just like James Franco.
  • Slugs can follow other slug slime trails in order to find a slug sock hop, your butthole, or another social event.
  • Slug eggs are in the soil just about everywhere, and also in that brownie you’re crunching.
  • Banana slugs are bright yellow, can grow from 8 to 18 inches, and are absolutely fabulous.
  • There are at least 40 species of slugs in the U.S. and they are all behind you. 

Mar 8, 2020

TROLL (1986) & TROLL 2 (1990)


Why is a film about a troll terrorizing an annoyingly happy white American family so dull? How does that even happen? Well, you'd have to ask director John Carl Buechler (director of the entertaining Friday the 13th: Part VII -- The New Blood), who dedicates the first 40 minutes of his film to the little sister character, who I guess becomes semi-possessed by the troll that already lives in the basement of their new apartment building and turns into kind of an asshole. Mushrooms come to life, trolls partake in a sporadic rock-opera, and Phil Fondacaro charms the pants off the Potter family. Eventually the titular mythical being shows up. Or maybe not, who knows? Legend says no one has ever finished Troll and lived to tell the tale. Honestly, what would have been so wrong with having the troll itself running around that apartment complex terrorizing everyone on his own? Why have it terrorize vicariously through a Carol Anne doppelgänger? Because it was cheaper?

Troll could have been wonderful B-movie cheese, but instead it's just pain.

The only laudable aspect of Troll is its eclectic stunt casting, which features no less than June Lockhart (Lassie), Michael Moriarty, and Sonny Bono, whose second most embarrassing moment was skiing directly into a tree and dying. The first is Troll.

The first Troll actually serves as a pretty interesting counter point to its in-name-only sequel, Troll 2, in that films of immense disastrous proportions can provide such disparate reactions. Troll is a piece of shit, just like Troll 2, but where Troll causes nothing but misery, Troll 2 is wondrous.

Say, speaking of...


What more can be said about Troll 2? Commonly accepted as the king of bad movies, Troll 2 is infamous for its ineptness, terrible performances, ludicrous plot, and "OHMYGAWWWWWWD!" A film originally called Goblins before it was re-appropriated and shoehorned into the Troll "franchise" (a trick the Weinsteins have pulled many times with their Hellraiser and Children of the Corn sequels), it has, as you might imagine, absolutely nothing to do with the Troll that came before it. An even dumber version of Larry Cohen's The Stuff, a vacationing family and some tag-along teens fall victim to an evil-queen-worshiping town who force-feeds goblin slime to the unsuspecting to turn them into trees. 

I...don't know why. But it also doesn't matter. 

Troll 2 will be discussed long after the last surviving print of Dr. Zhivago melts into nothingness. Where Citizen Kane will have bit the dust when it comes to even the most casual of film conversation, people will still be laughing uproariously at Troll 2's strange and impromptu dance number in front of an RV mirror. I'm not saying that's the way things should be; I'm just calling it as I see it. Troll 2 will never stop being laughed at, discussed, dissected, and reenacted. Generation after generation will be laughing at clips on Youtube (or whatever the future version of Youtube will look like), hosting screening parties at their homes with troll-themed foods and drinks, and ordering the digital download from Shout! Factory's future imprint, Brain! Factory, which beams digital files directly into the official Brain! Factory chip in your cerebrum.

I will say this: I recognize that Citizen Kane is one of the best films of all time. But I also recognize Troll 2 has done way, way more to improve my life. And yours. How's that for taste?

(As an aside, if you haven't yet had the pleasure, seek out Best Worst Movie, a phenomenal documentary that examines Troll 2's very unlikely popularity while also looking at the appeal of cult cinema appeal and the nature of cult appreciation in general. It also presents an interesting character piece, in that it focuses mostly on lead actor/hero George Hardy, who goes from being folksy, charming, and enthusiastic to kiiiind of a dick toward the end, all before turning it back around and ending things on a more positive note.)

Well then. We've come to the end of our Troll journey. We learned a lot about the world, and each other. For instance, I learned that, though Troll 2 is as delightful as I remember, I never ever want to watch Troll ever again in my life. Ever. 

Mar 1, 2020

THE MONSTER MARCH!


I hope you're loving these awful monthly theme puns because I can keep going until eternity.

The best thing about monster movies is you can make whatever kind of monster you want and it still counts. You might think that a "monster movie" adheres to a certain kind of look, feel or rule, but it's pretty wide-reaching. The "monster" movie is almost the "miscellaneous" movie, and can even rob a little from more specific sub-genres. Vampires, werewolves, killer animals, or stuff you never would've thought existed, like little meatballs that live in picnic baskets or the entirety of the Killer Tomatoes series. (Yes, series -- there are FOUR movies about killer tomatoes.) 

March is MONSTER MARCH (I know you love it) so join me to see what kind of monstrous things we'll get into.


Dec 4, 2014

THE SEA SERPENT

Phosphorescent Monster Ate Bananas

“March 13. At 8 p.m., Thursday, 22° 06′ north, longitude 74° 21′ west. One half mile off starboard bow sighted strange marine monster. It approached and followed ship all night. Friday at 9 a.m. monster crossed our bows. Passengers in a panic. Reduced speed to five knots”

– Extract from the log of the
Admiral Farragut
Sitting in the doorway of his cabin, collarless and in his shirt sleeves, Captain Mader of the fruit steamer Admiral Farragut, which arrived this week from Port Antonio [Jamaica], told the story:
“We picked the sea serpent up — or rather the monster picked us up — late Thursday night,” said he. “I was on the bridge when one of the passengers, an elderly man, rushed up and excitedly called my attention to a phosphorescent light several miles astern. At first I thought it was a new submarine boat. As it came nearer we played the searchlight on it and could see that it was some strange sea monster.“It seemed about 120 feet long and threshed its way through the rough sea at a fearful speed. All night long it followed the vessel and during that time most of the passengers and crew remained on deck. The phosphorescent glow of the monster lighted up the sea within a radius of fifty feet.

“On Friday morning about breakfast time the serpent swam within thirty feet of the starboard side. The creature resembled a huge boa constrictor, with the exception that its body was green. From its sides streamed seaweed and other marine growth.

“The monster raised its head several feet above the water. It had huge eyes projecting from the top of its head and two green horns that projected upward nearly five feet. The horns resembled large antennae and moved about continuously.

“Three times the serpent crossed our bows and fearing to run it down, I signalled the engineer to reduce speed to five knots an hour.

“Some of the persons on board thought the monster was hungry and we threw over several sacks of peanuts and a few bunches of bananas. When we arrived off Cape Hatteras late Friday the monster circled around and swam south….”
 - Trenton Evening Times, Trenton New Jersey
18 March 1908

Source.