Showing posts with label monster movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label monster movies. Show all posts

Mar 31, 2020

C.H.U.D. (1984)


C.H.U.D. feels like a long-lost film from Larry Cohen, who made a career from writing and directing horror and exploitation films set and shot in his native New York. From the Maniac Cop trilogy to Q: The Winged Serpent, Cohen willfully and gleefully captured his city not in any kind of artificial, idealized way, but in the way she actually was then, that is to say…not the kind of place you ♥. Cohen was one of the many attendees of the now-legendary 42nd Street Theater — the planet’s most famous grindhouse theater — which often showed double-bills of the same questionable films he would later grow up to make, and which also inspired Tarantino and Rodriquez to completely misinterpret those films’ appeal when they made their bloated and masturbatory opus Grindhouse.

Even though Cohen had absolutely nothing to do with C.H.U.D., his fingerprints are somehow all over it. With a credited screenplay by Parnell Hall (over Shepard Abbot and actors Daniel Stern and Christopher Curry, who rewrote 50% of the script but received no credit) and directed by Douglas Cheek, C.H.U.D. fits right in with the late ’70s/’80s filmography of Cohen, William Lustig (Maniac), Frank Henenlotter (the Basket Case trilogy), and other New York-based horror filmmakers used to working with low budgets. C.H.U.D. is not only a New York-set story, but its plot/conflict directly addresses an existing problem that the city was suffering with at the time, and likely still is: the staggering amount of homeless people living on and below the streets. C.H.U.D., the silly monster movie about silly looking monsters killing people, and about whom no city officials give a shit, actually has something prescient to say. Unfolding like a budget version of JAWS, C.H.U.D. presents a group of men, some already friendly and some not, who come together to confront the growing threat plaguing their city, even as city officials dismiss their concerns, nearly collapsing the heroes’ campaign in the typical amount of bureaucracy.


Because of this, C.H.U.D. is kind of an ugly film, aesthetically, to look at. Much of the action takes place in underground “caves” below the city, the sewers, soup kitchens, and queasy looking tenement buildings. Even certain scenes, like George (John Heard) and Lauren’s (Kim Greist) apartment, or park exteriors, exude a certain dinginess. C.H.U.D. is a bland looking movie with little dynamism, but that was the point.

For what it is, C.H.U.D. is decently scripted, acted, and assembled, and the monsters’ designs — though later disparaged by the cast — are fun for what they are, and indicative of the decade during which C.H.U.D. was made. Glowing eyes, slimy mouths, and rubber everything, C.H.U.D. was both a callback to the radiation scare films of the 1950s as well as a comment on the then-culture of New York City. It doesn’t exactly unfold at a clip, choosing to establish intrigue and mystery instead of monster hands ripping off human heads (even though that happens), and it’s for this reason that it might not hold an interest for viewers who have yet to have the pleasure. But for those who appreciate a grimy New York horror romp, rubber monster movies, and subtly clever satire, say it with me: C.H.U.D.!


If you decide to add C.H.U.D. to your film library, or if you already own a copy but haven’t yet had the pleasure, I can’t implore you enough to listen to the audio commentary with director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott, and actors John Heard, Daniel Stern and Christopher Curry. Because this is the greatest commentary that’s ever been recorded for any film. I’ve long championed this commentary to any film fan who would give half a damn while stressing that there’s no way it doesn’t improve your life. Seriously, it’s great, and everything a commentary should be: it’s enthusiastic, it’s hilarious, it’s informative, but most importantly, it’s honest. This is the most honest audio commentary track you will ever hear — from cast member Daniel Stern booing the name of the credited screenwriter (who is not Shepard Abbot) during the opening credits and adding “that’s BULLSHIT,” to the derision of the final monster designs, which clashes with the original intention of making them more human. (“They look stupid!”) The commentary opens with what sounds like a somewhat drunken voice saying, “Well, yeah, I’m John Heard, I’m in C.H.U.D., and that’s…all there is to it.” Towards the end, Daniel Stern randomly comments on his dirtied character’s appearance as being a “werewolf Bob Dylan,” leading Christopher Curry to totally freestyle an uncanny Bob Dylan impression, turning the film’s action into observational song lyrics, with rhymes and all. No shitting, it’s one of my favorite all-time things. (The track also appears on the newest Blu-ray release from Arrow Video.) 

C.H.U.D. shouldn’t be mistaken for being among the best of the ’80s, but it’s certainly admirable and provides a bit of fun. It’s a decent throwback to an earlier era of the genre (and it’s so old that the decade during which it was made has recently become a focal point for a whole new crop of throwback horror films — Jesus, I am old!), and could easily be appreciated by devotees of the low budget New York horror scene. 

And if you need a bit more convincing, just remember: he’s John Heard, he’s in C.H.U.D., and that’s…all there is to it.


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 23, 2020

ZONE TROOPERS (1985)


If you've never seen Zone Troopers, but you also like your war films served with a dash of alien silliness, than this '40s-set, Italian-shot production has been eluding you ever since you began developing your weird, weird proclivities.

Starring Lord of the B-Movies Tim Thomerson, as well as Hitler, Zone Troopers is an homage to so many things: the war film, the sci-fi film, Hogan's Heroes, and more. Not carnage-ridden enough to capture the essence of war, not horrific enough to fully exploit the visuals of invading aliens, but entirely silly and spoofy enough to lovingly capture that Hogan's Heroes absurdity, Zone Troopers is a film made to honor bygone eras of cinema where it was okay to slap a half-dozen men in ludicrous space costumes and film them as they stumble through the brush of an Italian wood. That Zone Troopers somehow not only exists in the world in general, but now exists in high-definition, continues to prove that the world is just one big, ol' mystery.


It's hard to critique such a quirky construction as Zone Troopers, considering every tongue was in every cheek during the genesis of the script. Van Patten and LaFleur's performance are Vaudevillian perfect, at times overdoing it as if they were starring in a stage production instead of a film, and this would be fine except that their takes don't quite mesh well with Thomerson's more reserved and gruff take on Sarge. The script itself manages to be amusing at times, but even at a scant running time of 86 minutes, the film still somehow feels like it's stretching this oddball concept - U.S. Military and Aliens vs. Nazis - to the breaking point.

Its obvious golden-age cinema inspirations aside, if Zone Troopers were attempting to serve as an allegory for anything at all, that remains to be seen. However, one aspect of the film remains interesting: when the soldiers meet the alien crew for the first time, only one of them sports the fly-head, crab-mouth creation which receives the most prominence during the film. Because of the film's very low budget, creating additional masks was out of the question, so instead they tweaked the remaining alien designs by spreading silver paint across their unmasked faces. The interesting thing earlier mentioned: these aliens are given blonde hair and blue eyes. What's too obviously a parallel to the "master race" the Nazis were trying to create is never fully realized, so whether or not this was a happy/unhappy accident committed during production, or if such a parallel was purposely included but fully lost within the cheesy confines of a cheesy film, only those who made the film know for sure.

Zone Troopers is about American soldiers teaming up with aliens to fight Nazis. You either know you want to see that or you don't. 


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 19, 2020

BASKET CASE (1982)


For those old enough to remember a time before streaming video — when you would walk the aisles of these antiquated institutions called “video stores” to grab a VHS or two that would serve as your night’s entertainment — certain horror titles are likely burned into your mind thanks to their ghoulish box art. Dead Alive, I Spit on Your Grave, The People Under the Stairs…and Basket Case. Made by filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, whom I’d previously described as 42nd Street’s David Cronenberg with less of a budget but more of a sense of humor, Basket Case is an assortment of philosophical and traditional tropes all piled into one perplexing film: it’s a fairy tale, a vigilante revenge thriller; it’s horror, comedy, and grindhouse; it’s a little bit Hitchcock, De Palma, Cronenberg, H.G. Lewis, and Larry Cohen. It’s purposely eclectic as to be utterly indefinable; it may as well have created its own sub-genre called “basket horror” — as in, everything thrown in.

If upon your first viewing of Basket Case you don’t know whether to laugh or scream, don’t worry — that’s pretty much the intended effect. Henenlotter knows his concept is ludicrous (a concept that would somehow spawn two sequels) and he has fun with having this barely humanoid thing that looks like a piece of chewed gum fly across the room and latch onto his victim’s neck, but all the while at least offering the illusion of terror. Belial is kind of creepy to look at — a different sort of creature from the director’s similarly wackadoo Brain Damage — and he’s mostly brought to life through puppetry, but also sometimes in stop motion animation, the likes of which is so haphazardly done that it’s a total hoot to witness.


What’s nice about Basket Case is that once you push aside the sheer audacity of its silly plot and its frank presentation, the backbone of the story is about two brothers and their sickly dependence on each other. Before Elliot and E.T. ever met amidst a trail of Reese’s Pieces, Duane and Belial’s bond had each of them able to experience the emotions and impulses of the other — right down to Duane going on a date with a pretty girl in the park, and his being turned, which infuriates Belial and causes him to trash the brothers’ hotel room. (This is where the aforementioned hilarious stop motion animation comes into play.)

The greatest thing about the horror genre is that it’s the one which can most easily be used to convey whatever message you wish, and you can wrap that message in the most outlandish way possible without ever risking the watering down of that message. Basket Case could easily be viewed as an allegory for breaking free of your unhealthy familial bonds and learning to live for yourself — about becoming self sufficient and finally unafraid to live life on your own terms. Or maybe it’s just about a monster brother slashing doctors’ faces and eating hot dogs in a  basket. You don’t necessarily have to put any kind of weighty meaning on it — Basket Case is easily enjoyable either way.


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 17, 2020

FULL MOON HIGH (1981)


New York filmmaker Larry Cohen was a friend to the genre for a long time, having written not just one but two trilogies (Maniac Cop; It’s Alive!) and wacky, idiosyncratic satires like The Stuff — and this after having contributed one of the all time best blaxploitation titles: Black Caesar. Anyone familiar with the director’s background knows he was incapable of writing a straight horror experience — and that’s not a slight. There’s always a slight wink beneath his work, whether obvious or not so obvious. Such wackadoo concepts like killer frozen yogurt or a dragon nesting on a New York skyscraper kind of call for it.

And then there’s Full Moon High, a mid-career effort that falls much more squarely into broad humor territory, but still while riding a “horror” concept. (I should really mention that this teen-centered comedy about a high school jock becoming a werewolf predates Teen Wolf by a full four years.) Full Moon High is the kind of exhausting comedy where almost every line of dialogue is meant to garner at least a smirk, and star wolf boy Adam Arkin (who would achieve more recognition in his adulthood for his role on Chicago Hope, but whose work in Halloween: H20 as "the boyfriend" has been criminally overlooked) rattles them off one by one with detectable disdain.


Full Moon High is also the kind of comedy where the humor isn’t terribly subtle, and very broad archetypes are played out with the kind of cringe-inducing manner that comes from gags that were allowed to be funny thirty years ago, but which now would be filed under offensive. (The very broadly gay son of Tony Walker’s high school sweetheart is so on the nose that it nearly qualifies as hate speak.) There’s also an overblown “fear” of communism and Russian culture that is either purposely or satirically curated; either way, the most current Presidential election notwithstanding, it’s not an aspect that has aged well.

I generally don't like horror comedies or spoofs when they're this comedic or spoofy, but Full Moon High isn’t a trainwreck and fans of broader humor will probably find something to enjoy with it.


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 15, 2020

SQUIRM (1976)

 

Here's something I never thought I'd say: this killer worm film needed more killer worms (finale notwithstanding). 

Still, it's a rarity when you can watch a film that's been skewered by the MST3K crew, but without MST3K, and still have a moderately enjoyable time. (Have you tried watching Manos: The Hands of Fate or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians without them? Terrible.)

The thing about Squirm is that it has killer worms. These worms can crawl out from nowhere--your egg cream, your shower head, your old neighbor's chest/stomach/entire body--and they will horrify you. All they want to do is get in your brain and make you act like a worm, aka, kind of a dick. 


Squirm was the first of only five films (so far) by celebrated cult director Jeff Lieberman (his best, Blue Sunshine, still remains his most underseen), but was a pretty telling sign of things to come in his filmography--first and foremost, a dedication to and passion for the horror genre, with an emphasis on thrills more visceral than psychological. Lieberman deserves a lot of credit for saying, aloud, "I want to make a film about killer worms," and managing to find a whole crew of people willing to go along with that. I think it goes without saying that Squirm isn't a "good" film, but it's certainly an entertaining one, containing a detectable amount of charm, strengthened by the filmmaker's pragmatic attempt at maintaining a certain air of sincerity amidst all the silliness. The added implication that one character becomes infested with and subsequently possessed by some pissed-off worms definitely adds an understandably surprising layer to an already silly film.

If I really wanted to stick my head all the way up my ass, I suppose I could begin philosophizing on the intention behind the character of Mick, scarlet-lettered with the label "city boy," bussing into the sticks to visit his Georgian girlfriend at the same time the worms get electrocuted and start going crazy. What, exactly, is Lieberman trying to say with that aspect? Will the merging of sensibilities between north and south threaten the destruction of the union? Hasn't that...already happened? Is Lieberman trying to say it could very well happen again?

I mean, it probably could, but no. Just focus on the killer worms. They get in your brain and make you act like a worm. I'm 95% certain that's all that was intended.























































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.