Mar 19, 2020


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


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?



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


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


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



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 13, 2020


I don’t think John Landis is capable of making an out-and-out horror film free of black humor or whimsy. And that’s not to disparage the filmmaker at all, but when you look back over his career, it’s amusing to see he’s first known as a horror director, even though he’s only made a handful in the genre, and all of them are horror/comedy hybrids. Considering he’s the mastermind behind comedy classics like National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers (a top-five title for me), it’s not surprising to see Landis can’t help himself but look for the absurdity in the concepts behind his horror titles and magnify them to stand head and shoulders with the terror.

Even though it has its “official” and incredibly shitty sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, Innocent Blood feels more like the real spiritual sequel to Landis’ trademark An American Werewolf in London. Playing out like A French Vampire in Pittsburgh, Landis’ vampire romp hits similar beats: a lead character in a strange land dealing with supernatural powers and unexpectedly falling in love. (And along the way, people are viciously killed.) Gender is swapped this time out and vampire Marie is played as just a tad more villainous (she only eats bad guys, you see), but otherwise An American Werewolf in London and Innocent Blood are kismet.  

Despite Anne Parillaud’s shaky performance as Marie (the actor struggles to convey the right emotional beats through her heavy accent), she’s well cast as the vampire seductress because of how unassuming and atypically beautiful she is. Anthony LaPaglia as Joe does a serviceable job as the half-cop/half-mobster, but really, Innocent Blood is all about the bad guys, boasting mafia-film fans’ wet dream of a cast. Lead baddie Sal “The Shark” Macelli is played by none other than Robert Loggia (Psycho 2), who appears to be having more fun playing a bastard vampire than he did dancing with Tom Hanks on a giant keyboard. Joining him is the inimitable Chazz Palminteri and pretty much half the character actor cast of The Sopranos.

Innocent Blood is violent as hell — the scene with a recently-vampirized Don Rickles in his hospital room is still impressive all these years later, rivaling the infamous transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London. But despite the bloodletting and violence, Innocent Blood is often very funny — from the vaudevillian reactions to the ironic soundtrack to the most terrorized wife in all of cinema (played by Elaine Hagan). And of course it’s very funny…it’s a John Landis film.

Innocent Blood is one of Landis’ least heralded films, but it doesn’t deserve that whatsoever. Far better than some of the director’s other works (Beverly Hills Cop 3: yeesh…), it’s worthy of a reevaluation by horror fans and Landis fans alike.