Feb 1, 2021


Film fans are very discerning, and very segmented, which is something that can be as advantageous as it can be detrimental. But the most important thing these film fans need to realize, or maintain, is that there’s a difference between a film being good in general, and a film being good for what it is. It’s when one comes to define what “it” means that things can get complicated.

Skin Trade is one of the better limited-release/direct-to-video actioners starring Dolph Lundgren who in the course of ninety minutes kills a LOT of men. Much like his character of Andrew Scott in the original Universal Soldier, Mr. Lundgren, too, must be part machine, as Skin Trade marks his seventh feature film in the last two years. (He also somehow managed to fit in an entire season of a television show.) While Lundgren has built himself a steady and loyal fan-base over the years (your reviewer counts himself as one), and except for nostalgia, it’s sometimes tempting to ask why: simply put, the busy action icon’s output lacks, how shall we put this…consistency. At least, not in the positive sense. Though it may be painful to say, a large portion of Dolph’s post-Rocky IV career is inundated with forgettable titles destined for video store shelves (and in the post-millennium, the Redbox). While it might be relieving for the curious to report that Skin Trade is Dolph’s best action vehicle, as a lead, in quite a while, let’s also keep in mind what we’re utilizing as a basis for comparison. Let’s also discuss how accidentally hilarious so much of it plays out.

Dolph plays New Jersey detective named Nick Cassidy, who one night on the docks of Newark kills the son of Serbian crime boss Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman) and inadvertently invites the wrath of the Dragovic family down upon him, leading to the explosive deaths of his wife and daughter. Now on the run in Thailand, he is pursued by Thai detective Tony Vitayakui (Tony Jaa, in his shaky English-language debut), who believes Nick is responsible for the death of his partner. Though initially at odds (meaning, violence is committed upon each other), they begin to work together in an effort to bring down Dragovic for good and put an end to his human trafficking operation. All during this, Nick is relentlessly pursued by FBI Agent Eddie Reed (Michael Jai White), who wants to take Nick down – at any cost.

When your film stars Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Michael Jai White, and Robocop himself, Peter Weller, let’s just say it’s clear the filmmakers are attempting to appeal to a certain faction of their potential audience – an audience that wants to see brutal violence, impressive stunts, and face-smashing fight choreography, all committed by men they have come to idolize. It’s an audience who wants to see Lundgren land cannon-like blows upon his enemies, Jaa take out a room full of men with nothing more than his belt, and Jai White make every living breathing man on Planet Earth feel like an utter waste of gooey skin. In that regard, Skin Trade is massively entertaining. Whether violent shootouts or man-on-man fisticuffs, every icon on the marquee shares a scene with the other, and does what they do best. Lundgren is brute force, Jaa defies every natural biological and physical law, and Jai White…well, god damn, you shit your pants just looking at him. Every confrontation is more thrilling and well-executed than the previous, and it’s during these moments that you won’t be questioning why you’re watching the film in the first place. But while those things aren’t occurring…

Skin Trade first falters with its script, which comes dangerously close to bordering on parody. The dialogue spewed by our characters at no point comes close to realistic and often results in unexpected laughs. Dragovic’s son grasping an MP5 and rushing into a shoot-out while bellowing “I AM MY FATHER’S SON!” only to be immediately cut down is the stuff of Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams. Lundgren stepping into the interrogation room and staring Dragovic hard in the eye, only to throw down a file folder and demand, “How do you sleep at night?” ain’t helping. But perhaps the best belongs to the scene in which Dolph lies near comatose in a hospital bed following the explosive attack that stole the lives of his wife and daughter. Lundgren, his face half-bandaged, looks up at Costello (Weller), his superior, and asks if his wife and daughter survived the attack. Costello looks down, stoically, emotionally, and shakes his head, confirming Dolph’s worst nightmare…leaving Jai White’s Reed to step up and unnecessarily say, “Your wife and daughter are dead.”


The interaction between many of the character seems half-baked, as if written by an automaton trying to mimic human behavior. Cassidy comes home to his teenage daughter and awkwardly ruffles her hair, as if she were instead his ten-year-old so, before she stands up and recites Shakespeare by heart. Dolph, a father in real life to two beautiful teenage daughters, for some reason seems entirely out of his element interacting with who is supposed to be his child, and appears to want the scene over as soon as possible. Once this discomfort ceases, Cassidy’s attractive wife reminds him that it’s actually their anniversary, which he has completely forgotten; watch as she grins big and peels off her robe to reveal a fiery red negligee to pleasure him with, anyway. Anniversary-schmanniversary – let’s bang!

Weller and Perlman appear in very limited capacities, with the latter showing up only during the first act and the last ten minutes, and the former in two scenes in which he's saddled with an awful lot of unconvincing exposition. Weller, even though he's playing a traditional character, seems rather uncomfortable with what he's doing - and this is a guy who once masturbated a giant bug-typewriter on screen. Based on Perlman's performance, it's evident he assumed the film would hardly be seen and didn't expect a label as prominent and respected as Magnet/Magnolia to secure distribution, because except for trying on a lazy Russian accent, he can barely be bothered to appear present. He's capable of far better, which he's already proven with his six-season run on Sons of Anarchy (on which he worked under the eye of director Weller for several episodes).

The direction by Ekachai Uekrongtham, too, shows the kind of dangerous confidence expressed by the overly confident. Editing choices meant to be shocking and unorthodox simply come across as confusing, even disorienting at times. Scenes will begin with the unmistakable feeling that the audience didn't arrive for them in time, and are interrupting something that’s long been in progress. Other scenes will include spliced single shots of characters looking forlornly down at the ground or off into the distance for no real reason, other than to invoke reactions of, “Boy, is HE sad!” Much like national public radio, at times it feels like Skin Trade contains a lot of dead air, leaving it feeling awkward and unfinished.

Perhaps the most telling that Skin Trade was going more for of an Expendables-like casting extravaganza is confirmed by its half-baked ending, which less seems to be promising a sequel and more seems to be suggesting that because the bad guys are dead, and the good guys have no one left to blow away with shotguns or violently pummel about the body, there’s really no reason for the film to keep happening. The last lingering conflict that needs to be resolved is addressed in a casual voice over tantamount to, "Yeah, I'll get to it."

Ultimately, everything above is for naught. It's window dressing. Details. To potential audience members of Skin Trade, look at the poster. Look at those names. Lundgren. Jaa. Jai White. Does that appeal to you? Do you want to see these guys share the screen and commit bloody pain against each other? Do you want to witness these demigods lay to waste dozens of bad guys? Then at the very least, you’ll have a great time.

If you’re intrigued by Skin Trade for any other reason, then I don’t know how you sleep at night.

Jan 27, 2021


"What’s your favorite performance by a musician in a horror movie?"

Horror doesn’t get more operatic than Bram Stoker's Dracula. Featuring a powerhouse cast (and a regrettably terrible, studio-imposed Keanu Reeves) screaming for the rafters in over-the-top performances, along with an array of seemingly complex but slyly simplistic in-camera visual effects, Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the legend remains a bonafide classic and the focus of sad tumblrs everywhere. When you’ve got heavy hitters Gary Oldman as the titular foe and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, foe to his foe, what perfectly eccentric performer could play the small but vital role of Renfield, raving lunatic and Dracula’s human familiar?

Enter Tom Waits.

Either as a musician or an actor, Tom Waits fits exactly into one category: Tom Waits. Between his bourbon-drenched, tobacco-infused gutter throat, and his extremely dry, odd, yet charming and melancholic screen presence, he’s appeared in numerous Coppola productions over the years. His appearance in Bram Stoker's Dracula is brief but, as the bug-crunching, straightjacketed lunatic Renfield, Waits fits right in with the overly dramatic production and has the unenviable task of trying to be even more overly dramatic than everyone else, as demanded by the role. Whether he’s going big and grand, or in the smaller moments he shares with Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) through the bars of his asylum cell, he’s fully committed (pun!) to the character and a total delight to watch.

[Reprinted/excerpted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jan 23, 2021


Long considered to be the most unconventional adaptation of a Shakespeare play, Richard III would take the same approach as Julie Taymor's Titus, which would follow two years later, in that their respective play's events would be transported to an alternate setting that blends disparate elements of both time, culture, and political aesthetics. While Titus utilized a blend of castle-era England with slightly futuristic underpinnings, Richard III smartly constructs a World War II-like juxtaposition of Nazi iconography with that of British and American military and Russian architecture. Ah yes, and Die Hard. That's right. One might think that Shakespeare and John McClane were destined for their own paths and never the twain shall meet, but that's the beauty of Richard III. Strip away the intimidation of Shakespeare's prose along with the 1930s Nazi propaganda, and Richard, Duke of York, and co., are presented as terrorists hijacking the crown with their tanks and their machine guns, and holding the title hostage.

Richard (Ian McKellen), younger brother of Edward, now the new king, is a man who craves the anarchy and destruction of war, and following their stealing of the crown, he has found himself withered and bored. Without a war to fight, Richard turns his piercing blue eyes to his own family, where he will create his own brand of anarchy. McKellen, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation, wisely keeps the wry humor of Shakespeare intact, which is clear in moments such as when the film cleverly reveals that the titular Duke of York confides directly in the audience all of his evil masterminding...while taking a leak into a royal urinal and complaining of his boredom. (And let's not forget his hurling an apple at a penned boar and smiling as the animal squeals in pain.) Because Shakespeare is force-fed to students in schools, his extremely unique and dense verbiage not helping matters, his use of humor and his willingness to shed blood is not at the forefront of many minds outside of the bard's most dedicated. McKellen seems to realize this in his depiction of both, presenting a story that is often just as captivating for the events occurring on screen as the words gushing rapid-fire out of their mouths. (Every actor on board ably and exhaustively captures Shakespeare's words, but it's Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York who steals every scene in which she appears. Her last exchange with McKellen is absolutely devastating.)

Richard III is an elegant collection of performances (look for a quite young Dominic West of "The Wire"), writing, direction, production - everything that makes a film is present and accounted for. The subtle and meta winking/nudging that intimates some of the film's characters are occasionally aware their trials and tribulations are playing out on a stage for the entertainment of an audience is a technique that both recognizes the role of the play/the film, but also contributes to the conspiratorial design of the story itself. Like Titus, it is a daring and carnal story that preserves all the machinations, deceit, and humor of its source material while reimagining the events with clever and even appropriate modernistic flair.

Richard III results in one of the best adaptations of a Shakespeare work while also providing one of Ian McKellen's best performances. As thespians always say, it's so much more fun to go bad, and between this and McKellen's other villainous turns in the X-Men series and Apt Pupil, he also ably proves that he's so good at it. Often overshadowed by the 1955 adaptation featuring the legendary Laurence Olivier, this iteration of Richard III is not only severely underrated, but ultimately superior. A thrilling story and an impressive cast make this essential viewing to students of Shakespeare and devotees of uncompromising film.

Long live King Richard.

Jan 19, 2021


The People Under the Stairs, though dressed up in weird BDSM leather and sporting sadistic mutilation, isn't exactly subtle satire on social class division. When a character wanders around the crazy couple's basement, discovers the super secret gold room, and remarks, "No wonder there's no money in the ghetto," odds are Wes Craven's intentions with this early-'90s effort wasn't to subconsciously plant the idea of "the 1%," choosing instead to have Everett McGill scream it into your face and blast you with his cartoon shotgun. The dangers of capitalism are a playground in which some of our other renowned horror directors have played (Carpenter with They Live, Romero with Dawn of the Dead), so Craven threw his hat into the ring himself, concocting this tale of evil white people, a victimized urban demographic...and incest, which is always fun.

If you can get past this quite direct take on capitalistic evil, The People Under the Stairs is impulsively watchable, if only to see how insane a film released by a major studio is able to go. How Craven ever convinced Universal to greenlight and fund his movie about a man dressed in full-body sex-leather costumes and chase tongueless boys within the bowels of his house, we'll never know, but if nothing else, the man deserves accolades simply for having pulled that one off.

For the uninitiated, The People Under the Stairs, with its poster of a gigantic skull looming over a creepy looking house, promises something quite different from what the film ultimately is. This image was one that caught the attention of legions of children as they wandered video stores away from the watchful eyes of their parents during the 1990s. It became one of "those" movies - of the dangerous variety that parents would forbid their children from watching. Even though twenty-five years later some of The People Under the Stairs plays kind of hokey, thematically, there are portions of the film that still manage to be pretty disturbing. The idea of this twisted brother-sister/husband-wife team (McGill and Wendy Robie also played a married couple in Twin Peaks) "adopting" child after child, only to "cut out the parts they don't like" and lock away what remains in the basement is pretty heavy even for a horror film, and especially for children, who no doubt are going to compare what they are seeing on screen against their own parents - their only basis of comparison. When Wendy Robie's nameless "mother" character accuses her "daughter," Alice (AJ Langer, Escape from LA), of doing questionable things with "Fool" (Brandon Adams, The Sandlot) and forces her into a tub of scalding water, leaving her to scream for mercy, it's a legitimately disturbing image, if because, unfortunately, that kind of stuff happens every day, behind the closed doors of homes where one would quickly assume everything was perfectly normal.

No one could ever say that The People Under the Stairs, heavy-handed messages about wealth and crumbling urbanization aside, isn't well-meaning. Craven honestly had something to say about the division of social classes, and of one minority of class feeding off another, increasingly larger one. The idea is so potent even today that the intention to remake The People Under the Stairs with Get Out's Jordan Peele producing is now on the horizon. Artistically, the remake game tends to disappoint, but perhaps these People will offer something equally relevant. Just leave the sex-leather at home, please.

Jan 16, 2021


There's only one thing you should really keep in mind while watching Der Bunker. If it comes to certain points where you don't know if you should be laughing or not, you should be; and if it comes to certain points where you're certainly laughing, you should be disturbed as well.

This is Der Bunker's design.

Der Bunker is film without a genre. You could start by labeling it horror, but you'd almost certainly have to back it up with comedy, and then psycho-sexual thriller, and then drama, and then even science-fiction, and after a while it gets to the point where you realize to saddle it with one or several genre labels is fruitless. Der Bunker makes the case that a new genre label should be created just to help categorize it. Perhaps schizofreude--an erratic, unpredictable, dangerous film from which an audience can derive pleasure by their witnessing extremely discomforting scenarios that straddle the line between obviously funny and vaguely disturbing.

No matter your genre of choice, Der Bunker is easily watchable. Everything about it so oddly fascinating--like watching a car accident in reverse, and in slow motion--yet at the same time competently grounded. As strange as it gets, this strangeness constantly revolves around this makeshift family unit, which is something that the audience already has an innate sense to relate to. Once "The Student" joins them, at first only interested in renting a room, what's been commonly considered "the nuclear family" is complete. Father, Mother, two children. (Kind of.)

Of all the obviously insane moments peppered throughout, there's one that's a bit more subtle than most, and it's one that somewhat drives the plot forward. When "The Student" begins tutoring Klaus, as ordered by his landlords, Klaus confides in him that his parents are striving toward him becoming "President" (of the United States of America). In the middle of everything completely nuts about this family--who they are, how they appear, where they live, how they treat each other--Klaus' parents still maintain for him the same kind of high-reaching dreams that our parents held for us when we were children. To one day become President was that symbolic goal for us all--it wasn't so much actually becoming President as it was us being able to obtain whatever goals we set for ourselves. As utterly dysfunctional as this family is, there's a strange love and support system that's indefinable, but certainly present--bastardized though it may be.

"The Student," as played by Pit Bukowski (who also appeared in another incredibly oddity, Der Samurai), is close to being the German equivalent of our dearly departed Anton Yelchin. He has a soulful look, and the actor leans toward appearing in quirkier and riskier projects. Der Bunker is no different. He exhibits a wonderful air of someone desperately trying to coexist peacefully with his very odd landlords, agreeing to go along with their strange requests (or orders) simply in an effort not to make waves. But seeing him adapt to his surroundings, and give in to certain...urges...is brought to life by Bukowski's interesting ability to transform his character from meek and mild-mannered into someone of strength and even menace.

As Father and Mother, David Scheller and Oona von Maydell embrace their insanity with no reservations whatsoever. Maydell, especially, has some rather awkward scenes to film with her son, and which are performed with utmost confidence. But Daniel Fripan as Klaus walks away with having contributed not just the film's best performance, but an all-time memorable character (assuming, of course, that audiences gradually come to learn Der Bunker exists in the first place). His somewhat dopey, Beetles-inspired haircut and his cartoon wardrobe give him an easily amusing head-start, but his performance utterly indicative of an eight-year-old boy bored with school and who only wants to please his parents is, again, both disturbing and amusing in ways it probably shouldn't be. Seeing this "family" interact provides for the most uncomfortable of joys.

Despite taking place underground, Der Bunker manages to boast a somewhat diverse color palette--probably because of how insane it is! Even in the "classroom" (or should it be Klausroom? :D), the puke-colored bricks and spines of the books manage to, if not offer an attractive look, at least add some life to the screen. The "house" portions of the bunker look quite busy--likely purposely so--as if its quirky owners were trying to compensate for the fact that they don't live in a normal, every-day...you know, above-ground house. 

Odd. So odd I don't even know what to say. Some might be tempted to call Der Bunker "quirky," but that's not the right word. "Quirky" suggests it's a little off the beaten path, but not so off the path that mothers everywhere couldn't enjoy it. "Odd" is a better term, because while it's certainly off the beaten path, it's also--just the least bit--dangerous. With Der Bunker, and as cliched as it sounds, at no point do you know where the story is going to take you. The various aspects to the film which make it so strange cannot and will not be divulged here for fear of ruining its intentionally misleading construct. Der Bunker comes highly recommended for seekers of the strange.

Jan 13, 2021


"Which scary movie moment freaked you out the most as a kid?"

Oh, give me a break. No contest. Judge Doom, as brought to manic life by Christopher Lloyd in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is the stuff of kid nightmares. One of the all-time great movie villains, Judge Doom, in his all-black, Gestapo-like suit, is an eerie menace from his very first appearance in a 1947’s version of Los Angeles where “real” human beings coexist alongside walking cartoon characters. And he hates ‘toons. Vilifies them. Wants to dip them all in barrels of paint thinner (“the dip”) until nothing is left but colored grease. The evisceration and erasure of Toon Town. A full-on cartoon holocaust – that’s his endgame. That’s all bad enough.

And then the classic film’s lunatic finale happens.

Judge Doom is flattened under the wheels of a steamroller, only to resurrect, stick a gas tank nozzle into his mouth, and inflate his pancake body. His glass eyes pop out of his head to reveal he is, in fact, a ‘toon wearing a human façade. In pure, unfettered mania of which only Christopher Lloyd is capable, he embarks on a tirade in which he proudly, insanely, over-the-toply admits to Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) that he was the one who killed Eddie’s brother – the crux of the movie’s conflict – and as his confession becomes more and more unhinged, his voice reaches a cartoonish high pitch like a whistling teapot before his cartoon eyes turn to daggers and springs burst from his feet, which he uses to launch across half a warehouse after a fleeing Eddie – and the whole time, his animated eyes are bubbling in his plastic face like a witch’s cauldron.

You know, for kids!

Watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit today, I’m still amazed director Robert Zemeckis was able to get away with the ghastly images that appear throughout the finale of his cleverly plotted Chinatown spoof. If the seed for horror hadn’t already been planted in my brain when I first saw it in my youth, then Who Framed Roger Rabbit was definitely one of the influences that cultivated it. (I also had an unhealthy crush on Jessica Rabbit, but that’s for another time.)

[Reprinted/excerpted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jan 9, 2021


You can’t keep a good gimmick down, which is why, ten years on from the release of Paranormal Activity, found-footage horror flicks are still trickling in. Thankfully, theaters are no longer inundated with them, but quieter and lower key productions are continuing to use the tactic – hence we now have the awkwardly named Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten (which, come on, I will DEFINITELY be calling Triple H for the remainder of this review).

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of kids take an array of filming equipment into an abandoned hospital believed haunted for sensationalistic reasons but then – plot twist – turns out the place really does have ghosts! (Or demons, or witches, or the pit of hell, or, you know, something that HMOs will write off as a preexisting condition.) Along with this, the Germany-lensed Triple H opts for a modern update by presenting all the trespassers as hosts of their own very disparate Youtube channels, some more successful than others, which has led to some tension between them all. (I think they used to be friends in real life before or during their Youtube fame, but that’s never made clear). There’s Betty (Nilam Farooq), whose channel seems to consist of her sitting on a bed and talking about makeup but never applying any (accurate); Emma (Lisa-Marie Koroll), who helps participants face their very specific fears; and lastly, there’s Charly and Finn (Emilio Sakraya and the amazingly named Timmi Trinks), who host something called Prankstaz, which is exactly what it sounds like, and which is the most obnoxious thing you have ever seen. (Also accurate). Joining them are Theo (Tim Oliver Schultz), the level-headed worrywart, and Marnie (Sonja Gerhardt), a psychic and Theo’s former squeeze. (I’m going to be honest, I’m not 100% of that breakdown because all the girls, bundled up in hats, scarves, and big jackets, kinda look the same, and most of their names are barely spoken aloud during the entire running time. Girls just sort of keep showing up, making you go, “oh, guess I missed her the first time.” Just know that this movie is basically Hellstätten 90210.) The kids all figure that cross promoting with the sadly successful Prankstaz will boost the number of theiir Youtube followers, and that’s all that matters on the entire planet.

For the first two acts, Triple H unfolds exactly as you would expect: the characters are introduced and established as: the main one who will probably live, the “silly” ones who definitely won’t, and the window dressing ones whom no one will especially care about. Dark hallways are wandered, fleeting creepy things in the dark are glimpsed, fights break out among the cast, and bodies begin to drop. During this time, Triple H is very okay – it’s absolutely every other found footage flick you have ever seen, but it’s well made enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching anything offensive. In addition, there’s a scene where Theo berates the two Prankstaz hosts for peddling idiocy on their channel and contributing to “the stupidity of our youth,” so you might be thinking, “Oh, wow, Triple H has a message.” Once the third-act twist happens, whatever credit you were willing to lend toward Triple H goes totally out the window and you will groan, groan, groan. To its credit, you’ve never seen anything like it in a found footage flick, but that’s because the twist is nearly as ridiculous as, say, if it’s revealed that the haunted hospital had been under the hellish influence of an evil cantaloupe named Jeremy.

Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten is every found-footage flick you’ve ever seen – that is, until it’s not, and that’s when it’s worse. If you’re among the breed of fan who devours these kinds of flicks regardless of budgets or reputations, you’re likely to find a few worthy yuk-yuks within. For everyone else, avoid.