Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966)

Written by: Anthony Hinds
Directed by: Don Sharp
Christopher Lee as Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin
Barbara Shelley as Sonia
Richard Paso as Dr. Zargo

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of a legend. That word gets kicked around a lot talking about venerable old horror stars, and occasionally it's deserved. Even people who don't know anything about or even like horror know who Vincent Price is. But there is perhaps no other actor in living memory as deserving of the title as Sir Christpher Lee. He bestrode the world like a titan, and left an impression on fantasy and horror films that will last for centuries (if you think I'm being hyperbolic, I remind you that we're still talking about the greats of German expressionist horror nearly a hundred years after the best of those movies were made). No doubt you've all seen the picture floating around Facebook of him with the insanely impressive list of his lifetime accomplishments that make even then most exaggerated of those Chuck Norris Facts gags seem tame by comparison. If you're reading a site like this, there's also no doubt you know most of that stuff anyway. Lee needs no introduction to the horror community, after all. Like I said, legend.

More knowledgeable film scholars than I have and will spill plenty of ink about the man and his life, and do a much better job of it than I would, so I'm not going to go into a great long biography about him here. I will just say that since I was a kid, I knew the name Christopher Lee meant quality. I've always loved horror, but my parents wouldn't let me watch any of the more modern violent stuff when I was young. They were perfectly fine with the Universal monsters (my mom has fond memories of watching The Wolf Man from behind the couch as a kid, so that probably helped) and other things from the 50's and 60's. I'm actually really glad that was the case. It meant that while all the other kids were watching Jason and Freddy slash their way through yet another disposable batch of idiot teenagers, I got an education in the classics years before I got into the nasty stuff. If I'd jumped right into slasher movies, I don't think I'd have the same appreciation for older horror I do, and that would be a damn shame. Sort of like getting into metal with Napalm Death and then thinking Black Sabbath was too slow and boring.

I remember the first time I ever saw Lee was when I chose Horror of Dracula at the video store one weekend. I was expecting another black and white Universal type movie, and was pleasantly surprised by how colorful and scary the movie was. The final battle between Lee and Cushing stuck in my head for years. Even though I couldn't remember what the movie was called, that great piece of action was burned into my brain. When I finally got a copy of it in a Hammer box set, I was thrilled to see it again. Many other Hammer flicks crossed my TV in the mean time, though, and as I began to recognize actors who kept popping up in many different movies that I loved, sure enough, Christopher Lee was in a lot of them. I started actively looking for things with him in the cast, and watching them every time they came on TV. I remember one day when I was in high school, Bob and I walked into the local Sam Goody and saw a big display of fancy looking hard plastic clamshell VHS cases prominently displayed right in the middle of the main aisle...and they were all Hammer movies. By then we knew full well what a great find this was. I remember I got The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies, and Dracula, Prince of Darkness. I also specifically remember I passed over Rasputin, the Mad Monk because it wasn't a monster movie. It also didn't help that the photo they used for the VHS cover was taken from such an angle that it makes Lee look more than a little bit like Eric Idle. Turns out 16-year-old me was an idiot.

The wife of a landlord is dying of fever in the family rooms of the inn when a huge, bearded man in a robe kicks the door in and asks for wine in a booming, larger-than-life voice. The landlord apologizes for not being able to offer more hospitality, but he is about to loose his wife. The shaggy colossus tells the landlord to show him to the sick woman. He lays his hands on her face, and in seconds the fever has left her and she is almost completely recovered. The amazed and grateful landlord tries to offer the stranger some money, but he says he will have no payment for his good deed. When pressed, he asks for a bottle of wine. When told this is an insufficient reward for giving the man his wife back, he asks for two. When told this still isn't enough, he demands they throw a party so everyone can dance and get shitfaced because it's a happy occasion and calls for celebration. He proceeds to drink everyone under the table, make out with the landlord's daughter in the barn, get in a fight with her jealous boyfriend, and chop the boyfriend's hand off with a scythe...and this is all in the first ten minutes of the movie!

The fun and games don't last long, though. The boyfriend's father is understandably unhappy that a drunken, bellowing yeti in a monk's robe chopped his kid's hand off, and demands the church put Rasputin on trial. The landlord comes to his defense, citing the miracle he worked shortly before the impromptu amputation. The Church official is having none of it, saying that this is just one transgression among many and Rasputin's sins are too numerous and infamous to count. Rasputin blows them both off and basically tells the Church official overseeing the trial to take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut on a gravel driveway, saying that he lives larger than life so that when he enters confession he may present God with sins worth forgiving, which is even more metal than you think when Lee says it.

While driving home from the trial in the landlord's wagon, Rasputin makes an impulsive turn on the road to take them to the capital. He enters the first pub he finds, and overhears a man bragging that his friend Dr. Zargo can out-drink anyone in the place, and there's cash in it for anyone who thinks otherwise. Cut to Zargo taking his last shot and passing out on the floor while Rasputin laughs, polishes off what looks to be about the twentieth bottle of wine on the table, and does a Russian folk dance that Lee probably learned one slow afternoon that he had off from killing Nazis.

During the cut between Rasputin accepting the drinking challenge and Zargo's liver turning in its resignation, we were introduced to Sonya, a lady-in-waiting to the Tzarina, and her boyfriend Peter. They were at a fancy ball at the palace, but decided it was lame and went to find adventure in a drinking establishment of ill repute. It is Sonya's bad luck to laugh at Rasputin's exuberant cutting of a very rustic rug and draw the ire of the massive marauding monk, who demands an apology. When she refuses, he hypnotizes her ass and makes her walk across town to apologize in person and out of clothes in the apartment he started sharing with Zargo after he carried the inebriated physician home from the pub.

At first he's satisfied to slap her around a little, but when he discovers that she has a high place in the royal court, the wheels start turning. He commands Sonya to engineer a little accident for the young prince and then casually mention that she knows this totally awesome faith healer who can make everything all better. Soon Rasputin has been given a mansion near the capital so he can be close at hand for all the Tzarina's snake oil needs. As we all know, things get a little out of hand from here on in.

I'm not a great scholar of Russian history in general or Rasputin in particular (something I should really rectify, what little I do know is pretty damn interesting), but even I know that this is very loosely based on actual events. For one thing, the real Rasputin could no more heal people by the laying on of hands than could any other faith healer quack in the history of humanity, much less send out hypnotic signals across an entire city to command young women to do his bidding! Beyond that, the account of the events leading up to the assassination were given by one Prince Yusupov, who was still alive when the movie was made, so they gave his part in the events to a fictional character named Ivan. The final assassination in the movie was not nearly as spectacular as the stories would have you believe, which is a little surprising considering how unafraid this movie is to be dark and gruesome. The hand chopping is pretty rough for its time, to be sure, but the scene I'm specifically thinking of here is shortly after Rasputin loses interest in Sonya and commands her to kill herself. Peter runs to her rooms to rescue her and shoulders his way through the locked door only to trip and land on top of her cooling corpse. Even though it's not a very visually grotesque scene, the idea of seeing someone trying to rescue their lover and instead doing a face plant on their dead body strikes me as pretty strong stuff.

And finally, of course, there's just no way the real Rasputin was as awesome as Christopher Lee. Wicker Man is without a doubt my favorite movie Lee was in, and indeed one of my favorite movies ever, period. This, however is probably my favorite of all Lee's performances I've seen. It is perhaps telling that neither the writer nor director of Rasputin the Mad Monk had much of anything to do with Lee's most well-known role, Count Dracula. Writer Hinds worked on the debut feature, Horror of Dracula, and although he wrote several of the later, better Lee-free sequels, never again wrote any of that dialogue which Lee famously refused to say. Director Sharp had nary a bloodsucker to be seen on his CV. I would imagine the makers of even the best Dracula sequels saw this movie and said, “Son of a bitch, how come we couldn't get him to do that!?” Lee's Rasputin is by turns funny, charming, and absolutely terrifying, sometimes all at the same time. He would have Dracula coming to heel like a scared puppy. 

Ra-ra-Rasputin, indeed.

Be sure to check out the other reviews in this Christopher Lee tribute roundtable by my fellow agents in the Department of Ungentlemanly Reviewing.

Checkpoint Telstar: The Gorgon 
Micro-Brewed Reviews: The Devil Rides Out 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Millennium Bug (2011)

Written by: Kenneth Cran
Directed by: Kenneth Cran
Jessica Simons as Joany Haskin
Christine Haeberman as Clarissa Haskin
John Charles Meyer as Billa Crawford

Look! Up on the screen! It's a backwoods horror movie! It's a kaiju movie! It's an 80's shot-on-video splatterfest! It's all of those things! It's Millennium Bug! The movie was made by an outfit called No CGI Films, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the filmmakers' aesthetic. According to director Kenneth Cran, it was supposed to be part of a trilogy, which was going to attempt crowd funding. A brief poke around Google reveals no information about any sequels or prequels, so one would assume since this movie is four years old the crowd funding either fell apart or never happened. It's a damn shame too, because these guys really know how to rock practical suits and miniature effects. I'd love to see them get a little bit more money and do a full-on city smashing kaiju slugfest movie.

Byron Haskin (and if that's not an intentional reference to the director of War of the Worlds I'll eat my copy of War of the Worlds), his new wife Joany, and daughter Clarissa (who never once explains a damn thing), are headed into the woods to escape the predicted societal collapse when the clock strikes 12:01am on New Year's Eve 1999. Byron knows of an old abandoned logging town that should provide the perfect spot from which to watch the end of the world. Or just eat some s'mores, whichever.

Unfortunately, the old logging town is not nearly as abandoned as Byron had thought. One of the houses and some of the outbuildings are occupied by a clan of inbred hillbillies called the Crawfords. We meet them as the only female Crawford still able to bear children bears one on the dinner table (to the delightful line, “Dammit, ye're drippin' in mah beans!”). It proves to be horribly deformed, as increasing numbers have been over the years. Billa disposes of it and it is decided then and there that the Crawfords must have new blood in the family or face extinction. How unlucky that the Haskins set up their camp just a short walk from the Crawford homestead.

Billa and his brothers sneak up on the Haskins's camp while the family is sleeping and easily capture them. Keeping them captured proves to be not nearly so easy. Billa picks Clarissa as his new wife, but Byron and Joany have no intention of sitting idly by while their daughter is turned into breeding stock. After several escape attempts and fatalities on both sides, the younger Crawford brothers bring back another captive: cryptozoologist Robert Patterson. They're more interested in his video camera than the warnings of something huge about to wake up out in the woods, until it wakes up and starts smashing its way through the woods directly toward the nearest source of food. Guess what it likes to eat.

I'll talk about what I feel is the negative first. I can understand the need to keep the monster off screen for a while to build a little tension (and because it's the most expensive aspect of the production, of course), and so we have to spend some time getting to know the human characters. The Haskins are all well done, giving us enough information about their family dynamic to know that they're good people making the best of an odd situation. Clarissa's mom is dead, Joany is as close to her in age as she is to Byron, and despite the awkwardness that naturally arises from such a dynamic, there is none of the angsty, resentful teenage bullshit you would expect from a lazier writer. You can tell all three of them are dealing with any underlying tension and really do care about each other.

The Crawfords, on the other hand, are possibly the worst clan of crazy hillbillies I've ever seen in a horror movie. Every cliché imaginable from the backwoods horror genre is present without seeming to have any real thought put into what makes these things work. They're religious to the point of the elders constantly berating the brothers for swearing in the house, but they're perfectly fine with rape and other kinds of violence (hm...come to think of it, maybe they're just FOX News viewers...), and Trek Loneman as Uncle Hibby is the only one whose performance doesn't make me cringe every time he's on screen. I think it was mostly intentionally over the top, as they seem to be going for a sort of Troma aesthetic in these scenes. Thing is, aside from two or three movies I absolutely can't stand Troma flicks, so the stuff with the Crawfords is extremely grating to me. I think if they'd abandoned attempts at straight-forward humor and made them as menacing as they could it would have worked a lot better.

I wish we could have spent a little more time with Ken MacFarlane's Patterson. Not only would I have liked to know more about the bug (although Cran manages to strike that difficult balance of just enough explanation while leaving it mysterious and not hitting us with a massive info dump), I think MacFarlane deserved some more screen time to develop his character. He comes across as sort of a K-Mart Bryan Cranston, with loads of intensity but very little focus so he seems like a total spaz. Given a little more time I think something really interesting could have come out of this performance.

But none of us were really here for the story, were we? About halfway through the run time, the enormous creature slumbering under the ground finally wakes up and starts wreaking havoc, and what havoc it is! These guys really know how to build great models, and more importantly, how to photograph them to make them look as real as possible. There's some material in this movie that gives all but the best Japanese tokusatsu a run for its money, and coming from me that's high praise indeed. It's no Kyoto train station battle from Gamera 3, but the bug being only 40 or 50 feet tall instead of 200 allows a great deal more detail to be put into the model logging town. Since the whole movie was shot on a makeshift sound stage in a small warehouse, when Clarissa, Joany and Billa end up being hunted by the bug and each other in the town, the actors are green-screened into the models to great effect. It's not like you can't tell how it's all being done, but it's done so well and with such great talent that you really don't give a damn. It looks absolutely fantastic.

Once the monster action starts, that Troma-esque sense of humor I was talking about earlier really hits its stride too. Rather than relying entirely on exaggerated mugging and screaming human reactions to the gore gags for the comedy, the humor becomes much more visual (and considerably more mean-spirited) and we simply get some great gore gags.

Millennium Bug reminds me of nothing so much as one of those direct-to-video 80's splatter flicks shot on a home video camera by some friends just for the sheer love of horror and making movies, except this time the friends got some real film equipment and a great talent for practical effects. Don't let my ragging on the Crawfords fool you, this is one of the coolest monster movies of the last few years. I can't say enough good things about how awesome the kaiju mayhem at the end is. If you're burned out on digital effects and are craving some killer man-in-a-suit-smashing-models action, check this one out.

Be sure to keep an eye out later in the week for the final contributions to June Bugs from the rest of my chitinous comrades. 

The Terrible Claw Reviews: Rebirth of Mothra 
3B Theater: Bug 
Checkpoint Telstar: Starship Troopers

Monday, June 8, 2015

Caved In: Prehistoric Terror (2006)

Written by: Michael Konyves
Directed by: Richard Pepin
Christopher Atkins as John Palmer
Colm Meaney as Vincent
Angela Featherstone as Samantha Palmer

Some of my younger readers may not remember this, but there was a time when the Sci-Fi Channel used to both spell their damn name correctly and produce original features that weren't just exercises in hyperbolic irony. I'll grant you that tonight's movie is pretty paint-by-numbers and even has a whiff of the “mockbuster” about it (although you may be surprised which blockbuster it's mocking), but it's also a straight-forward horror flick. It was also an international effort, with production being credited to companies in Australia, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands in addition to the United States. A far cry from a bunch of bullshit from Asylum.

We'll get back to that. For now, the plot, such as it is. John Palmer, his wife Samantha, and kids Emily and Miles run a caving and climbing guide business which takes them all over the world. Just as they're about to embark on a long-awaited vacation to Greece, a man named Vincent offers them an enormous amount of money and a free stay at a fabulous villa in Switzerland in exchange for John's services in helping him and his associates to get to the bottom of an abandoned salt mine.

His associates are not terribly nice people, which we know because we saw them murder the old man who owned the villa and the land the salt mine is located on after chopping his hand off in the previous scene. We also know they're kerfucked because in the scene before that, we saw the people who ran the salt mine in the 1940s get eaten by giant beetles immediately after opening a chamber full of emeralds. The bad men who Vincent represents know about the emeralds but not the giant beetles, hence their desire to get to the bottom of that mine.

John has a bad feeling about this job, and so it is that Samantha and the kids stay up top with Stephan (who was the one who knifed the old man), while Vincent, Marcel, Ion, Hanz, and Sophie head down the mine shaft with some other expendable meat. It isn't long before they find themselves confronted with the same giant beetles that wiped out the original mining crew back in 1948. Luckily, some of Marcel's men are carrying laser guns (!), and so they're at least well-armed to fight the onslaught of giant prehistoric bugs waiting for them deeper in the mine.

Topside, Miles has disappeared while Emily becomes infatuated with Stephan. Samantha gets a weird feeling from the young man, and does whatever she can to keep her daughter away from him. When they realize Miles has gone down the mine after his dad, Stephan tries to communicate the situation to Marcel. Unbeknownst to him, Samantha speaks French well enough to realize some of the stuff he said over the radio means her family are in pretty serious trouble.

Things go progressively worse under ground as the team are whittled away by both the beetles and by fighting within the group. What's worse, the tunnel behind them collapsed some time ago, and it looks like the only way out is directly through the beetles' nest (where they have a queen which demonstrates that the writer either knows nothing about eusocial insects or just doesn't care because he wanted a big boss bug in his movie). Meanwhile, some of the beetles have found their way topside, and wouldn't you know it, the Palmers's villa is the first thing on the menu.

I remember watching at least part of this on cable back when it first aired and being mildly entertained, but I also remembered there being a lot of practical bug effects. Either I crossed some mental streams and actually watched a different movie but thought it was this one, or I paid precious little attention to it. Aside from one rather sad and very plastic-looking head that gets plowed through various doors and windows, the bugs are entirely rendered in CGI that looks exactly as crappy as every other bargain-basement CGI creature from the early 2000's.

That said, I was still mildly entertained, in large part because if I actually did watch this before, I saw it on TV where it would have been heavily edited. It was thus a great surprise to me how incredibly gory this flick is! Limbs chopped off, people being disemboweled, decapitated, and bitten clean in half, and gallons of spurting blood. These days when a movie is made for a cable premiere and destined to be direct to video, they're usually the exact same movie. It was kind of a shock to be reminded that these movies used to be made however the hell the filmmakers wanted and just had all the icky bits edited out for the TV version.

The buckets of grue are basically all the movie has going for it to make it stand out. The plot is as generic as they come, but these things hold up and get recycled a million times for a reason, and this type of movie is dumb fun most of the time. The performances are all acceptable but unremarkable. The best actor in the cast is definitely Colm Meaney but he isn't given much of anything to do other than scowl and die.

I mentioned before that this has something in common with the SyFy mockbusters of today. Okay, tell me if this sounds familiar: a group of people, some of whom are armed with high-tech energy weapons, at least one of whom has intentions about which they're not being entirely honest with the others, embark on a journey to find a place full of fantastic gems that are guarded by ferocious creatures, only to have things to horribly wrong and it all ends in fire. That's right, it's Congo with giant bugs! I realize that mockbusters normally not only play up their similarities to whatever they're cashing in on to the point of sometimes trying to trick people into thinking it's the other movie, but that they also tend to be released at the same time or even before their... “inspiration” is the wrong word here, so let's just call a parasite a parasite and say host film instead. Caved In missed the boat by eight years! Now, I know you're probably thinking, There he goes again, reading too much into a cheapjack monster movie copying plot points from sources eighty years old or more, never mind eight. Yeah, well I never said Congo was original, did I? How else would you explain the damn laser guns?

The quality of the movies is slowly but surely improving here during June Bugs. Don't worry, though. No more of this cable TV drudgery. The next one on the docket is a real treat! Be sure to hit up my fellow entomology enthusiasts for their latest entries in this pestilential plague of a roundtable, and we'll see you all back here next week. Don't forget the Raid.

Checkpoint Telstar: The Deadly Mantis
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Godzilla X Megaguirus
3B Theater: Them! 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Skeeter (1993)

Written by: Clark Brandon, Lanny Horn, Joseph Luis Rubin
Directed by: Clark Brandon
Jim Youngs as Roy Boone
Tracy Griffith as Sarah Crosby
Charles Napier as Ernie Buckle

I was 11 in 1993, and just discovering Fangoria magazine. It took some doing to convince my mom that this was an OK thing to be buying with my allowance at the comic book shop. Of course, I was also buying every back issue of Dark Horse's Alien and Predator titles, some of which were far more inappropriate for a pre-teen than a horror movie magazine that featured primarily SPFX stills. Still, I discovered a great many things through that magazine. One of them was the eco-horror/killer insect boom that was taking place in the direct-to-video market in the early 90s. Although my mom's lack of awareness concerning R- and NR-rated movies has been chronicled elsewhere in these pages, it took free premium-channel weekends and staying at friends' houses for me too see a lot of these movies. Or, on occasion, just waiting for them to show up on Joe Bob Briggs's “MonsterVision” on TNT.

Of all of them, I think tonight's movie might have been the most disappointing. Aside from having far too little gore and nudity, it follows the 70's eco-monster movie formula to a T, and I think you can understand why therein lies the problem. An impressive list of beloved cult character actors is basically the only thing Skeeter has going for it.

Generic Evil Business Tycoon ™ Drake is developing the beautiful, wasteland that surrounds the sleepy little town of Clear Sky. I don't know what the hell kind of condos he's building out there (perhaps a few Darcologies from the old Sim City?), but they require the removal and disposal of an upsetting amount of toxic waste. Proper EPA-regulated disposal of huge quantities of mutagenic gunk being rather on the expensive side, Drake has just been tossing the stuff down an abandoned mine shaft where it shouldn't bother anyone for at least a few decades, when it eats through the canisters and starts leaking into the groundwater. But hey, Drake's an old guy, and by then he'll be dead or at least so senile they won't be able to prosecute him so the problem will fall on someone else's shoulders and he can go on playing grab-ass with the nursing home staff. Or, you know, the grave worms. Either way, Drake will be well out of it by the time the residents of Clear Sky start posting videos of themselves lighting their tap water on fire to YouTube.

Deputy Roy Boone (who we know is that tough-but-sensitive type of hero because he makes shitty Flashdance welding sculpture in his spare time) is very unhappy about Drake's buying up all the land in the valley because he really has a thing for rocks and cactus and rattlesnakes, I guess. His boss, Sheriff Ernie Buckle (Charles Napier!), is constantly warning him to leave Drake alone, which we all know means Buckle is in Drake's pocket because we've all seen this movie a few thousand times before.

Of course, if that was all that happened, this would be an even shorter and more boring movie than it is already. Naturally, some of those canisters of toxic crud broke open down in that mine and mosquitoes used the puddles as breeding pools. All right, class, what happens when insects who usually spawn in the water lay their eggs in puddles of highly toxic chemicals instead? If you said, “They all die”, then clearly you are not destined to be a maker of cheap monster movies. If you said, “They all grow to roughly the size of house cats and start killing people”, then you too could have made Skeeter. And I kind of wish you would have, since the Skeeter we got was directed with all the vigor and intensity of a bored zoo ape who can barely muster the energy to pick its nose before returning to its nap in the afternoon sun.

Sheriff Buckle pays the price for his bowing to corruption, as all such lawmen must in these movies, leaving it up to Roy, his fellow officer Hank Tucker, and his high-school sweetheart Sarah to destroy the killer mosquitoes and stop Drake before the other six people who live in Clear Sky are devoured and bulldozed into oblivion.

People accuse Rob Zombie of stunt casting, which I think is utter bullshit. Does he cast his movies full to the brim of beloved cult movie character actors? Yes. If you could make movies any damn way you wanted, wouldn't you? Why do people complain that the movies they watch are full of the actors they love? That's like buying a Steve Vai record and complaining it has too many guitar solos. We admire these actors so much because they're downright awesome at what they do. The job of a director is to make the best movie he possibly can. It follows that you'd want to cast the best and most reliable people you could find in your movie, and the best and most reliable actors sure as hell aren't found in mainstream Hollywood.

It's great to see some of these people in starring roles, because while most of them have CV's as long as a giant mutant skeeter's proboscis, the lion's share of those roles are bit parts because so many of the productions that hire them only have enough money to hire them for a couple of days. So while we have Charles Napier (Unfairly something of a b-list b-lister. While he's not as well known as your Tom Atkins or Bruce Campbell, I'm always pleased to see his name on a movie I'm watching because I know there will be at least one great thing about it. I have never once seen him turn in a bad performance.), Buck Flower, Jay Robinson and Michael J. Pollard to class up the joint for a few scenes, we primarily have to settle for looking at Jim Youngs and Tracy Griffith instead. Griffith isn't the worst actress I've ever seen, but she is at best instantly forgettable. Youngs, on the other hand, is consistently upstaged by his squad car.

Which brings us to the reason we're watching this movie in the first place; the skeeters. There is one animatronic “hero” skeeter head used for closeups that's pretty damn cool. And I've run out of nice things to say. Most of the rubber bats in 40's haunted house movies are more believable than the rubber skeeters being thrown at the actors by stagehands. The rest of the movie isn't nearly crazy enough for me to believe that it's supposed to be funny and that the mosquitoes are shitty and unconvincing on purpose, so I'm forced to conclude that the filmmakers completely blew their budget on the cool bit players and this was really just the best they could come up with. Let's just say that if you're able to buy into the monsters in this movie on any level, then you're probably genuinely concerned that Svengoolie is being attacked by vicious feral chickens every Saturday night.

There you have it. This year's June Bugs is off to a rather inauspicious start. Be sure to check out what my fellow film fiends have on the zapper, and come back next week for another heapin' helpin' of arthropod love.

Checkpoint Telstar: The Naked Jungle

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Zombeavers (2014)

Written by: Al Kaplan, Jordan Rubin, Jon Kaplan
Directed by: Jordan Rubin
Cortney Palm as Zoe
Rachel Melvin as Mary
Lexi Atkins as Jenn

If there are two things almost every serious horror fan is sick to death of these days, it's stupid self-aware ironic Sci-Fi Channel/Asylum killer animal movies and goddamn zombies. Of course, sometimes writing off entire genres can come back to bite you in the ass by making you miss out on a good flick. Luckily I also have no taste and very little self-control, so even though I have no interest in the latest Sharktacondapusasaurusrexadactylarantula movie, the idea of zombie beavers was just too ridiculous for me not to give it a chance. And hey, the zombeavers are practical effects, so that's a plus.

I knew I had made a good choice from the very first scene, during which two slacker truck drivers (played by comedian Bill Burr and, I shit you not, John Mayer) hauling a load of toxic waste (I sincerely hope the people charged with moving that stuff around in real life are considerably more competent than these two) hit a deer because they're too busy texting and sharing bizarre sex stories. They're worried enough about the damage to their truck that they don't notice one of the barrels was jarred loose in the impact and rolled into the lake they're driving past. A funny and efficient setup that leads to a delightful animated credits sequence that would have let the movie skate by on that alone even if the rest of it sucked.

Now we meet our main characters, Mary, Zoe and Jenn. The three are sorority sisters, and are on the way to a cabin owned by Mary's cousins. No points for guessing it's the same lake the barrel of toxic gunk fell into a few minutes back. The vacation was originally going to be a three-couple sexathon, but Jenn discovered her boyfriend Sam cheated on her so Mary changed the guest list to girls only at the last minute. Zoe, the requisite oversexed bitchy one, also brought her dog.
The girls go swimming their first day at the cabin, where they spot a beaver lodge covered with green crud, and have a run-in with a local trapper named Smyth. He's a great character, whom we're never really supposed to be sure if the girls are safe with or not. Rex Linn plays him perfectly, and trying to figure him out is one of the highlights of the movie.

That night the girls are playing some slumber party games when they're interrupted by a loud bang at the front door. Zoe goes to investigate, but it turns out to be just the girls' boyfriends, Tommy and Buck. Except they brought along Sam. Awkward tension ensues as Jenn and Sam sit on the couch and fight about his infidelity while they listen to their friends having sex in the bedrooms. Awkward tension is broken by the appearance of what they assume to be a rabid beaver in the bathroom. Tommy beats it nearly in half with a bat and they toss it outside in a garbage bag.

The next morning, everyone decides to go for a swim. The bag on the porch is torn open and the beaver carcass is missing, but they write it off as a wild animal scavenging its supper. Things change quickly when the swimmers are surrounded by a gaggle of ravenous undead beavers. Jenn, who refused to get in the water with her scum of an ex, hauls ass back to the cabin to call for help. Unfortunately for her, the beavers chewed through the phone line, the cabin is remote enough to get no cell reception, and that bisected beaver carcass is neither as inanimate nor as eaten by scavengers as they had thought. Shortly after the rest of the group get back to the cabin (Sam further proves what an utter douche he is by using Zoe's dog for bait), they find themselves surrounded by an army of zombeavers, summoned by the one Jenn pinned to the counter with a knife slapping its tail against the cutting board. Things continue to get worse and worse for the kids until Smyth arrives with a truck load of guns and it seems they're rescued. Unfortunately, it seems the beavers have seen Creature from the Black Lagoon. What's worse, a bite or scratch from one of these little bastards works much the same way as it would from a human zombie. Notice I said much the same, not just the same.

I was expecting to have to lodge a complaint against this movie and the filmmakers, and I was dam glad to have been proven wrong.

Go ahead and finish mentally punching me in the groin, I'll wait.

Horror comedies are a notoriously difficult thing to pull off. They're frequently a fallback device used by lazy morons who don't know how to make a serious movie be any good, and figure a few dick jokes, naming some characters after famous horror directors, and misquoting a few lines of dialog from better movies will be funny enough to make the audience not notice that their movie sucks more dicks than a cheap hooker who hasn't had any meth in a week. Thankfully that's not the case here. Sure, it's not all roses. We're reminded about a dozen times too many that Rubin and the Kaplans know “beaver” can be a double entendre. Other than that though, the jokes mostly work really well, be they dialog (Sam, delivering the line deadly serious: “Guys, we can't turn on each other right now. That's just what the beavers would want!”) or be they sight gag (the Whack-a-Mole scene...holy shit the Whack-a-Mole scene).

Not only is the movie surprisingly funny, it's unexpectedly well thought out. As much care as was taken making sure most of the jokes worked, an equal amount of care was taken on the structure of the script. A great deal of the material is setup for things that pay off later, and not just from a punchline standpoint. The filmmakers made sure their story made sense (and that they actually had a story), flowed well, and that we gave a damn about the characters (and just as much credit for this last goes to the actors, who all put in some fine work). There are some nice twists and turns of character that make our protagonists come to life in nuanced and multi-dimensional ways that you don't often see in this type of movie. Some of the scare scenes even have a bit of a kick to them. No matter how intentionally silly the beaver puppets look, being attacked by animals in the woods is one of the most ancient and deep-seated fears in the history of mankind, and even the clumsiest filmmaker would have a hard time making glowing eyes in the dark just outside your windows not look at least a little creepy.

You'll also want to stay through the end credits. From the fun outtakes, to the silly lounge music theme song, to the (literal) stinger scene, it's all worth a look. And keep an eye out for the No Animals Were Harmed disclaimer.

There you have it. Zombeavers is that rarest of animals, a horror comedy that works as both things. The emphasis is definitely more on the comedy side of things, but there's enough gore splattered around to keep the hardcore fiends happy too. If you've been hankerin' for some yuks with your yucks and other recent entries in the subgenre like WolfCop left you feeling a little cold, check this one out. I think you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Maniac Cop 2 (1990)

Written by: Larry Cohen
Directed by: William Lustig
Robert Davi as Detective Sean McKinney
Claudia Christian as Susan Riley
Robert Z'Dar as Matt Cordell
Leo Rossi as Turkell

We have here an example of that rare bird, the sequel that represents a significant improvement over its original source material (hell, even Lustig himself says so in interviews!). The first Maniac Cop was plagued with a confused, meandering script that left all the wrong things unexplained. While that's not a terribly uncommon complaint among low-rent horror flicks, when a script is written by someone like Larry Cohen who has such an impressive filmography to his credit, it makes the whole thing go down a lot harder. Handling the directorial duties, Bill Lustig managed to capture the grimy squalor of pre-Disneyfication New York in such a way that he brings out a certain strange beauty in it. Being visually interesting, however, wasn't enough to keep the audience from noticing the script needed more clean up work than a 42nd Street porno theater.

When we last left Officer Matt Cordell, he was flying off a pier, pinned to the seat of a van by a pole that had been impaled through his chest. Of course, that kind of thing is never enough to keep even a slightly financially successful horror character down, and so as the camera pans up from the bay and around a junkyard what I assume is later that night, the lights of an old police cruiser come on and the car speeds off into the darkness. We didn't get to see who got behind the wheel, but this is one piece of withheld information in these movies I can appreciate. I love a good inference. It lets you know the filmmakers aren't assuming their audiences are idiots, and you'd have to be one not to figure out that it was none other than the Maniac Cop driving that car.

Meanwhile, officers Forrest and Mallory are ordered by Deputy Commissioner Edward Doyle to undergo a psychological evaluation by the department shrink Dr. Susan Riley. He's sick and tired of the pair sitting in his office demanding a continuation of the hunt for Cordell, who Doyle insists has been rotting peacefully in his grave for years. Forrest eventually relents, realizing that no one is going to listen to him and he has better things to do than spend his days in Riley's office and getting suspended or even fired. Mallory, on the other hand, sticks to her story and refuses to let it go. Riley begins to realize there might be something other than the ooperzootics to blame for Mallory's seemingly mad story when Forrest turns up dead from a huge puncture wound to the throat, and the old blind newspaper vendor who was the only witness telling her that when he briefly touched the killer's hand, it felt like the frozen dead bodies he shared a foxhole with in the war instead of living flesh.

After she and Mallory are pursued by a huge cop with a horribly mutilated face and Mallory is killed while Riley barely survives a car chase while dangling out the window and handcuffed to the steering wheel (this sequence is worth the price of admission alone, right up there with some of the most insane Australian car stunt work), she's ready to believe the stories about Cordell are true. She also finds an ally in Detective Sean McKinney, who has been trying to convince Doyle that whether or not there's a vengeful zombie walking the streets, someone is out there dressed as a cop murdering people. He's been handling a lot of the cases himself, and whoever is responsible is making the citizens of New York more scared of cops than actual criminals. If something other than sweeping it under the rug isn't done about the situation, New York's finest are going to have a full-blown civil war on their hands.

McKinney and Riley get a lead after a stripper comes to the station reporting that she was nearly murdered by a psycho called Turkell before he was interrupted by two beat cops. Before they could arrest him, a third cop showed up on the scene. You get the fabulous no-prize if you guess who it was. Now Cordell seems to be running around with a psycho who targets strippers and prostitutes, so at least they have a slightly more concrete lead to follow.

After arresting Turkell at strip joint, they hope to get some information out of him, but all he'll say is that his friend will come and bust him out. Sure enough, in a scene that makes the police station attack in Terminator look like a skit from Sesame Street, Cordell shows up and blows away half the police force before breaking Turkell and all his cellmates out. One of those cellmates was destined for Sing Sing, and Cordell grabs his transfer papers as a way to get them past the gates of death row so he can get revenge on the stooges who killed him on the orders of the corrupt politicians who sent him up the river. What's more, once those few men are out of the way, Cordell is going to recruit an army of the most dangerous criminals in New York State and lay siege to the city.

Somewhere along the line, McKinney either became an expert in revenge zombie lore or is just flying by the seat of his pants. I'm inclined to lean toward the latter, since his plan to prevent the city from being overrun by murderers and rapists directed by an angry undead cop is basically to have Doyle show up at the gates of Sing Sing with a loudspeaker, apologize for being a dick, and ask Cordell nicely to stop.

I'm going to have to get hold of the Blu ray for this one because I'd love to hear Cohen and Lustig explain just what the hell they were trying to do. In what I assume was an attempt to clear up some of the hoodoo stuff from the last movie, they've streamlined Cordell's story a little bit. This time there's no mention of what brought him back at all beyond Riley guessing he just miraculously got better from multiple ruptured organs and massive blood loss while the coroner wasn't looking and got up and walked away. I realize there was never any more satisfactory explanation as to why Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers were unstoppable killing machines, but for some reason the usual slasher bullshit just doesn't fit in this case. Cordell is far more intelligent and resourceful a monster than other invulnerable murderers, and it just seems like he deserves a little better back story.

Even more aggravating is that Cohen dropped the angle from the first movie that Cordell was known for his use of excessive force and record of police brutality while he was on the force, suggesting that perhaps he wasn't entirely innocent of whatever crimes landed him in Sing Sing in the first place. Here, McKinney explicitly states that he was a good cop, which makes his penchant for murdering other good cops and innocent civilians while rescuing serial killers from jail even more baffling.

But hey, no one ever watched a slasher movie for the compelling story, right? We love these things for the mayhem, and holy shit but this movie delivers in spades. Besides the aforementioned car chase where Claudia Christian's stunt double goes flying down a highway getting sideswiped by other vehicles while tied by one wrist to the steering wheel and hanging out the goddamn window, and the slaughter in the precinct house, there are two other massive stunt set pieces. One involves an armored prisoner transport bus and more exploding cop cars than all the Smokey and the Bandit movies put together, and the other is the climactic brawl in Sing Sing where everyone is on fucking fire! That fight scene alone took three days to shoot. Sure, the story can get bogged down in its own bullshit sometimes, but these sequences more than make up for it.

It boggles my mind that this movie was released directly to home video. I can't think of a better example of how far DTV horror flicks have fallen. Just think of the massive amounts of hard work that were put into the action scenes in Maniac Cop 2. Not just the obvious things like the stunt people putting their lives in danger—although that's certainly at the top of the list—but how much work the entire crew put in. Getting permits and insurance, choreographing the stunts, the pressure to keep the crew safe through these phenomenally dangerous stunts that must have had Bill Lustig sweating bullets the entire time...people put their all into creating an exciting, gory, action packed horror movie for their fans. Now we get Tara Reid, tongue firmly in spray-tanned cheek, swinging chainsaws at CGI sharks in front of a green screen and it sells because audiences these days really are idiots, and irony is so much easier than risking life and limb for something you actually give a shit about.

Monday, May 4, 2015

StageFright (1987)

Written by: George Eastman (yes, that one), Sheila Goldberg
Directed by: Michele Soavi
David Brandon as Peter
Barbara Cupisti as Alicia
Clain Parker as Irving Wallace

I was helping hetero life partner Bob start work on a fence for his new house today, and on the way to pick up some more tools we drove by the old gymnasium/theater where we spent many hours during high-school working on plays. Lots of great memories in that place, from blasting Monster Magnet and White Zombie over the PA while we were building sets, to scaring the shit out of fellow cast members in the shadowy backstage area with my fairly gruesome makeup as Jonathan in Arsenic and Old Lace (I do so love telling people I once shared a role with Boris Karloff). Fortunately for us, we never got locked in the place at the mercy of a lunatic. The most danger we faced in there from shop tools was playing mumblety-peg with a power drill. In hindsight, perhaps not the wisest choice we ever made.

Tonight's feature is the directorial debut of the great—if not terribly prolific—Michele Soavi. After serving various roles on productions by Italian horror heavies like Joe D'Amato (who was one of the producers on StageFright) and Dario Argento, Soavi spread his directorial wings and lensed a script by George Eastman (there's a photo of him made up as the monstrous killer from Anthropophagous in one of the dressing rooms if you're looking closely) and, at a time when the slasher flick was in its death throes in America, showed the idea-starved yanks how it was done and turned out one of, if not the best examples of the genre ever made.

The movie opens during rehearsal for a play called The Night Owl, about a killer of prostitutes who stalks the streets wearing a seriously unsettling owl mask. Oh, and it's a sort of ballet/musical hybrid production. It doesn't sound all that strange on paper, but it's very surreal when you see it. The director of the piece is a temperamental visionary named Peter, who keeps insisting on making changes in order to up the sexual ante and create a piece of challenging and shocking art. Money man Ferrari isn't so sure about adding a scene where the corpse of a murdered hooker played by leading lady Alice comes back to life and gives the owl man a simulated blow job during a saxophone solo by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (see, I told you it was weird), but for the most part he's happy to leave Peter alone to create as long as he's seen a return on his investment when the last curtain falls.

During a scene where a bunch of other street people toss her corpse (adding to the strange atmosphere, the body is a seemingly intentionally obvious mannequin when it's tossed and slams into the stage and reverts to being Alice when the camera focuses on her again) into the air and watch it crash back to the ground, Alice injures her ankle. Betty the wardrobe girl talks her into ducking out to get her ankle looked at by a doctor since she doesn't have another scene coming up for a while, and with a logic that you only find in Italian horror flicks, takes her to an insane asylum since it's the closest place with M.D. on the door and a doctor is a doctor, right?

While they're at the clinic, they happen to walk past the room of Irving Wallace. Well, it's not so much a room as an old-fashioned jail cell similar to the ones you see on The Andy Griffith Show. You wouldn't think being displayed like Otis the town drunk would be very conducive to recuperation from a psychotic break, but what do I know? Anyway, Wallace is also an actor and went insane a few years ago and killed a bunch of his co-stars, and unbeknownst to Betty and Alice, he kills an orderly and slips out of the clinic to follow them back to the theater.

Shortly after their return, Betty is found in the parking lot with a pickaxe buried in her face and everyone is understandably freaked out. Rather than let everyone go, Peter demands they lock themselves in the theater to continue work on the play. It seems like a crazy demand at first, but in a surprising bit of character development for a movie like this, Peter shows that his drive isn't the single-minded mania it appears to be at first. Yes, he wants to make great art and be famous for it, but he also knows that this ragamuffin band of losers he's directing may well be eating out of Dumpsters by the end of the month—himself included—if he can't make the show a success for them. Of course, the idea to change the identity of the killer from a monstrous but anonymous owl man to none other than Irving Wallace could prove to be an unfortunate bit of irony.

While there are some unexpected moments of thought put into the script, such as the reveal that Peter isn't entirely the cold hearted bastard we're first led to believe (at least until we see again later that yeah, he really is), it's really the visual aspect of the movie that makes it stand out from the crowd. Soavi clearly paid attention during his time with the masters, Argento in particular. There are a lot of visual cues that wouldn't look out of place in a movie from Argento's heyday. And of course, no great Italian horror movie would be complete without ripping off some of Bava's insane lighting schemes.

There's also a surprising amount of gore for a slasher flick. Even the European ones usually weren't too terribly gruesome compared to, say, cannibal or zombie flicks. It's even more shocking here because the movie's more than half over and several people are already dead by the time the gore really starts flying, so you're not expecting it any more by the time the power tools come out.

Perhaps the one aspect of Italian horror cinema that works against this particular movie is the use of dream logic to make the movie seem more like a nightmare. Sure, the whole thing is dripping with rich and bizarre imagery, but none of the events we see suggest the rules of reality don't apply to what's going on. At least, that holds true until the very end. The last shot of the movie diminished some of the impact of what had come before. Well, it did for me anyway. I know other people who love it, so your mileage may vary.

Even so, the ending is but a minor misstep. If you're a fan of horror in general, and slasher movies in particular, you definitely need this one in your collection. It's not terribly obscure and it's been available on DVD for a while, but Blue Underground's Blu-ray release is definitely the way to go to see this one. There are far shittier slasher movies that are far better known than StageFright, and that's a damn shame. It's definitely in the top echelon of the genre, even if that does seem like damning with faint praise.