Monday, October 23, 2017

Condemned (2015)

Written by: Eli Morgan Gesner
Directed by: Eli Morgan Gesner
Dylan Penn as Maya
Ronen Rubinstein as Dante
Genevieve Hudson-Price as Alexa
Honor Titus as Loki

“Adverse possession” is the legal term for occupying someone else's property. It's also as good a term as any for being taken over by a horrific weaponized plague, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Say you live in Minnesota but own some property in Iowa that was thought by you to be unoccupied. Say then that someone, without your knowledge, moved into that property and lived there for a certain period of time. At the end of that period of time (it's different in every state, but Iowa's code states 8 – 10 years), that squatter is no longer a squatter, but your legal tenant, and in order to get rid of them you have to go through the legal eviction process just like you would someone who held a lease. Every state in the US has statutes on squatter's rights. The disseisor (the person dispossessing the true owner of the land) must occupy the property for the entirety of the statute (anywhere from as little as five, up to as many as 30 years) before they can lay claim to it. With abandoned and condemned buildings, it gets a little trickier because government is usually involved at that point, and the disseisor has to make a case that they were operating as a business rather than as government in order to even begin to have a claim.

Now, a bunch of junkies and lunatics probably wouldn't have the forethought to look any of this up. A group of relatively intelligent young punk rockers and artists rebelling against whatever you got, man, probably would, though. In which case, you'd think one of them would have tried to rally everyone together and make a case for their occupying the crumbling shithole they all share. That brings us to tonight's movie, in which poor little rich girl Maya runs away from her shitty, neglectful parents to live with her boyfriend Dante. What she isn't prepared for is that Dante is living in a condemned tenement building as part of the aforementioned group of young punk rockers and artists, surrounded by the afore-aforementioned bunch of junkies and lunatics. Among them are a severely alcoholic, self-hating closeted gay lapsed rabbi named Bigfoot and his transgender prostitute girl/boyfriend; a hulking, openly gay, Rammstein-looking neo-Nazi leather daddy named Gault (my favorite character, played with scenery-devouring gusto by Johnny Messner); and most importantly, Cookie, the resident narcotics chemist who distributes his wares hidden inside fortune cookies.

Cookie isn't your every-day dope peddler, though. That's just for pocket money. His real pet project is designing biological weapons for Russian terrorists, and he's got a batch just about ready to go. Unfortunately for Dante, Maya, Loki, Gault, Shynola, and all the other assorted misfits squatting in this run down building, the runoff from Cookie's cooking has been stewing in the dilapidated plumbing system of the old building. Now it's issuing noxious fumes from drains, getting into the water supply, and turning the tenants into deranged, super-humanly strong murder machines. Who will survive, and how much glop will be coating them?

I want to point out first that this is not a zombie movie. It's not even a 28 Days Later sort-of-but-not-really zombie movie. Netflix will tell you otherwise, but this is 100% a virus movie, like The Crazies. The is no doubt the infected are still alive. They just happen to be melting while they're trying to kill you. I found that very refreshing, as I was fully expecting (and fully resigned to) zombies. It's nice to be surprised.

The cast are all great, although the secondary characters absolutely steal the movie out from under our protagonists in every single scene. Possibly the weakest link is Dylan Penn, although that could simply be a byproduct of the fact that she plays the bland, normal viewpoint character against a backdrop of some of the most vibrantly weird exploitation movie characters I've seen in ages. Given little more to do than be by turns grossed out and scared, she doesn't get a lot of room to shine. I remember even less of Dante's part, so perhaps Ronen Rubinstein is the dud here, although no one is truly bad in this. It's no crime to be unmemorable when you're up against a guy who looks like Till Lindemann's younger brother leading a gimp around on a leash. The script is sharp and funny. It takes a while to get there, but once things kick off the gore is plentiful, thoroughly disgusting, and nearly all practical gags.

Now, we all remember the craze for everyone making “throwback grindhouse” movies a while back. It still happens once in a while, although I think the bulk of that fad has passed. Sometimes it's a lot of fun (Frankenstein Created Bikers), and sometimes it's just a chore (I dunno, pick one, there were about ten thousand of the damn things after Grindhouse came out). The vast majority of filmmakers jumping on that bandwagon appeared to be operating under the assumption that simply adding a bunch of post-production film grain and artifacting to their picture automatically gave them 42nd street cred regardless of the actual substance of their movie. It's such a treat to see a movie from a filmmaker who understands that the true spirit of the grindhouse can be summoned up without a hint of faux print scratches.

Setting aside some obvious anachronisms like editing style and being shot digitally, Condemned totally feels like a 70s or early 80s NYC exploitation flick. It really captures that pre-Giuliani squalor. This movie is a treasure. A love letter to pre-gentrification New York; to Milligan and Hennenlotter and the Findlays and every diseased weirdo who brought their own personal vision of hell to life with a few thousand bucks and a box full of short ends. The budget may have been a little higher, and those short ends are now endless thanks to modern technology, but Eli Gesner gets it. I hope we get a lot more sleazy, slimy nastiness from him in the future.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Bloodtide (1982)

Written by: Richard Jeffries and Nico Mastorakis
Directed by: Richard Jeffries
Martin Kove as Neil
Mary Louise Weller as Sherry
Deborah Shelton as Madeline
James Earl Jones as Frye

It has recently come to my attention that at least one of my friends passed this movie by because he had dismissed it as a Jaws knockoff and felt his life did not need another one of those. That being the case, we'll consider this review a public service announcement of sorts. If you own some of those Mill Creek 50 movie packs (and let's face it, who doesn't?), there's a better than even chance you own at least one copy of Bloodtide. You should watch it. Cue The More You Know Music

You're probably wondering, If it's not a Jaws knockoff, then what the hell is it? Have you ever wanted to see drunken, Shakespeare-quoting Thulsa Doom get his junk bitten off by a demonic Greek gill man? Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Neil and Sherry Grice have come to the small island of Jalapenopopperdopoulis (not really) to locate his sister, Madeline. She was an art student who had come to the island to study its ancient religious iconography, but no word has been heard from her for a worrying amount of time. The islanders are none too welcoming to outsiders, and for some inexplicable reason offshore diving is strictly prohibited, even though the waters are perfect for it. Things get even weirder when they meet Frye, an alcoholic ex-thespian-turned-treasure-hunter, who constantly quotes Othello and is convinced the islanders are guarding an enormous trove of riches in the ruins of a temple submerged somewhere at the base of the island. He intends to find it, diving at night to avoid detection, and blast his way into the treasure vault with a load of explosives he's been hiding.

Eventually Madeline turns up, and she has made some exciting but frightening discoveries in an old church. In trying to restore some of the oldest icons, she uncovered layers of older and older art beneath them. The head nun implores her to give up her study, take communion, and leave the paintings be, and does not take kindly at all to the suggestion that the wood some of the icons are painted on is older than Christ. This would be a short and boring movie if Madeline and Frye let sleeping monsters lie. You see, thanks to the opening sequence and the odd flash of imagery up until now, we know full well that what those icons depict is a monster that was kept docile in pre-Christian days by feeding it virgins, and that what's behind the door in that old temple is damn well not gold.

When Frye blasts the vault open, the explosion nearly causes the underwater cave to collapse, so he skedaddles and is not present to witness the awakening of the creature, but before long people start dying and Madeline begins to exhibit some disturbing signs of hostile mental takeover by an unknown force. When Frye's girlfriend Barbara is killed by the creature, he switches modes from Othello to Ahab, and he and Neil set out to save Madeline from being the next sacrifice.

It's amusing that people blow this movie off as a Jaws cash in, because there's a scene in the movie that I'm fairly certain was the filmmakers acknowledging this very thing. After Barbara's death, the villagers, led by Jose Ferrer, attempt to pass it off as a shark attack. Frye snaps back that it was no shark attack, there aren't even any sharks in the waters around the island, and you can practically hear Matt Hooper saying, “This was not a boat accident!”

The one thing Bloodtide does have in common with Jaws, though, is the dearth of monster scenes working very much in the movie's favor. The creature is always present in the background as a threat, represented by the religious icons Madeline uncovers, by the deaths in the water, by Madeline's strange behavior, the hostility of the villagers, and the overall sense of impending dread hanging over the proceedings, but we are afforded very few clear looks at the creature, and the glimpses we do get are fleeting. While I am all for getting a good solid eyeful of monster in a monster movie, sometimes less really is better. That isn't to say that the creature suit doesn't look good. From what I can tell, it's actually pretty damn cool. But this thing is supposed to be a literal demon that held an island in thrall for millennia. No foam rubber dinosaur costume is going to hold up to those expectations, so Jeffries wisely lets the atmospheric locations and the audience's imagination do most of the heavy lifting for him.

When I say atmospheric locations, boy are they ever. You don't see a lot of horror flicks come out of Greece, so the unusual geography and architecture lend the flick a very different flavor than something from, say, Italy or Spain. It's little wonder Jones was willing to take what was surely a significant pay cut from his last few projects in order to have an all-expenses-paid vacation to the land of Hercules (and now I really want to see a movie where Hercules and Conan have to team up to fight Thulsa Doom).

I'm a little baffled by how this movie has managed to continue wallowing in relative obscurity despite its fairly impressive cult film creative pedigree. Okay, so Martin Kove is basically the K-Mart store brand version of Reb Brown (contemplate that on the Tree of Woe) and Mary Louise Weller's biggest claim to fame was getting second billing in Forced Vengeance with Chuck Norris (or I guess she was in Animal House if you're into that), but come on, James Earl fucking Jones! One of the most instantly recognizable actors of the last century slumming in a cheap foreign monster movie (and being really damn good in it, too)! How does that not warrant some attention? And this wasn't even before he got big. He'd already done Conan the Barbarian and two Star Wars movies, so people damn well knew who he was. Behind the camera, the movie was produced and co-written by Nico “Island of Death” Mastorakis and co-produced by Brian Trenchard-Smith!

If that doesn't make you want to see it, I don't know what would. Oh wait, yeah I do. The best glimpse we get of the creature is right at the end of the movie, just before Frye blows it to pieces, when it bites his fucking junk off and shakes it around like a dog worrying a chew toy! There, now go grab one of the seven or eight copies you inevitably own and watch the damn thing!

Bloodtide Ate My Balls.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Macabre (2009)


Written and Directed by the Mo Brothers, expanded from their short film “Dara”
Shareefa Daanish as Dara
Julie Estelle as Ladya
Ario Bayu as Adjie

Tonight’s movie begins at a going away party for Adjie, an apparently upwardly mobile thirtysomething Indonesian man who has just taken a high-profile job in Australia. Some of his friends have thrown him a party at the restaurant where his estranged sister Ladya works. It seems their parents left a sizeable inheritance behind when they died, and sexism being what it is in traditionally Muslim countries, Adjie got the whole kit ‘n kaboodle, resulting in some bad blood between the siblings. Adjie has tried to bridge the gap before, and is doing so again now, offering Ladya a check for what appears to be quite a large sum of money, but she stubbornly refuses, claiming she can make her own way in the world.

After the party, the group heads for the airport to see their friends off. On the way they pick up a hitchhiker named Maya, who claims to have been raped and needs a lift to her home, which isn’t far away. Once there, Maya’s family insists on showing their gratitude by having the group stay for dinner. Why yes, the wine is drugged. And what is that strange, thinly sliced raw meat the family is passing around? If you guessed Soylent prosciutto, you might be onto something.

Once the effects of the drugs wear off, various members of the group find themselves separated from the others, locked in rooms, and in one especially unpleasant case strapped to a butcher’s table with a chainsaw descending on his throat. A particularly feisty captive named Eko manages to escape and find a van full of cops to bring back to the house to rescue them, but by then things have gone from bad to, “Why does that tubby fellow in the apron have a pencil sticking out of his eye?” and it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

I’ve seen a lot of comparisons drawn between this movie and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while that’s certainly a fair point, I would say the similarities are one step removed from direct influence. Specifically, this movie resembles Chainsaw less because of direct influence than because it resembles Rob Zombie’s carnival funhouse version of Chainsaw, House of 1000 Corpses, but with all the tacky grease paint washed off. The family in Macabre are certainly weird, but they at least maintain a thin veneer of sanity for a while. The dinner scene is where things start to get truly creepy, not where they reach the pinnacle the horror has been building to. Dara’s house is an H.H. Holmes-like labyrinth designed for murder at maximum efficiency, not some run-down shack in the woods. It even pauses the madness briefly when cops come snooping, who are dispatched in short order and then it’s back to the regularly scheduled carnage.

My first thought as I watched this movie was, “Hey, the title uses the same font as the Chicago-based murder metal band Macabre!” My second was, how the hell was something this deranged made in Indonesia, a country notable for its strict regulation of entertainment? The answer to that question requires a bit of history. Well, ok, it doesn’t require it, but I’m going to talk about it anyway because I love that watching this kind of ridiculous trash can actually lead you to learn things.

The first domestically produced film from the Dutch East Indies was shown in 1926, and just as the infant film industry was learning how to walk, it was smothered in its crib by the Great Depression. Then, when the film market was recovering from economic collapse in the late 1930s, WWII broke out and the occupying Japanese forces commandeered it as a wing of their propaganda machine.

Once the war ended and Indonesia had gained its independence from the Dutch colonial government, the Sukarno regime began veering further and further to the left, and used the country’s film industry primarily to create pro-communist and anti-Imperialist propaganda, which pissed off the increasingly restless Islamic faction in the country to no end. Since many of the high-ranking Indonesian military officials were Muslim, this, as you may imagine, ended poorly for Sukarno. In 1967, a major-general named Muhammad Suharto led an anti-communist coup and took over the country in one of the nastiest mass murders this side of the holocaust.

While they may have been subject to an incredibly strict religious censorship code, at least Indonesia’s filmmakers were finally able to shoot something other than propaganda shorts. Many films came out of Indonesia during Suharto’s 30 year rule, reaching the most fruitful period of production in the 1980s. The eruption of colorful exploitation films to come out of Indonesia during this time made up for the fact that they couldn’t show any sex or nudity or extremely graphic violence by being some of the most absolutely bat-shit insane things the genre has ever seen.

Suharto was overthrown in 1998 as his policies were leading Indonesia into another economic collapse, and the Reform period began, ushering in a much more liberal socio-political climate which allowed movies to talk about things like sex and religion and hacking people up for barbecue. Not long after Indonesia’s cinema started catching up to the rest of the world, heavier and heavier taxes began to be levied against foreign films, like big-budget blockbuster fare from America. As smaller local theaters became unable to screen the big ticket movies people wanted, many had to close their doors, and before long it got to the point where, if your local theater didn’t get a high profile foreign movie, your only option besides trying to obtain increasingly hard-to-find bootleg DVDs was spending around the equivalent of $100 US to fly to Singapore and catch a screening.

It seems that Indonesian filmmakers have adapted to this new opportunity to fill local screens, and in recent years home-grown movies of significantly higher quality, like Macabre and the mind-boggling whirlwind of ass-kicking that is The Raid: Redemption, have been seeing release and even gaining acclaim abroad.

I highly recommend giving this one a look. I certainly enjoyed the hell out of it. As the rest of the Attack of the Killer Podcast crew and I were discussing on our forthcoming cannibal episode, Macabre doesn’t present the viewer with anything new, but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to make a satisfying movie. It’s the boundless energy and enthusiasm with which the familiar tricks are performed that makes shiny again that which was old.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

King Kong Lives (1986)

Written by: Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield
Directed by: John Guillermin
Linda Hamilton as Dr. Amy Franklin
Brian Kerwin as Hank Mitchell
John Ashton as Lt. Col. R. T. Nevitt
Peter Elliot as King Kong

King Kong is probably the only giant monster of the silver screen whose worldwide fame rivals that of Godzilla. Walk up to any random person on the street and, even if they haven't seen a single frame of any one of the movies, if asked, they could probably tell you he's a giant ape who climbs up a building in New York and gets shot by planes. Even among die-hard monster fans, however, there is one Kong movie that doesn't get talked about a whole lot. Perhaps because it was only briefly available on DVD (I just have a much-loved, oft-watched VHS) that is now out of print and goes for exorbitant amounts on the secondary market, perhaps because it didn't get much play on cable (although I can't imagine that was the case – this movie seems almost tailor-made for filling the 3am slot on HBO or Showtime). Whatever the reason, tonight's movie just doesn't get the love it deserves.

For reasons known only to himself and the people he convinced to pony up the $10 million production cost, a decade after his moderately successful 1976 remake of King Kong Dino De Laurentiis decided the world was ready for more hot monkey action. If monkey a-die again, everybody a-cry again, right? Well, someone a-cried, but I'm pretty sure it was the investors. King Kong Lives made back less than half its budget during its American theatrical run. Surely the licensing fees from the two Japan-exclusive video games, Kingu Kongu Tsū: Ikari no Megaton Panchi (King Kong 2: Furious Megaton Punch) and Kingu Kongu Tsū: Yomigaeru Densetsu (King Kong 2: Revived Legend), made up the difference, right? Right. And I have a perfectly functioning 40 foot animatronic Kong I'd like to sell you.

Because it had been ten goddamn years since anyone had seen nauga hide or yak hair of the big ape, we begin with a brief recap of the final moments of the 1976 movie. Kong must be a lot tougher than previously expected, because right off the bat we're asked to believe that being riddled with thousands of Gatling gun rounds and falling 1,377 feet from the top of the World Trade Center resulted not in a half-mile-diameter splash zone of greasy grimy gorilla guts, but a completely intact Kong being held in a medically induced coma at the Atlanta Medical Institute waiting for a suitable blood donor so they can fix his dodgy heart. Just as Dr. Franklin is about to give her patient up for lost, the Institute receives a call from wilderness explorer and general jet-setting gadabout Hank Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell was doing some particularly fruitful gadding about in Borneo when he encountered a massive female gorilla which, despite not being a scientist, his intuition led him to believe would be of interest to those who were. After a bit of haggling, and a warning from Dr. Franklin that close proximity to a female of his species would almost certainly excite Kong into full blown cardiac failure, Lady Kong finds herself pumped full of tranquilizers and on a cargo plane bound for Georgia.

With the most unlikely blood transfusion in medical history a success, Dr. Franklin manages to fit Kong with an enormous pacemaker that looks as much like some kind of alien space craft as it does a heart. He recovers in mere days without so much as a surgical scar, becomes the new spokesman for those catheters they sell on MeTV during Svengoolie, and everyone lived happily ever after. All right, that's a lie. We wouldn't have much of a movie if Kong didn't smell his sanguinary benefactor the second he swam his way up out of the anesthesia fog, would we? Kong smashes his way out of his enclosure and sweeps Lady Kong off her feet and into the Georgia night. Dr. Franklin gives chase, worried about Kong's ticker. She has a remote control unit she can use to stabilize it, but with all the strenuous activity, even that might not be enough. Hank follows her, because we need a human love story to mirror the hot monkey love, and close on all of their heels is a very pissed off Col. Nevitt.

It's not long before the army corners Kong and his mate at the precipice of a cliff. Powerless to do anything to stop Nevitt's fury, Dr. Franklin and Hank can only watch as Lady Kong is gassed into submission and Kong is chased off in a hail of gunfire, jumping from the cliff rather than give Nevitt the satisfaction of killing him. Kong lands in a river hundreds of feet below and cracks his skull on a rock, sinking into the churning water.

Despite Dr. Franklin's worries that even if Kong survived the fall, he'd never find enough protein in the wilds of Georgia to sustain him (an odd concern, since gorillas are largely herbivorous), we know the big guy isn't down for the count just yet. Kong's impromptu whitewater adventure washed him up in a swamp somewhere, and we're treated to his encounters with various factions of the hillbilly cultural elite as he sniffs his way back to his family. That's right, Lady Kong is pregnant thanks to the couple's prolonged honeymoon weekend, and this time the big guy is fighting to protect not just his lady, but his family. Now taking bets on whether or not Col. Nevitt survives the next fifteen minutes.

Despite having watched this movie probably two dozen times over the last two decades, until this viewing I never noticed a bystander during the celebration of Kong's successful surgery holding a sign that reads, “You Kong, Me Fay Wray, implying the 1933 movie is an actual movie in this continuity. Whether that means in this universe it was a ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama, or the existence of giant apes was one helluva coincidence, is up to the individual viewer. Either way, it's an interesting thing to ponder, which the filmmakers almost certainly put absolutely no thought into beyond that they thought it was cute.

This being a giant monster movie, though, the real question is: how does it stack up against its city-smashing cohort? If you ask this guy, pretty damn well. The greatest advantage a monster like Kong gives filmmakers is his size. At just a fraction of the stature of the mighty Godzilla (especially these days, with his size estimated at nearly four hundred feet tall and potentially over a thousand feet long), a beast of Kong's size allows for much larger, and therefore more detailed, miniature work. The more detail the FX crew can show, the more realistic the effects shots, and the final battle against the military in this movie, though short, is one of the best monster-vs.-the-army sequences ever filmed. The scale varies wildly, from a payloader being almost hip-high to Kong in an earlier scene, to him being able to pick up tanks single-handed and throw them with little effort. But you know what? Who cares? This movie is silly as hell anyway. If you can get past ridiculous scenes like Kong interrupting a square dance or playfully teasing Lady Kong with a snake, a little sloppy scale continuity probably isn't going to bother you that much. Especially when the movie in question is this much fun.

This movie isn't so much a hand-crafted pastry from a top chef as it is a funnel cake from the county fair. If you're looking for a majestic tale of noble beasts and tragedy, you'd do well to look elsewhere. If you want a deep-fried slice of giant monster mayhem with some fine practical effects work and a heaping dollop of goofy on top, this too-often-overlooked movie will almost certainly hit the spot.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Gothic (1986)

Written by: Stephen Volk
Directed by: Ken Russell
Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron
Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley
Julian Sands as Percy Bysshe Shelley
Timothy Spall as Dr. John Polidori

Laudanum was first created in the 16th century by a Swiss-German alchemist named Paracelsus. After finding that opium alkaloids (natural substances found in the resin of the opium poppy, which include morphine and codeine) dissolve in alcohol a lot better than in water (making them more fun to boot), he presumably discovered that turning lead into gold wasn't the only way to make a pile of money. Since then, the formula has changed time and again to include just about every random thing you can imagine (the original recipe included crushed pearls and amber, because why the hell not). These days, the alcohol content (as well as the crushed pearl and fossilized tree sap content) has been greatly reduced, from nearly 50% to less than 20%. It is regulated as a Schedule II drug, and is still available in the United States by prescription to control pain and rampant diarrhea. Ironically, this tincture has been shown time and again throughout history to also cause diarrhea. Diarrhea of the art.

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. As a writer myself, the romantic idea of days gone by when patronage was a thing and creative types would have their living expenses paid by rich friends or fans, or to simply be an independently wealthy aristocrat, so they could spend their entire existence living life to the fullest and concentrate their energies on their craft is an extremely appealing one. The downside to this being that, due to a combination of addictions and no responsibilities to tie them into the realities of everyday life, a lot of these artistic geniuses tended to be pompous, insufferable, self-absorbed rectal infections and spending 90 minutes watching them prance around spouting nonsense and acting like a bunch of prize cunts isn't the most enjoyable way to pass the time.

This movie purports to tell the tale of that fateful night at Villa Diodati when Lord Byron hosted a literary competition between his friends to write the most frightening story they could come up with, and an 19 year old girl changed the face of horror forever. There isn't really much tale telling, though. Almost immediately after the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont arrive at the villa and see Dr. Polidori suggestively petting a goat, everyone gets good and sauced on laudanum and the rest of the movie is an occasionally visually interesting but mostly tiresome and pointless succession of scenes that were no doubt meant to shock and stimulate and engage the audience's very souls, but instead leaves you checking the timer to see if it's over yet and wishing you were watching one of the Universal Frankenstein movies instead.

What do you mean, synopsis? That was my synopsis. Absolutely nothing of note happens in this movie. There is no real story to speak of. It's just a bunch of drunk and stoned people running around a mansion. It's got a great cast, who are all completely wasted on this pointless drivel. Even Timothy Spall, who I'm usually a big fan of, is almost unwatchably annoying here.

I get why Russell made this movie, why he would feel a connection to the characters. By many accounts he was a bit of a chore to work with too. He was certainly capable of making entertaining movies while still giving free reign to his instinct to be a visually weird director. Altered States is a great flick, and I absolutely love Lair of the White Worm. It just feels to me that, with Gothic, he got too wrapped up in trying to make an Important Film ™ and forgot to make a good one.

Check out what my fellow voyagers of the mind Russelled up for this roundtable:

Checkpoint Telstar - The Devils
Micro-Brewed Reviews - Altered States
The Terrible Claw Reviews - Lair of the White Worm
Tomb of Anubis - The Fall of the Louse of Usher 
Web of the Big Damn Spider - The Boy Friend

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Oasis of the Zombies (1983)

Written by: Jesus Franco, Ramon Llido
Directed by: Jesus Franco
Manuel Gelin as Robert Blabert
France Lomay as Erika
Antonio Mayans as Sheik Mohamed Al-Kafir
Javier Maiza as Captain Robert Blabert

This Valentine's Day, my long-time (as in, love you, G.I.) reviewing compadre Anubis and I decided to celebrate our studly man love (is that solarmanite in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?) by playing the relationship game, with a one-in-six chance of happiness and nearly overwhelming odds of just making each other miserable and bitter instead. We each put together a Whitman's Sampler of movies, containing one flick we deemed a real sweet pecan turtle of a show, with the rest being those ones full of tomato paste and drain clog hair that only old ladies seem to like. I'm going out on a limb here and saying that tonight's movie was meant to be one of the latter, but knit me a doily and call me Florence because I like this flick.

Our story opens with a couple of tourist girls in shorts that would make Gamera blush driving into the middle of goddamn nowhere in the desert because Brunette has heard stories about the oasis there and wants to check it out. Blondie, sensibly, wants nothing more than to go back to the hotel and drink margaritas by the pool, but her objections fall on deaf ears. If you can't figure out what happens next, Chrissie Watkins would like to go for an early morning swim with you.

Now that we've been assured beyond a doubt that there will, in fact, be an oasis full of zombies in Oasis of the Zombies, we are introduced to Kurt Maitzell and his wife, who are going to visit an old acquaintance of Kurt's. Did I say acquaintance? Sorry, I meant deadly enemy. The man in question is Captain Robert Blabert, formerly of the British army. Kurt was a colonel under Rommel's command in the Afrika Korps, and some of his men had been charged with transporting $6,000,000 worth of gold across the desert. Blabert's forces intercepted and ambushed them before they reached their destination, but the battle was so evenly matched that Blabert was the only one who made it out alive, and even he wouldn't have survived had he not been rescued by sympathetic nomads and taken to Sheik Mohamed Al-Kafir.

As far as anyone knows, the gold was never recovered because its location was known only to Captain Blabert. Kurt has come to him with a proposition that they put aside their differences in the name of Baal and go claim the loot for themselves. You'd think after spending his entire military career fighting the bastards that Blabert would have learned one very important lesson: never trust a Nazi. Then again, a dishearteningly large number of Americans who fought the same war helped to vote one into the White House a few months ago, so what the fuck do I know? The minute Kurt sees the map with the location of the gold marked on it, he kills Blabert and hightails it into the desert with his wife and a couple of goons to get rich.

When Captain Blabert's son, Robert, receives news of his father's death, he begins preparations to travel to Tripoli where the old man was killed. While going through some of the estate materials, he finds dad's diary, which t-bones the movie so hard with a flashback that it's gonna be a good long time before the narrative tow truck can drag the plot back onto the road, and even then it may never be drivable again. We see the battle between the allied commandos and the German caravan, plundered from some other movie that had the budget to show such a thing. We also see the convalescence of Captain Blabert in the camp of Sheik Al-Kafir, and find out that he repaid the sheik's kindness by knocking up his daughter, Ayesha. Yep, turns out Robert is half Arab royalty!

Robert tells his friends Ronald, Sylvia, and Ahmed about the diary and the gold, and decides settling dad's estate can wait if there's six million Nazi smackeroos out there in the desert just begging to be dug up and spent. Never mind that they'll have to set up their own smelting operation to turn the gold into something that doesn't have swastikas stamped all over it, but I'm sure they'll figure that out after they've lugged almost half a ton of gold (at 1983 prices, $6,000,000 worth of gold would weigh a little over 800 pounds) all the way back to London (an interesting conversation with the bag check people, right there). Of course, considering they make the trip to the oasis in one little jeep that can barely fit the four of them, the odds of these morons getting out the desert alive even without being attacked by zombies seem pretty fucking slim to me.

Kurt and his crew arrive at the oasis and the second the bosses turn in for the night, their two local hired hands (whose dubbed voices make Kobayashi's Barney Rubble voice in Gigantis, the Fire Monster sound positively dignified) immediately start planning to ditch them. While they're arguing over whether to take the gold or just get the hell out of the haunted oasis before they join its restless spirits, the German zombies take the choice out of their hands and rise up to lay waste to the camp. All this is, of course, timed perfectly for Robert and his crew to arrive in Tripoli and have their efforts to chat up the expedition of an anthropologist named Denikan and his two assistants interrupted by Kurt stumbling back into town covered in bite marks and dying right in front of them. Surely, you must be thinking, this would be enough to deter anyone from going anywhere near where this guy just came from, right? To that, I say three words. One. Fucking. Jeep. Maybe that's why they wanted to get chummy with Denikan's group. They realized they were in way over their heads and wanted to hang out with someone capable of actually making a plan before heading into a life-threateningly hostile environment.

Even after Sheik Grandpa shows up on the scene and warns his grandson about the dangers awaiting them if they continue on to the oasis, the morons persist in walking right into the jaws of Kurt's erstwhile troops. One. Fucking. Jeep.

For reasons known only to the gods, Franco pulled a Universal Dracula with this script and shot two essentially identical versions of this movie; one in French and one in Spanish (you'll notice the poster image I used is for the Spanish version, because it's cooler than any of the French versions). Not what you'd expect from a filmmaker whose attention span was so short that he was notorious for getting bored in the middle of a shoot and wandering off to start another movie before the last one was finished! Even most of the cast was the same. As far as I know, the only drastic difference is that in the Spanish version, Kurt's wife is played by Lina Romay. It's too bad, then, that when it came time for American distributors to grab this flick to feed the ravenous VHS beast, they picked the French version. If you have a choice, always go with Lina Romay. Maybe some day Arrow Video or Severin or someone will get a print of the Spanish version and throw some subtitles on there for an ultimate edition Blu-ray so the six people who are actually interested can do a side-by-side comparison of the two movies. I know I'm curious.

Like I said up top, I rather enjoy this movie. Yes, the dubbing is awful even by the low standards this type of movie is generally judged by; and yes, it bogs down something fierce at the midpoint; and yes, the zombies take for fucking ever to show up. When they finally do appear, they're pretty cool and inventive on a shoestring budget. Many of them have wrinkly, desiccated skin to show they've been dried out and preserved by the desert climate. My favorite one is actually a largely inanimate puppet that looks a bit like Dr. Tongue from Day of the Dead, but the way Franco shoots him makes him creepy and effective rather than laughable and cheap.

What really works for me in this movie, though, is the story. I'm not talking about the plot holes you could drive a camel through, like the fact that Robert is a good twenty years too young for the circumstances of his birth to be what they are, or that Captain Blabert doesn't age between the 40-years-ago flashback and present day. The idea of an oasis haunted by the restless undead corpses of Afrika Korps troops guarding a cursed treasure is fucking awesome. It's more or less the same basic plot used in the far superior Zombies of Mora Tau, except that this time the zombies are Nazis, and I have come to the conclusion that no matter how sick I get of zombies, I will never, ever get tired of Nazis, zombie or otherwise, as the bad guy in stories. I'm not even trying to make a political statement now, just stating that I think Nazis will always be a fascinating choice of villains in fiction. They just intrinsically fit. Maybe it's because they were worse in real life than they could ever be in a movie or book, so no matter how horrific you make them, they inevitably come across as a de-fanged version of the real thing, and yet that connection to history makes them more believable than any villain created from whole cloth. I dunno. I'll leave the psychological analysis to the pros and just say that Nazis are great. In movies and comics. In real life, they're only good for punching. Fuck real Nazis. What the hell was I talking about?

Ah, right. Oasis of the Zombies. Most people think it sucks, and most people are probably right. I dig it, though, and you should give it a chance. I think there's a genuinely awesome movie hidden in there if you look in the right places, and when I watch it I feel like I'm watching a far better movie than I know I really am. This thing is just begging for a remake from someone who knows how to tease out those elements of greatness. I'll help write it. Give me a call. Let's make a movie!

Now head on over to the Tomb of Anubis and see if he's recovered from the exploding semen confetti card I sent him along with The Greasy Strangler.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Jaws 3-D (1983)

Written by: Carl Gottlieb, Richard Matheson (sort of)
Directed by: Joe Alves
Dennis Quaid as Mike Brody
Bess Armstrong as Dr. Kay Morgan
Simon MacCorkindale as Philip Fitzroyce
Louis Gossett, Jr. as Calvin Bouchard

I come here to praise Jaws 3-D, not to bury it.

I've recounted elsewhere in these pages how my parents renting Jaws movies for me when I was very young and then my dad watching them with me and sitting behind me and scaring the shit out of me whenever the shark attacked or a dead body popped out was instrumental in jump-starting my love of horror. It was the original and this one that I watched over and over and over again. Jaws 2 was never at any of the video stores in town for some reason, so I didn't see that one until years later when we got satellite TV. Between Jaws, Jaws 3, and Godzilla 1985, it's amazing I ever found the time to watch anything else. I rented these movies so much that for the longest time the two Jaws movies blended together in my mind to the point that they were just one big jumble of scenes. Although you might scoff at the idea now, at that age no one is a great judge of quality. I also suspect that watching true classics along with low grade cinematic trash and enjoying them both equally at that point in my cognitive development is why, while I am now able to recognize the difference in quality, I can still get the same enjoyment from both today. I am fully aware that Jaws 3 isn't a good movie. I just don't care, and I love it.

Mike Brody is all grown up now and working at Sea World as a maintenance engineer and engaged to Dr. Kay Morgan, a marine biologist and dolphin trainer. His little brother, Sean, who has never recovered from the paralyzing hydrophobia (no, he's not rabid, put down the shotgun) brought on by the childhood shark trauma back on Amity, is coming to visit just as the park is about to open its newest and most elaborate attraction yet, a massive aquatic entertainment complex called the Undersea Kingdom.

There must be something about having a critical mass of Brody DNA in one place that attracts monster fish like Juggaloes to Faygo pop though, because no sooner has Sean dropped off his suitcases at Mike's house and hooked up with a cute water skier from one of the park's shows than people start disappearing and a 10-foot great white shark is caught swimming around inside the park's lagoon. As efforts are made to keep the shark alive and add the world's first captive great white to the media blitz surrounding the opening of the Undersea Kingdom, it becomes clear that Kay's new pet isn't the only piscine party crasher about the place.

In fact, the 10-footer that just went belly up in the kiddy pool was only a baby. A baby that was born inside the park to a prehistorically huge 35-foot-long monster that has taken up residence in one of the aeration ducts meant to pump oxygenated water into the new Undersea Kingdom exhibits (Among the many story elements that were changed or dropped as the script was fed repeatedly through a wood chipper, this shark was supposed to be the same one from Jaws 2. Can you imagine how much cooler this movie would be if the shark had a horrifically burned and scarred face with bits of skull exposed?). And don't you start asking questions about how long this behemoth has been hanging out completely motionless inside the duct while its pup grew to an angsty 10-foot shark teenager and started trying to take bites out of the tourists, or why there's only one of the damn things when great whites can give birth to up to a dozen pups at a time. Especially with such a gigantic specimen, there would be a whole flotilla of the little bastards swimming around.

Of course, having an obstruction that big in the pipe for that long can't be good for the machinery, and sure enough the pump motors burn out. When the duct gets shut down for maintenance, cutting off the steady supply of forced oxygen that kept the giant shark happy and still, mama decides it's time to come on out and belly up to the all-you-can-eat people buffet. Good thing Philip FitzRoyce, big game hunter and sport fisherman, is attending the Undersea Kingdom grand opening, and that he thought it prudent to bring a suitcase full of grenades with him. Look, I didn't write it.

Apparently neither did Richard Matheson, despite what the credits say. After Spielberg pitched a fit and threatened to leave Universal Studios when he found out they were planning to send up his masterpiece with a Joe Dante-directed National Lampoon spoof (co-written by John Hughes of all people!), the suits backpedaled and decided to make a serious sequel instead. They approached Matheson to write a treatment, which they then gave to Carl Gottlieb, who wrote a script, which they then gave to a bunch of script doctors, who must have called in some favors to the Mafia to have their connection with this movie erased from human knowledge for all time. Except for some dude called Michael Kane, who apparently wasn't made enough to keep his “additional dialogue” credit from jumping out of the screen as though it was COMING RIGHT AT YOU!

Yes, this was a member of the infamous part 3 in 3D gang, with first-and-only-time director Joe Alves thinking that jumping on the latest gimmick craze would give his freshman effort a better chance at box office success. Which turned out to be a solid gamble, as it made almost thirteen-and-a-half million dollars the first weekend and remained the strongest opening 3D movie for 20 years until one of the Spy Kids flicks dethroned it.

It was the first movie shot using the new Arriflex ArriVision single camera 3D system. Previously, 3D movies were shot in stereo at great expense and difficulty because you had to pay for two cameras, and two cameras' worth of film stock, plus they were a pain in the ass to keep aligned and if they weren't perfect the images tended to make people's eyes freak out and cause severe headaches (all but the best 3D even with today's technology does that to me, but I'll take their word for it). The ArriVision camera wasn't ready for use immediately, so filming began with an older StereoVision setup which they still used for a lot of second unit shooting. The superiority of the ArriVision system is glaringly apparent, as the bulk of the footage looks reasonably crisp but when you hit one of those scenes shot in the first week or just about anything by the second unit crew it's eye-searingly blurry even in 2D.

The experimental nature of the production becomes even more apparent in many of the effects shots. In another first, the movie's effects were composited with video gear rather than an old-fashioned optical printer because the process was faster. Of course, it also wasn't as good, especially when trying to match the video footage with the higher resolution film, and in an 11th hour decision the producers threw out almost all of the effects finished on video and redid as many as they could using an optical printer anyway. Of course, this meant that not only did they have to cut out a bunch of planned effects scenes, but they gave themselves nowhere near enough time to properly finish even the ones they kept, and the results speak for themselves. Even the notoriously over-ambitious Doctor Who serial “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” the most tragic victim of Barry Letts's obsession with CSO effects, looks significantly less shitty than any of the composite shots in Jaws 3-D, a major studio movie made ten years after that serial, which probably had a budget roughly equivalent to what the Jaws 3-D people spent on toilet paper.

And yet, in spite of all these shortcomings, I absolutely adore this movie. I've seen it literally dozens of times. I'll probably see it dozens more. When I was 6 I didn't care that the effects looked like shit. Hell, I didn't even realize they looked like shit. If they were in a movie, they were clearly done that way on purpose because the people making the movie wanted it to look like that, right? Grownups know what they're doing. You don't realize until you're a grownup yourself that kids are far smarter and grownups don't actually have a fucking clue about anything important. All we're good for is buying groceries and doing taxes.

When I watch this movie, it makes me feel like a kid again. I don't care about the weird blurry footage (ok, I care a little because my eyes suck and it makes them hurt), I don't care about the silly effects, I don't care that the movie doesn't make a lick of goddamn sense. It sucks me right in every time. The underwater footage is eerie and still feels menacing to me. The sound design, which I know like the sound of my own breathing, makes me feel like I'm right there in that tunnel with the park guests, trapped by a monster shark. When FitzRoyce is getting chomped by the shark and we see and hear it from his viewpoint inside the shark's mouth, I can feel my chest compressing and my bones cracking because that scene, more than any other, fascinated and terrified me as a kid.

Jaws 3-D is a terrible sequel. It feels like an Italian Jaws ripoff that accidentally had the wrong title card put on it at the film lab. Jaws 3-D is a great sequel. It overcame one of the weirdest developments in film history to become a tremendously entertaining movie in spite of itself. Give it another look and see if it doesn't make you smile.

See what my fellow fishermen of filmic fiascos have to say about the rest of this Platonic ideal of diminishing returns:

Seeker of Schlock -- Jaws 

Checkpoint Telstar -- Jaws 2 

Micro-Brewed Reviews -- Jaws: The Revenge