Friday, April 29, 2016

Attack of the Killer Podcast

You've probably noticed the link to these guys off to the side there for some time now. I was recently invited to join in the fun. I'll be back on from time to time, whenever they'll have me, so I'll be promoting those episodes here between my regular reviews. I encourage you to listen to all of them though. These cats put on a good show. Enjoy!

Attack of the Killer Podcast: Freaks and Mutants

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Bees (1978)

Written by: Alfredo Zacharias
Directed by: Alfredo Zacharias
John Saxon as John Norman (no, not the guy who wrote the Gor novels)
Angel Tompkins as Sandra Miller
John Carradine as Dr. Sigmund Hummel
Claudio Brook as Dr. Miller

In the early 1950s, a biologist named Warwick Kerr crossbred several species of European honey bee with the African honey bee in an attempt to create a new species of bee more suited to the hot climates of South and Central America than the various European varieties then being used across the Americas. Tropical environments tended to slow down the European bees – being accustomed to more temperate conditions – and restricted their productivity. The experiment worked. Kerr's Africanised honey bee hybrids could function perfectly well in conditions that would keep European species huddled in their hives, and produced a significantly larger amount of honey as a result.

In October of 1957, a visiting beekeeper removed the queen excluder screens from the Apis mellifera hives because he thought they were interfering with the workers' ability to move around and do their work. 26 queens escaped quarantine with swarms, and the Africanised bees quickly spread across South and Central America. Because the hybrids were able to breed with any European variety of bee, many hives were taken over either by a forced invasion where Apis mellifera swarms entered European hives and killed the queens, or by drones joining mating flights and impregnating European queens, the result of which is almost always Africainsed offspring.

For the next twenty years, Apis mellifera spread across South and Central America, earning a reputation for ferocity that far outstripped its reputation for making shitloads of honey. Africanised bees guard their hives much more aggressively, and in a much wider defensive zone, than other kinds of bees. They also designate a greater number of guard bees than other species. They are easily agitated and react poorly to even small amounts of stress, abandoning their hives to swarm and find a quieter place to live. They also have a nasty habit of chasing perceived threats up to half a mile from their hive before they'll give up the chase and go home. They attack and sting in such great numbers that even people who are not prone to allergic reactions from stings can suffer from hypertension, and even respiratory and renal failure, resulting in death. Yes, a killer bee attack can pump you so full of venom it actually overloads your kidneys.

It's understandable, then, that there would be a bit of a scare as the swarms kept creeping closer and closer to the southern border of the United States. Despite the fact that deaths from killer bee attacks number in the high ones or twos per year, they're pretty scary deaths and the public love a good panic. Hollywood is not known for sitting back and waiting to see what will happen when there's a good scare going on, so inevitably there were killer bee movies thrown into production as soon as the topic made the news. There weren't as many of them as you'd think, probably because the most high-profile one of the bunch was a tremendous flop.

As far as I know, the earliest killer bee movie was 1966's The Deadly Bees, from England. It's best known for being featured on MST3K, and it's generally pretty stodgy and boring. There was at least one TV movie about killer bees, the cleverly titled The Killer Bees from 1974. But by far the most famous killer bee movie is Irwin Allen's The Swarm from 1978. Tonight's movie was actually going to beat Allen's megabudget opus to the screen, but Warner Brothers paid the filmmakers a substantial amount of money to postpone the release of The Bees and prevent competition between the two. Turns out Warner Brothers should have hung on to that money, because it might have represented a considerable amount of their profits.

The Bees was originally supposed to be a Jack Hill movie, but the producers decided to go with Alfredo Zacharias presumably because he came a good deal cheaper. He got the inspiration for his version of the movie after his son gave him a jar of Africanised bee honey as a gift. Zacharias made the film with a largely Mexican crew and supporting cast, shooting an English and Spanish version simultaneously for a more successful international release because he believed poor dubbing work would keep audiences from taking the movie seriously. This would be an obvious place to make a joke about how the dubbing would be the last thing he needed to worry about having that effect, but you know what? I'm not going to do that because I believe to do so would be entirely missing the point in this case. Despite the main theme of environmentalism being completely sincere, it's obvious the main cast had an absolute blast making this movie and it translates to an incredibly fun viewing experience.

John Saxon, Sandra Miller, and John Carradine have an easygoing and natural chemistry that you don't see too often in movies. Sure they're all capable of good, and even great performances, but there are plenty of great performances that feel like nothing more than that: performances. Here, the three leads have such an unaffected affection for each other that you can't help but smile whenever they're on screen together.

I'm a huge John Carradine fan. I'll happily watch anything he's in, even if it's just a cameo like Night Train to Mundo Fine. The man never fails to entertain me. As much as I love the work of Saxon and Miller in this, Carradine is the shining star here. Even so near the end of his life, in one of his last major roles (by this point Carradine was mostly appearing in bit parts for a day's work, but he features heavily in The Bees, to the movie's great benefit), crippled by arthritis and in constant pain, his portrayal of Dr. Sigmund Hummel glows with life and the energy of a much younger man. His eyes always have a twinkle in them, there's always a spring in his step, and he revels in delivering his absurd dialog with a cartoonish German accent.

The budget was obviously nothing like what Irwin Allen had to work with, and yet the special effects mostly come off looking as good as anything in The Swarm (with the notable exception of when the bees are represented by fans blowing flurries of what looks like crumbled up cork at the enthusiastically flailing actors).

Out story begins as a father and son break into an apiary. The father explains that when one is poor and has many children, one must bring home much honey to feed them (apparently he's raising a family of bears). Dear ol' dad has heard that the Americans keep their best honey locked up, but he and his son quickly learn the real reason for the extra security on these hives. They are, of course, occupied by killer bees which make short work of the intruders.

The next morning, Dr. Miller's breakfast is interrupted by an angry mob of torch bearing villagers who demand an explanation for the attack on the two honey thieves. The fact that Claudio Brook was a highly respected Mexican actor capable of speaking flawless English makes the fact that he talks to the villagers by shouting at them very slowly in heavily accented pidgin English even funnier. He almost has them convinced that he needs more time to turn the “devil bee” into a good bee, when poor old dad, still lumpy from all his stings, dumps his dead son on the ground for all to see. A riot ensues, the compound is destroyed, and Dr. Miller is stung to death by the bees while trying to rescue his notes from the fire.

We now meet Dr. John Norman, trying to convince a conference of United Nations officials that their countries should be joining in the effort to stop the advance of killer bees because some day they could all be affected. They all dismiss his claims and act tough until Dr. Sigmund Hummel knocks a jar full of bees onto the floor to make a point. The officials all have a fit when they think they're under attack by killer bees. There aren't nearly enough bees in the jar to be dangerous, but they cut the legs out from under the various delegates' tough talk well enough.

Later that night, Sandra Miller arrives at Dr. Norman's apartment building. A couple of thugs try to mug her in the elevator, but get an unpleasant surprise when they find out the hard way the strange looking case she's carrying contains not valuables but the last captive members of Dr. Miller's killer bee hives (side note – Is there a single 70's movie featuring street toughs where at least one of them isn't wearing a stocking cap placed jauntily atop his head without covering his ears at all? And does that drive anyone else as crazy as it does me?).

She ends up spending the night since she's been traveling nonstop from Mexico after witnessing her husband killed and her home burned to the ground, and is completely exhausted. Dr. Hummel arrives in the morning, and we come to discover he's her uncle. The trio bond over breakfast, and begin working together to solve the killer bee problem.

Meanwhile, ConHugeCo Honey International Enterprises Holdings Limited is scheming to smuggle some of the escaped bees into the United States since John, Sandra, and Sigmund refused their offer to work with them in domesticating the bees. They send an agent to bribe one of their under-the-table business contacts into smuggling bees in some kind of ridiculous belt contraption. This part of the movie is actually really poorly put together and it's a little difficult to figure out what's going on unless you're paying close attention, but basically the belt failed and the bees got loose on the plane, which made an emergency landing. The bees escape, and in an undefined but obviously very short amount of time, there's a swarm big enough to blot out the sun over a beach, which results in some of the most delightfully hammy reaction shots ever committed to film.

The massive swarm takes up residence in a cave somewhere, and again, it's a little difficult to figure out what's going on, but from what I pieced together, the cave is very near a gigantic radio telescope that gives off tremendous amounts of radiation which could potentially alter the bees' genetic makeup in unforeseen ways. Or something science-y like that. I won't spoil any more for you. Just go bask in all the cheesy, ridiculous glory of The Bees.

I'm so, so glad I finally bought this. When Vinegar Syndrome release the Blu ray a few months ago, I passed. And I kept seeing it, and I kept passing. I love a good Nature Run Amok movie, but how many different ways can you do the killer bee formula? The Swarm can be fun, but it's way too long. The Deadly Bees is a great MST3K episode but it's a goddamn boring piece of crap on its own. Did the world really need yet another killer bee movie? Actually, yes. This one, and only this one.

Killer bees finally arrived in the United States in 1985, in the San Joaquin Valley in California. It's suspected they arrived hidden in a shipment of oil drilling pipe. I remember as a kid seeing the occasional killer bee scare piece on the news, and checking out “scary animal” books from the school library that made me terrified of killer bees and various other creatures that nature was clearly sending to kill us all. Of course, anything much north of the Arkansas/Missouri border was too cold for the little fuckers, and living in Iowa I had nothing at all to worry about, but when you're six or seven years old, you don't think of things like that. You'd have had no better luck convincing me that killer bees weren't mere minutes away than you would have had convincing me that I didn't see a hodag in the grove behind my house one rainy night (I totally did).

The panic eventually subsided, although for some reason in recent years there have been a spate of new and presumably terrible killer bee movies. I feel safe in saying you can probably skip all of them. I know I have. For that matter, you can keep your Michael Caine and his marvelous Eye Bee, and no, I haven't seen the dog's meat. There's only one killer bee movie that has my heart, and if you give it a chance, it just might capture yours too.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Indigenous (2014)

Written by: Max Roberts
Directed by: Alastair Orr
Lindsey McKeon as Steph
Zachary Soetenga as Scott
Sofia Pernas as Elena
Pierson Fode as Trevor
Jamie Anderson as Charlie
Juanxo Villaverde as Julio
Laura Penuela as Carmen

I was tempted to kick off this review by proclaiming it another episode of Wasting My Time So You Don't Have To Theater, but I changed my mind just as I started writing. I realized I didn't hate this movie enough to write it off completely. That's not to say you should bother watching it unless you're a chupacabra completist who absolutely can't live without watching everything related to the goat sucking South American demon. This flick, while not exactly boring, has nothing to offer but some nice scenery and a few good ideas that it never follows through on, which is incredibly frustrating.

A group of friends of indeterminate age decide to have one last big vacation together before adult life separates them forever, so they head to Panama for some surfing and jungle hiking. Once there, they befriend some Panamanians at a club and hear about a waterfall hidden deep in a part of the jungle known only to the locals, and decide that they simply have to end their vacation by filling their unguarded genitalia with foreign parasites and bacteria. Despite warnings from Julio that the patch of jungle where the waterfall is located has become unsafe recently for some unspecified reason, they hitch a ride there first thing the next morning with Carmen as their guide. Of course, the reason that part of the jungle is unsafe is that it's full of monsters.

The movie opens with a Blair Witch-style panicked video of a single person lost and in danger. Then we jump back to the beginning of the narrative and see Scott and Steph getting ready to meet their friends in Panama, who have sent them a video greeting telling them to get their asses in gear and join the party. Most of their packing and preparation, as well as the flight and leaving the airport in Panama, are shown via the perspective of Scott's camera, so right off the bat we're set up to expect this is a found footage movie. Done right, found footage can be a tremendously effective storytelling format. Laugh if you will, but by and large the Paranormal Activity franchise are some pretty solid spook shows, and of course The Bay and Europa Report are excellent movies. Unfortunately, most found footage movies are nearly unwatchable piles of crap, and I didn't like my chances with this one. Then, after about ten minutes, the movie gives up on that angle and switches to a traditional narrative. There is a reason for all the found footage stuff, but it's the biggest offender of those wasted ideas I was talking about earlier. More on that in a bit.

The characters are such generic, underdeveloped cyphers that I can't tell if they come off that way because of the performances or the way they were written. Considering most of the cast are fairly seasoned actors, I'm guessing it's more the writer's fault. Elena and Charlie have just opened a fancy restaurant together, with her being the entrepreneur and him the chef. There's some tension over her taking all the credit because she's the public face of the business, but then they just never mention it again. Steph repeatedly talks about being accepted into veterinarian school like she's going to Harvard, suggesting that it's going to be important to the plot somehow, and then they just never mention it again. You get the idea. It's like this isn't a finished script, but a template from a screenwriting software program that the writer just plugged character and location names into, hit “print”, and called it a day.

Which brings us back to that found footage angle. When Scott splashes his call for help across all of his social media platforms, the video goes viral. Suddenly the Panamanian government's attempts to quietly extract the lost Americans from the jungle and not put a huge chupacabra-shaped black mark on their tourism trade turns into a multinational rescue mission. The creature chasing them is caught on video as the helicopter comes in for extraction, with the result that every alleged cryptid sighting in history and video going back to the Patterson footage is up for serious re-evaluation with open minds, and hundreds of monster hunters across the globe renewing efforts with full funding to find the answers they seek.

The end. Just as the movie acts like it's going to get interesting for a moment, it ends. Now, I realize this is a low budget flick and they couldn't exactly afford to make a second half of the movie showing a worldwide cryptid hunt, but I've seen cheaper movies do more with less. There's no reason that with a few more passes on the script they couldn't have said some interesting things without having to spend a ton of money. Hell, I just re-watched Larry Fessenden's excellent The Last Winter recently, and that's a thoughtful and terrifying eco-horror apocalypse movie where the world ends and all you ever see of the end of humanity as we know it is a few ghostly caribou and a woman standing in a puddle at the end! It's all in the sound design and the ominous subject matter.

If this turned out to be the proof-of-concept movie to raise funds for bigger and better things as the beginning of a franchise of modern cryptid movies with bigger budgets, better scripts, and more action, I would be able to forgive the movie's shortcomings a lot more easily. I realize that's almost certainly wishful thinking, but you never know. That is certainly something I'd love to see. As it is, I'd just settle for a little more explanation of the monsters. Why did the chupacabra suddenly take up residence in that part of the jungle? There are some very vague hints that the reason the Darien Gap was never developed wasn't that it's a virtually impassable swamp, but that it was teeming with monsters. This is contradicted by statements from Julio and Carmen that the area of jungle containing the waterfall was considered a paradise as recently as their childhood, and that the place was frequented by many locals up until just a few years previously when people suddenly started disappearing. So did the monsters move in because of the ready food supply? Were they disturbed from hibernation by logging or other industrial operations in the jungle? Were they driven from their usual habitat by hunting or an invasive species?

In the end, it's just another generic monster movie that spends no time on the interesting parts, way too much time with the boring, obnoxious characters, and features a monster that turns out to be just another lame third-generation knockoff of the creatures from The Descent. I love that movie; it deserves to be influential, and in its own context the design of the monsters make perfect sense. Inevitably, almost every wanna-be horror director who was inspired by it took away all the wrong lessons and they all seem to think that Descent's undeniable mojo comes solely from the look of the creatures, and not from the tight script, great performances, and white-knuckle tense direction.

But hey, at least it's better than Animal.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Uninvited (1988)

Written by: Greydon Clark
Directed by: Greydon Clark
George Kennedy as Mike Harvey
Toni Hudson as Rachel
Eric Larson as Martin
Alex Cord as Walter
Clu Gulager as Albert

George Kennedy has died. Another living legend lost to us while Republican politicians who make the woods witch from Pumpnkinhead look like the epitome of health and vitality continue to corrode the morals and ethics of our country by promoting family values while sending dick pics to terrified underage sex slaves to fritter away the time before they vote down the democratic senator filibustering for all he's worth to allow the American people to get more than a head cold without going bankrupt from medical bills.

This artless segue brings me to my next point, which is that this is definitely a Republican horror movie. So often genre flicks are accused of having a right wing bent. Have sex out of wedlock and you die, etc. Well, this flick is one in which the human villains are multimillionaire capitalists who get busted for embezzling tax-free money from the banking system and go on the run, only to have a mutant creature hunt them down and kill them one by one. Defraud out of taxlock and you die. Donald Trump's worst nightmare, except instead of financial lawyers, the thing hunting his worthless carcass is an escaped lab animal; a cat made out of cancer to be precise. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Two scientists (one of whom is played by our auteur du crap himself, Greydon Clark), are about to perform exploratory surgery on one of their lab animals. It seems the floofy orange cat has developed a strange tumor as a result of whatever experiments they had been performing on it, and they need to find out of it's benign or not. The cat, however, has other ideas, and skedaddles as they're transferring it to the examination table. They panic and immediately order the entire building to be put on radiation lock down. You'd think if they were going to be working with such a dangerous subject they'd be wearing some kind of protective gear, or at least bother to close the goddamn lab door, but I guess that's why I'm not a scientist.

When radiation-suited guards finally corner the cat (which has been yowling non-stop since it first appeared on screen in that way that anyone who has ever spent any length of time around cats knows they never actually do) in a stair well, it barfs up another cat, this one all lumpy and horribly deformed, which slaughters every one of the heavily armed men in a matter of seconds. Yes, you read that right. The tumor growing in our malicious moggy wasn't just any old neoplasm, it was a whole new creature, able to detach itself and leave its host to attack, then crawl back inside Mewford T. Pusser when its grisly errands are done. Despite the “radiation lock down”, which amounted to little more than closing the doors of the parking garage, the kitty manages to escape after re-ingesting its passenger, which looks not a little bit like Donald Trump before his concubines slather him with fake tan lotion in the morning like the Warboys suiting up Immortan Joe.

Meanwhile, we meet Bobbie and Suzanne, two girls out on the town. They appear to have run out of money in a fancy part of whatever city they're supposed to be in, and find themselves caught in the rain carrying what little luggage they have and dressed in little more than bikinis and shawls. Coming upon the inviting lights of an upscale hotel, they decide to go in and spend a few minutes in the lobby out of the rain until security kicks them out. Instead, they meet the owner of the hotel Walter “Wall Street” Graham. Credit to actor Alex Cord, Graham seems convincingly and genuinely nice to the girls, until he invites them to a party on his private yacht the next day. That sets off some scumbag alarms, all right. He's called away from their dinner to deal with some bit of business, and the girls are left to their own devices in the hotel until the following day.

That bit of business arrived at the hotel in the form of George Kennedy, riding in the coolest old limousine you've ever seen. Renting that thing and paying for Kennedy's appearance must have been half the budget. As it turns out, Graham is involved in worse things than trying to trap a couple of young girls on his rape barge. Mike Harvey (Kennedy) is pissed because he and Graham have been embezzling a fortune from somewhere or other, and their man on the inside who has been facilitating the operation is getting cold feet. They execute the poor bastard by drowning him, and decide that it's time to get out while the getting is good.

The next day, the girls meet a trio of guys at a beach front bistro and invite them along to the party as backup in case Graham tries to get handsy with them. Needless to say, Graham isn't pleased with the extra party guests, Harvey even less so. They're about to send them back to shore in the launch with Graham's right-hand man Albert, when they are informed that the SEC are onto them, and since the authorities are on their way right now, there's no time to get rid of the extra kids. They'll just have to make like life is peachy and do away with the surplus cargo once they're in international waters. Of course, we wouldn't have much of a movie if they just took off on the boat and that was the end of it. There's one more stowaway on that boat, and as everyone is about to find out, it's a lot more dangerous than a couple of slimy businessmen.

I was surprised to learn that Greydon Clark has only directed 20 movies, at least according to the IMDB. I always thought he was a b-movie filmmaker of the Fred Olen Ray variety, cranking out a movie or two every year, with hundreds to his name. Of course, Ray's movies are generally far more entertaining than Clark's, but there are a lot of super prolific b-movie directors whose output is considerably worse. I don't know why he hasn't gotten more work. He doesn't have a particularly unique style – his movies are virtually indistinguishable from any one of thousands of other direct-to-video movies from the 80's and 90's – but the movies of his that I've seen are produced with a competent and workmanlike level of skill. Sure, there are all the usual pitfalls of low budget film making; sometimes shoddy effects, less than stellar performances from some of the actors, continuity problems (I'm looking at you, sheriff who gets shot and slides down a wall twice in Final Justice), etc. But on the whole, Clark's movies are a lot easier to sit through than some of the crap we've all endured.

This movie is no exception. The various puppets used to represent the creature are uneven at best. The thing changes size throughout the movie, but I think that was intentional rather than a continuity screw up. The bigger hand puppet versions that have a little more detail look a lot better than the little one that comes out of the other cat's mouth, and the less said about the toy boat sinking at the end, the better. Where the FX really stand out in this flick are the gore scenes. The best one is when the creature rips Mike Harvey's heel and Achilles tendon to pieces, but there are several other bits involving lots of spraying goo and pulsating air bladders that look pretty gnarly as well.

The performances, even from the actors playing the kids, are pretty decent. Eric Larson as Martin is the best one of that bunch. The rest of the younger cast manage not to veer too far into, “Holy shit that guy is so annoying, please kill him RIGHT NOW!” territory, but some of them do nudge up against it from time to time.

Of course, the best of the lot are Alex Cord, Clu Gulager, an George Kennedy, although George seems to be pretty bored through most of the movie, probably just waiting for his check to clear so he could get the hell out of there. He does perk up some during his final scenes, where the cat monster damn near tears his foot off, and he winds up poisoned by its bite and dying in agony with pulsating boils oozing pus all over his body.

I know we're supposed to be doing this as a tribute to Kennedy, and this counts in that it is a movie which he appeared in, but damn if Clu Gulager doesn't steal the whole show. Of course, he steals most of the shows he's in. I fucking love that guy, and you should too. He's great here as Alfred, the put-upon manservant of Walter Graham. During the parts where he's forced to do awful things against his will, like help with murders and disposing of bodies, he injects some real pathos into the role and you feel sorry for him. Later on he gets drunk to try and forget the things he's seen and done and will likely have to do again in the future, and his goofing around is a nice reprieve from the rest of the movie until his super-hammy death. He also for some reason is wearing this ridiculous set of false teeth that stick out of his mouth, and between that and the way he plays the part, Alfred puts me in mind of what would happen if Harold from The Red Green Show wound up being a criminal henchman.

There you have it. I'm sure some of my compatriots will delve deeper into the story of the man, the myth, the legend, George Kennedy, taking a look at some of his bigger and better roles and with a greater knowledge of the action and Western genres he more often than not was known for working in. We here at Cinemasochist Apocalypse just wanted to balance that out by reminding you that he also once got mauled by a lumpy sock puppet cat monster. You're welcome.

This review is a part of Petroni Fide, a round table tribute to the late great George Kennedy. Hit the links below to see what my cohort of Kennedy fans have to say about George's other appearances.

Checkpoint Telstar: The Human Factor
Psychoplasmics: Delta Force
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Demonwarp
3B Theater: Nightmare At Noon

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Critters (1986)

Written by: Dominic Muir and Stephen Herek, with additional scenes by Don Opper
Directed by: Stephen Herek
Dee Wallace Stone as Helen Brown
Billy Green Bush as Jay Brown
Scott Grimes as Brad Brown
M Emmet Walsh as Sheriff Harv
Don Opper as Charlie

I introduced my daughter to the Critters movies last summer, and she loved them. She's obsessed with getting $300 because one of the vendors at G-Fest last year had a life-size Critter statue for sale at that price. We watch a lot of horror movies together. There are probably not too many little girls who, when given an information sheet to fill out about themselves to hang up in the classroom, put down Dog Soldiers as their favorite movie.

Just this evening I had a conversation with my mom wherein she asked if there were any movies on at the theater the kids wanted to see besides Kung Fu Panda 3, which I took them to last weekend. We all loved it, incidentally. I mentioned Beez wanted to see The 5th Wave, and mom immediately gasped in an amusingly dramatic way, “Don't take her to that, it's PG-13!” I laughed.

“Mom,” I said. “You realize the kids have seen plenty of PG-13 and even R-rated movies with me. We watch them together. They know it's all make-believe. I explained to them years ago that it's all done with makeup and special effects. The actors get up and wash it all off at the end of the day and go home and have dinner with their families. I wouldn't watch anything I was unsure of cold with them. Every horror movie they see, I've already seen and have judged them capable of understanding what they'll see in it.”

“I know,” she said. “But you never know.”

This movie is based on a book for 13 year olds,” says I. “I'm sure it's PG-13 for a couple of salty words, nothing more. You remember when you and dad used to rent Jaws for me all the time? It was rated PG because PG-13 hadn't been invented yet, and if it were made today with not a single frame changed, it might even get an R. Don't you remember Ben Gardner's chewed-up head with its eyeball hanging out falling out of the boat? Quint's death scene where the shark bites him and you can hear his ribs shatter as he vomits up a huge gout of blood and screams like a dying pig before getting dragged into the water?”

I didn't even mention the beaver shot in the beginning.

You might not know this, but as much as I love Godzilla and all that other stuff, if pressed to pick a single favorite movie it would have to be Jaws.”

“I never would have guessed,” she said.

“And that is largely down to all the times we watched it when I was little, with dad sitting behind me and grabbing my shoulders and yelling 'RRAAAAGH!' when the scary music hit a crescendo or the shark jumped out. It's the stuff memories are made of.”

As you may have ascertained from the preceding conversation, I wasn't allowed to watch R-rated movies as a kid. Oddly enough, the movie that opened the floodgates was Carnosaur, because it had dinosaurs in it and mom knew how much I loved dinosaurs. Then it came out that I'd been watching R-rated movies at friends' houses for years and she just sort of gave up. But long before that, despite my not being anywhere near 13 yet, I remember renting Critters and being blown away by it. I mentioned ages ago in my review for Grim that, although I never got busted cranking the cyclopean butter churn (praise Cthulhu), my folks had a knack for walking in on questionable parts of movies I was watching. This time it was actually dad, passing the TV room just as the shape-shifting bounty hunter melts and re-forms into Johnny Steele.

This is, I should note, my first ever review by request, and for a very special requester at that. Not long ago, Beez asked me, “When you write about movies, do you ever do movies that people ask you to do?”

“No, but then again no one's ever asked. I suppose it depends on the movie. I try to mostly write about movies not many other people write about or have even heard of. Why?”

Would you ever write about something that we watch? Like Critters?”

Possibly. Why? Wait, this is just because you want to watch Critters again, isn't it?”

“Maybe. Yes.”

For a moment I thought, no, Critters is too mainstream, too obvious. And then I realized that I don't think a single one of my b-movie reviewing compatriots has done a piece on this flick. It occurred to me that it has been relegated to cult status, and not that many people care about this franchise anymore. That's a damn shame, because even though the third and fourth movies don't hold up as well to viewing through adult eyes, the first two flicks in the series are absolutely delightful and deserve to be held in higher regard.

The movie opens much like Night of the Creeps, with a mishap aboard some kind of intergalactic prison. Some things called Crites have broken free of their containment and stolen one of the fastest ships in the facility. We don't get a look at them yet other than a clawed hand operating the ship's controls, but the prison's warden is extremely concerned at their escape so they must be some pretty frightening characters. He calls in a couple of shape-shifting bounty hunters with featureless glowing blobs for heads and informs them that the Crites' last known heading was in the vicinity of a planet called Earth, and they'd better get there and re-capture the creatures soon or there won't be anyone left to appreciate their efforts.

Meanwhile, we're introduced to the inhabitants of a sleepy little town in rural Kansas, where the most exciting thing up until the invasion of a group of carnivorous hedgehog piranhas from space was a bar fight at the bowling alley. Of course, the Crites land their stolen spacecraft in the pasture of the Brown family farm on the edge of town and once all the cows have been consumed, the voracious creatures move in on the next largest source of food in the area – people. In a pleasant departure from the usual formula for movies like this where the kid is the only one who knows what's going on and no one believes him, Jay is in the process of busting his son Brad sneaking out his bedroom window when they both see the ship come down in the distance. They go to investigate and find the mutilated carcass of one of their cows, and the action is off and running.

Rather than waste a bunch of time with the kid trying to convince the adults of danger, the Brown family finds themselves under siege by the Crites pretty much immediately. The tension instead comes from hoping the bounty hunters can track the creatures down in time to prevent the whole town from becoming a buffet.

Next to the Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the Critters are probably the most famous and recognizable creations of the Chiodo Brothers special effects studio. The tiny, razor-toothed furballs are a great monster design, from both a practical standpoint as well as an iconic one, brilliant in their simplicity. With the exception of the man-in-a-suit super-Critter at the end of the movie, the creatures are all quite small and realized through puppets both animatronic and hand-operated, which means they're incredibly versatile and can occupy pretty much any space on the set they need to. Their form of locomotion is probably the most clever thing about them. Need Crites moving at high-speed to chase the actors? Just cover some basketballs in fur and throw them across the set! You would think the major down-side to having such small monsters would be losing a lot of detail and mobility, but the Chiodo Brothers wring an incredible range of expressiveness out of the puppets. Corey Burton's vocalizations for them add even more personality. Rather than just make a bunch of random animal noises, he actually created a Crite language, incorporating elements of French and Japanese.

The Critters are also very memorable creatures for the exact opposite reason than the xenomorph from Alien. Where every inch of that creature was covered in strange, biomechanical detail that draws the eye all over its anatomy to find new surprises with each viewing, the Critters are one of the least complicated monster designs in all of film. Just balls of shaggy fur with big red eyes, split across the middle by enormous mouths filled with row upon row of needle sharp teeth. The bare essentials of nightmare fuel.

They're also damn funny, which is probably the main reason this movie is often dismissed as a Gremlins knockoff. Aside from having small monsters, a comedic streak, and a PG-13 rating, I don't think that's a fair cop. According to Stephen Herek, a great deal of pre-production had already been done in 1984, before Gremlins ever hit theaters, and that rewrites were undertaken once Spielberg and Dante's movie became a hit in order to decrease the similarities between the two properties even further.

If you're looking for something to ease your young'uns into the genre with, Critters should definitely be on the menu. No graphic nudity or sex, and just a sprinkling of that good old 80's gore wrapped up in a funny and fast-paced package with a solid script and good performances from some reliable character actors. Of course, the biggest cuss word in the movie comes as the punchline to a great gag and is spoken by a scary-but-cute foot-tall furry alien. If your kid is in the habit of parroting back things they think are funny to the point that words lose all meaning, view at your own risk.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

B-Fest 2016 Part 2: What A Lovely Day

Friday morning saw our entire group gather – and rather overwhelm, as this year saw a bumper crop of our crew in town – at the Omega for B-Fest Power Breakfast. In the run-up to eating nothing but snack food out of a cooler for 24 hours, getting one last solid meal in your stomach is always a good idea. In this case, the meal is so solid I usually end up not being hungry again until well into the Fest itself. The Omega does a mean chopped steak and eggs. And a mean everything else, really. That place is just awesome in general. I had the pleasure of taking my friends there after that King Diamond concert I mentioned previously, and the only thing better than their reactions to the complimentary coffee cake were their reactions to the rest of the food.

After breakfast, Santo, Jessica, Bill, Lisa, Fistula, Ferox, Jacob, and Carl all caravaned out to Berwyn to hit up Horrobles and Reel Art. If you find yourself in the area, you should definitely stop in and check these places out. Owned by different people but located next door to each other, Horrorbles carries horror merchandise (bet you couldn't have figured that out from just the name) while Reel Art caters to comics, pop culture and science fiction. I had to limit myself to just a Bemular figure from Reel Art, because Horrorbles was having a sale on their large NECA figures, so I wound up trying to figure out how to fit a 1/4 scale Xenomorph into the back of Santo's van along with all our coolers and various other Fest luggage.

On the way back into Evanston, the various car loads split up, and the bunch in Santo's van decided to stop for supper at the first place we saw. This wound up being an Ethiopian restaurant, which displeased me greatly. Now, those who have been following me for a while know I'm a relatively adventurous eater. Provided it's not rotten or still moving or lutefisk, I'll try just about anything once, so you might be wondering why going here would disappoint me. Well, it's because the place smelled amazing and the food all looked absolutely delicious and I've never tried Ethiopian food before, so of course I was still so full from the heaping mound of protein from breakfast that I couldn't even think about trying to put away an entire entree. I settled for some chilled cucumber and yogurt soup with mint and honey from the appetizer menu. I can't remember what it was called, but it was fantastic. There's a two day black metal and beer festival hosted by Hammerheart Brewing called Ostarablot coming up this spring in Minneapolis, and there's an Ethiopian place right near the venue, so I'm looking forward to trying some more of the cuisine before getting my face melted off.

Onward to Norris Auditorium. The place was packed by the time we got there, just half an hour before the movies were to start. I have a feeling they may have oversold the tickets this year, because I don't remember it ever being quite this cramped before. Oh well. I got my aisle seat near the back so it all worked out. I got to take part in my second favorite gag of the Fest before the movies even started. Right as they were about to roll The Adventures of Hercules, Tim, Mike, Fistula and myself ran up on stage with a couple cans of edible silver cake spray paint. Some of you may remember the customer reviews for this product on Amazon going viral shortly after Mad Max: Fury Road came out, almost all of them being from Immortan Joe and his Half-Life Warboys. We all blasted our teeth shiny and chrome and roared, “WITNESS ME!” to the crowd before running back to our seats to chants of WITNESS!

Movie time. First up was the even loopier sequel to the already pretty fucking loopy Lou Ferrigno Hercules flick from Cannon. If you thought the stop-motion robot monsters in the first one were ridiculous, just you wait until you see Hercules and King Minos turn into Pink Floyd laserium versions of King Kong and the T-rex and wage their final battle for the fate of the world in a laser light show among the stars. It's even dumber when you realize that they literally just rotoscoped the footage from the battle in the original King Kong. I thought El Santo was going to burst a blood vessel laughing.

If the cake paint gag was my second favorite joke of the fest, my first hands down came during this movie. Someone with a great deal more artistic talent than I had made some large signs in the style of the old Batman TV show, reading BIFF!, POW!, ZOCKO!, and the like to hold up on the screen every time Hercules punched something, except they were written in Greek. Genius. They also had a beautifully drawn picture of Mothra to hold up every time the twin fairy oracle appeared.

Next up was the Italian Qatermass wanna-be, Caltiki the Immortal Monster. I quite like this movie. It's beautifully and atmospherically photographed by Mario Bava, has some surprisingly gruesome deaths for its time, and features some great miniature practical effects during the climax with flamethrower tanks fighting the blob monster. Unfortunately, it's not really a good B-Fest movie since up to the point of that final battle, next to nothing actually happens except a lot of Bullshit 50s Science Jargon ™. You don't want your crowd falling asleep to the movie in the number two slot, so it's a good thing that next up was Americathon.

I'd never even heard of this movie until I saw it on the schedule for this year, but what a fun surprise it was! In the near future, an imbecilic president played by John Ritter has brought the country to the brink of financial ruin. With a super wealthy Native American casino owner about to call in his debt of four billion dollars, the president's emergency cabinet meeting decides to hold a month-long telethon to raise the money. An opposing faction from within the administration, who feels America's time has come and gone and wants to see us fall into the hands of the United Hebrab Nation (yes, the Hebrews and the Arabs have finally made peace and that's what they decided to call themselves), who are waiting in the wings to buy us up after the bankruptcy. Against all odds, the telethon is a success and the country is saved. This one is a real hoot. Have some friends over, drink some beers, and have yourselves an Americathon party.

Following that blast of insanity was the much more sedated Calling Dr. Death, one of Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Inner Sanctum Mystery movies. So sedated, in fact, that Chaney's entire inner monologue, of which there is a great deal, is whispered to himself. A lot of people cleared out during this one, getting a head start on finding a place to sleep through the over night lineup. I stuck around out of curiosity because I'd never seen one of these before, and found it to be an agreeable experience. We knocked out some fun jokes at the movie's expense, and I enjoyed the movie too. Also, Patricia Morison is a knockout.

I hung back and watched the Wizard of Speed and Time stompers from the seats again. It's just not as much fun without Malorie there to stomp with me. There was some difficulty getting the crunchy and well-used print to play a second time, resulting in some strange warped images and sounds coming from the projection system. Since they never seem to do any shorts any more (I for one would like to see the return of What Is Communism?), Wizard is our only holdover from the film days. Granted, going digital opens the Fest up to a great deal more options for choosing movies, but playing everything on DVD is just too coldly efficient. I miss the days when a film break would elicit cheers from the crowd, followed by boos when they got it fixed. Some of the charm definitely went out of the event when the film days passed us by. Maybe some year some eager and enthusiastic new A&O crew will reinstate it for old times' sake. Although this year's A&O bunch were fantastic, but more on that later.

I stuck around for Plan 9 again this year, sitting in the back to watch it with Fistula and Ferox for the first time in fourteen years. That was a good feeling. The old band, back together again.

The blaxploitation slot this year was once again dominated by none other than the great and mighty Rudy Ray Moore, and his Dolemite sequel, The Human Tornado. This movie is nuttier than a bad of mixed nuts, and I love it to pieces. I couldn't wait to see the crowd's reaction to it, and it certainly seemed like everyone else loved it as much as I do. Unfortunately, the late night on Thursday was starting to catch up with me, and I had to tap out and miss the last half hour. At least I got to sleep through fucking Garbage Pail Kids. Fuck Anthony Newley.

I woke up in time to catch the last few minutes of Moon Zero Two, which I've seen before but didn't remember a thing about because it's so boring. It looks nice, though.

My first full movie post-nap was the KO Brothers' sponsorship, Low Blow, starring Leo Fong. Fong claims to have been trained by Bruce Lee, although after watching him barely do any fighting during the movie, and what little he did being pretty uninspired, I rather suspect his being “trained” by Bruce Lee was the equivalent of Chino Marino from the Deftones constantly bothering Mike Patton to do a side project with him and getting rejected every time because he's an obnoxious dork. Fong just figured he spent enough time irritating Lee by calling him up and following him around begging to be trained, that he must have learned at least a little something from him that he could make the claim in a movie. The first half of this flick takes forever to find its feet and figure out what the hell kind of movie it's going to be. Is it a cult movie? Is it a detective movie? Is it a kung fu movie? Eventually all the elements gel together, round about the time Fong beats up a bunch of thugs on an abandoned farm and throws one of them into a pile of random puppies before cutting the roof off their car with a gigantic angle grinder he finds laying on the ground. It's too bad the cult stuff never really went anywhere, as that was the most entertaining part of the movie. I'm pretty sure Cameron Mitchell didn't even know where he was during the filming, and Akosua Busia, who played his second in command, seems to believe she's in a much better movie than she really is. At first I thought she was ferociously chewing the scenery, but then I realized that no, she's just actually a good actress and just appears to be overdoing it because everyone else in the movie looks like they're about to fall asleep. If the first half of the movie almost put me back to sleep, the second half was like a cinematic energy drink. By the time this thing was over I was wide awake and ready to rock for the rest of the Fest.

There were a lot of unknowns for me in this year's lineup, and The 5th Musketeer was no different. I like a good adventure where swashes are buckled and chandeliers are swung from and duels are fought with swords, so I was ready to give this one a chance. When the first name in the credits was Sylvia Kristel, the movie had my attention. Then Ursula Andress. Then Alan Hale, Jr. and Beau Bridges. What the hell!? And music by Riz “Cannibal Holocaust” Ortolani! OK, movie, let's do this! The general consensus was that this movie just turned out to be too good for B-Fest, and I can see why. It had fantastic production value, fine performances from everyone (including a visibly intoxicated Kristel). But like I said, I enjoy a good adventure story, so I had a good time with this one in spite of its apparent quality.

Any disappointment in the previous entries was completely forgotten once Roar hit the screen. This movie must be seen to be believed. Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren bough a lion preserve in Africa, and to prove to the world that the lions, tigers, leopards, and various other big cats living there were snuggly kitties rather than vicious killers, they shot a movie there. A movie that is 90 minutes of Marshall, Hedren, daughter Melanie Griffith, her two brothers, and several of the preserve's staff being brutally mauled, laughing it off as the cats just wanting to play while blood pours from their wounds. At one point you can actually hear Griffith's scalp tear while a lioness is chewing on her. The day after B-Fest, this movie sold out on Amazon. They probably have more in stock by now. You should really get a copy. It's sheer insanity.

After that heaping helping of crazy, almost anything would be a letdown. Doubly so if it's a deeply boring movie about roller derby that promises to be fun in the first five minutes, and then immediately turns into a relationship drama where no one's even wearing goddamn skates! If they'd shot the whole thing on wheels, Kansas City Bomber might have been worth a watch. As it is, this is like some godawful horseshit frat rock band like Breaking Benjamin following Strapping Young Lad on a concert bill.

Fortunately, the last movie of the Fest ramped the crazy back up to 11 and then snapped the knob off the amp. Sponsored by none other than Captain Telstar (he's gotta teach stuff), who introduced the movie onstage by saying, “The first fifteen seconds are a little slow, and then a pterosaur belly flops onto a highway in front of a bus full of kids which causes an earthquake and then Hong Kong explodes. After that, things get nutty,” the audience was treated to one of my favorite loony flicks of all time, Super Infra-Man. Basically, Runme and Run Run Shaw caught an episode of Kamen Rider on TV one day and said, “Ooh, ooh, us too!” Then they took a shitload of speed and got really drunk and made this testament to cosmic insanity. I can't even count how many times I made my parents rent this for me when I was a kid, and I'd watch it multiple times every time I had the tape, probably just to make sure I really had seen what I thought I was seeing. Mount Devil explodes to reveal the secret base of Princess Dragon Mom, who, with her army of prehistoric mutant monsters, intends to take over the world. The only thing standing in her way is a cybernetic superhero called Infra-Man, and his ultimate weapon, the Thunderball Fists. Yes, you can have such a thing. I love showing this movie to people who have never seen it and watching it melt their brains.

After the Fest was over, some of this year's new A&O team were asking people about their experience at the doors. We stopped and talked to them for a while about how this started out being about the movies for all of us, but over the years as we got to know each other, it had become more like a family reunion, and about all the little traditions we have now that surround the event. They seemed genuinely interested and excited to be a part of this great thing called B-Fest. Many of them were even in the theater watching the movies for quite a bit of the show. It's great to have people who actually care about B-Fest running things again. Several times in recent years it felt like the organizers had drawn the short straws or got stuck doing it for extra credit or something and really didn't want to be there. This year, I think we've made some converts.

Once we'd all cleaned the nerd funk off ourselves (and it was mighty this year, since the air conditioning in the auditorium didn't get turned on until halfway through the Fest) and had our Portillo's Italian beef and hotdog repast, Santo, Jessica, Fistula, Ferox and I headed downtown for some top shelf bourbon at Delilah's. It had been a few years since any of us had gone, and we were wondering if we had all gotten too old to be able to do something like that after the battle of will that is B-Fest. So we glued in our dentures extra tight, oiled up the wheels on our Zimmer frames, took an extra dose of Metamucil, and set off. Turns out we were feeling unusually spry this year, and had a nice relaxing evening drinking excellent whiskey and hollering at each other over the din of the bar.

Since I wasn't driving back home into the teeth of a massive winter storm for the first time in three years, I stuck around a little later so I could have breakfast at Marilyn's with the few remaining Festers. Over bacon Belgian waffles and omelets, we recounted our favorite memories from this year and said our fond farewells. It always takes forever to get here, and it's always over before you're ready. Until next year, my friends.

May Tor bless you and keep you.
May Criswell make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.
May Bela lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

B-Fest 2016 Part 1: What A Day

This year my original B-Fest crew was reunited in the theater for the first time since 2002, although we didn't make the trip together. Hard to believe it was fourteen years ago we first set out with no plan and no money, only a vague idea of where we were going, watched 24 hours of delirious b-movies and then had an even more delirious drive home immediately after the last set of credits wrapped. Fistula and Ferox arrived Thursday night, but I rolled out Wednesday morning this year. After getting my car unloaded and receiving another delightful box of books from Tim, at the behest of Jacob Smith and Natasha Haney we headed to a wrestling themed burger joint called the Squared Circle for supper. I have no strong feelings toward wrestling one way or the other, but I do have strong feelings about delicious hamburgers, and in that regard the place didn't disappoint. Their idea of what johnny corn is differed from any other experience I've had with it, but if you ever wondered whether or not deep-frying corn on the cob and then drenching it in garlic butter was a good idea I can assure you it is.

A post-dining trip to Myopic Books yielded up one of John Norman's even-numbered Gor books. For some reason, every time I run across these things in the wild, they're always the odd numbered ones. Now I have 1,3,4,5, and 7. They also had volumes 10 and 13 on the shelf, but I suspect my journeys through the land of Gor aren't going to get that far so I left them for some other Cabbot (Cabbot! Cabbot! Cabbot!? Cabbot? Cabbot!!! Cabbot! Cabbot. Cabbot, Cabbot!?!?!) fanatic to enjoy.

Thursday saw us wandering over to Seven Brothers for breakfast, and I finally stopped and got some pastries from the bakery we walk by every year and I always say I'm going in but never do. Turns out I'm a moron for not having done so earlier, it was delicious. Then to the L station with Captain Telstar (he's gotta teach stuff), Kelvin Hatle, Melissa Kaercher, Lisa Mary, and first time Fest attender Bill Smiley to grab a train to a train to a bus to the Lincoln Park Zoo. As with the Brookfield last year, most of the large outdoor animals were in winter storage, but there was plenty of stuff inside to look at. The otters were hiding, but I got my cute fuzzy fix when I turned the corner and found myself face to face with a fennec fox. I think my dog Richard needs one to pal around with.

I also got to see a gorilla take a whiz from 20 feet off the ground, a baby Colobus monkey annoying the hell out of its parents by using their tails like tire swings, and some of the rarest birds in the world.

We missed out going to Glen's Diner, the phenomenal seafood place we hit a couple of years ago, because we got a late start and had to be on the train back to the hotel by 5 before our transit passes expired. The zoo left us with not enough time to eat downtown, but just enough for an impromptu ramble through a store called Hollywood Mirror that we walked past on the way to the train station. It's a vintage clothing/memorabilia/toy store, with a heavy emphasis on the clothes. Not being into this kind of fashion (if it doesn't have a cool band or a monster on it, it's probably not going in my closet), I was content to not move far from the door and just look at the fiberglass hammerhead shark on the wall until I noticed everyone clustered in a corner on the opposite side of the store. Then I realized that what they were looking at were some display cases that contained a dazzling array of Ultraman and Kamen Rider figures. Uh oh.

I wound up with a small figure of Chandora from Ultraman and a 6 inch Bandai figure of Dino Tank from Ultraseven, both very reasonably priced. After paying, I noticed another customer digging through some crates on the floor. What the hell, I thought, and started digging too. I asked how much the stuff in the crates cost, and trying not to let on I was too excited, I wound up getting a figure of Nurse, the weird golden dragon robot/UFO thing from Ultraseven for fifty cents! My theory is that because it looks so unlike any other Ultra foe, the owners didn't realize what it was and just tossed it in with all the broken Power Rangers and old Happy Meal toys. Whatever the reason, that score made up for the lack of fresh catch fish in my belly.

On the ride back, someone asked Tim and I if we were brothers. In some alternate universe, I'd like to think we are.

We grabbed a bite at the Palace, a killer Chinese place in walking distance of the hotel, and then went back to change into our hideous jackets for the Hala Kahiki. Since the place is a throwback to the jet set age when people thought Hawaiian kitsch was a legitimate style of interior decorating, Tim had the idea that as many of us as possible should wear horrid old suit jackets and ties that look like they were made from various types of upholstery. He found several jackets in my size in Michigan thrift stores, but by the time I had made my choice from the photos, my top pick was gone. Sometimes things work out, though, because when he went back to pick it up, in its place was this nuclear meltdown of a jacket.

This photo doesn't do the awfulness true justice. You just have to see it in person. Preferably from behind a lead shield.

It wound up being a little tight in the shoulders and short in the sleeves, which just added to the awfulness. Capping it off was a tie that I'm pretty sure began life as someone's great aunt's couch, with a color scheme that made it look like I'd limited my diet to nothing but brightly dyed children's cereals for the last month and then vomited down the front of my shirt. Fruity drinks were consumed, good times were had, and then back to the hotel to drink and watch movies in the lobby.

Back in November, some friends and I went to Chicago to see King Diamond play the Aragon Ballroom. One of the best shows I've ever seen. We stayed at the Best Western then too, and the desk clerk remembered me. He was supposed to have gone to the show himself but got called into work at the last minute. On the way home, we stopped at a liquor store where I picked up a bottle of beer called Absence of Light, which is a chocolate peanut butter stout, and is one of the best beers I've ever had. We hit another Binny's on the way back from the train station and I bought them out of Absence of Light, which I then got to share with and make converts of Mike Bockoven and Matt Campbell while we all watched Tarkan vs. the Vikings in the lobby and had fun blowing the clerks' minds with that and Gymkata.

Thence to bed, for on the morrow we would watch movies historic on the B-Fest road.