Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)


Written by: David Seltzer
Directed by: Walon Green and Ed Spiegel
Starring:
Lawrence Pressman as Dr. Hellstrom
A bunch of bugs as themselves

Tonight on June Bugs, we take a look at a movie I've been wanting to see since I found out that micro-cinematographer who shot the insect footage was Ken Middleham, who was also behind the brilliant ant scenes in Phase IV, one of my favorite science fiction movies. This flick is a bit of an odd duck. In a seeming feat of precognition, it anticipates the glut of paranormal and cryptozoological documentaries of the next decade by parodying them before they ever had a chance to make their mark on the collective pop culture psyche. Even the greatest of these, Legend of Boggy Creek, came a year after tonight's movie.

Hellstrom Chronicle purports to be a document by one Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist with some apocalyptic theories regarding man's dominance on Earth. Consisting primarily of spectacular footage of various insect species in action, it is interspersed with segments of Dr. Hellstrom living up to his infernal-sounding name by raining down verbal hellfire and brimstone about how man's time on Earth is short if he continues to destroy it. Insects, being infinitely more adaptable and having a nearly incalculable population advantage, are simply waiting in the wings to take over as the dominant life form once the folly of humankind has reduced everything else to a radioactive, glow-in-the-dark slag heap.

Both the dialog and performance during the Hellstrom segments are almost ludicrously florid and delivered with all the urgency of an alcoholic street preacher wearing a THE END IS NIGH sandwich board. Pressman overacts the hell out of his role, and looks like he might pop an aneurysm at any moment. Seltzer has said in interviews that this was intentional, that, “every third line we were elbowing the audience in the ribs.” I almost wish that wasn't the case, because I kind of like the idea of a totally earnest group of super Left-wing filmmakers trying to push their environmental message through to the bull-headed macho redneck Right by challenging their manhood. “Come on, you bunch of sissies, you don't want to lose dominance of your planet to a bunch of bugs do you? You pussy bitches better find some alternative fuels and disarm your nuclear arsenals or you're going to have to hand the reigns over to ants!”

The real reason to watch this movie is the bugs, of course. If any of you are fans of nature documentaries (and if you're not, what the hell is wrong with you?), there's a lot to love here. Particular highlights include the segment featuring carnivorous insect-eating plants, and giant Japanese hornets attacking a bee hive. The bees eventually win the day, but with massive casualties, and those hornets are fucking terrifying. Also of special interest is the segment on termite colonies; specifically the bit about how they will wall their queens up for safety when a colony is under attack, like an insect version of Poe's “Cask of Amontillado.”

That's really all I've got to say about that. It's an interesting time capsule of a movie with an intentionally goofy message, but full of spectacular photography that more than makes up for any weaknesses on the part of the narrative.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Blue Monkey (1987)


Written by: George Goldsmith and Chris Koseluk
Directed by: William Fruet
Starring:
Steve Railsback as Detective Jim Bishop
Gwynyth Walsh as Dr. Rachel Carson
Don Lake as Elliot Jacobs
John Vernon as Roger Levering

Welcome back to yet another installment of June Bugs. I almost didn't do one this year (and I can hear your sighs of relief from here), but I discovered that someone finally put an exceptionally lousy VHS rip of this flick on YouTube. I'd been wanting to include Blue Monkey in a June Bugs since I started doing these things, but it was impossible to find. It was one of those movies that I spent all the time at the video store staring at the box of when I was a kid, when I was meant to be selecting an appropriate cartoon instead. I remember the image of the old man with the larva crawling out of his mouth burned itself into my brain and made me think this movie must be terrifying. I did eventually see it many moons ago, and recall being pretty disappointed after all that time building it up in my head. Will it hold up to a second viewing? Will I even be able to see what the hell is going on in this awful copy? The answers to these pulse-pounding questions and more in the paragraphs below. Read on, if you dare!

Ah. You dare. Very well, then. An old handyman named Fred gets the ball rolling when he gets stung by something hiding in the foliage of a flower which gardener Marwella recently obtained from a newly discovered Micronesian island. She calls an ambulance, and by the time he reaches the hospital his condition has worsened to the point that he's comatose. Then his throat begins swelling and he regurgitates a semi-mobile pupa that Dr. Rachel Carson (and yes, she is named after the author of Silent Spring) captures and takes to a lab for further examination. Detective Bishop comes along because he was hanging around the hospital waiting to hear if his partner will to survive a gunshot wound, and apparently death by gross weird bugs is now a thing the police handle.

Meanwhile, a checkup of Marwella has revealed that fatal insect stings aren't the only surprise that Micronesian flower had in store. A strange bacterial infection has her quarantined to bed rest. The doctors can't figure out what kind of bacteria she is carrying or how to stop it since regular antibiotics seem to have no effect. Her granny hooligan roommate (is it a good idea to quarantine people with unidentified infections in shared rooms with no kind of hermetic precautions?) Dee Dee, however, insists she has the cure; a bottle of whiskey. I'm a sucker for rebellious old lady characters in movies, and Dee Dee deserves to take her rightful palace in the pantheon of great cinematic geriatric hellraisers who fix everything with booze.

Entemologist Elliot Jacobs is also conveniently on hand to dispense invaluable bullshit science he has no possibly way of knowing once that gross pupa grows into a seven-foot praying mantis-like insect which wreaks havoc in the hospital's basement, because having it rampaging around slicing patients to pieces would be too expensive. It's a good thing the hospital is surfing the wave of the future and has a brand new surgical laser in its lab, which the tech boys haven't been able to figure out how to get off the PEW PEW PEW setting yet.

This movie is pretty dumb. This should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever seen one of the infamous Canuxploitation tax shelter movies of the 80's, when everyone and their dog decided they could become a producer in Canada. Implemented in 1974 and lasting 14 years, the Capital Cost Allowance was designed to entice filmmakers to bring their business to Canada by offering 100% tax deductions and deferrals for money spent on making movies in Canada until said movies started turning a profit. If any of you readers out there participate in or at least have any knowledge of Health Savings Account programs through your employers, basically imagine if your boss told you you could do the exact same thing except with hundreds of thousands of dollars and you got to do something awesome with it instead of buy blood pressure medicine and topical cream. Like make a movie about Charles Manson and some alcoholic old ladies fighting a giant bug with a malfunctioning laser gun.

How dumb is it, you may ask? Remeber when I said the entomologist character is there to dispense bullshit science? Think about how easy it would be to have him just say some stuff about actual praying mantises. It's not like they aren't fearsome predators, and blown up to roughly the size of a pony they wouldn't be utterly terrifying. But no. This bug is a hermaphrodite, which in the world of Blue Monkey means that the male gives birth to a smaller, fully pregnant female who will lay dozens of eggs that will hatch males which will...you get the idea.

It came as a bit of a surprise, then, that the laser which seems faintly ridiculous on its face is actually represented with a fair bit of accuracy. When Dr. Carson is showing Detective Bishop around the research lab, she describes it to him as an Nd: YAG laser and goes on to list a series of applications that such a piece of equipment may be more or less used for in reality. Nd: YAGs are solid state lasers which use man-made yttrium aluminum garnet crystal doped with neodymium as the lasing medium. When a laser is switched on, atoms of the doping agent carry out a population inversion with atoms of one of the elements that form the crystalline lattice. This excites the electrons of the swapping atoms, and when photons of a specific frequency are forced through the crystal, they interact with these electrons and drop them out of their excited state to a lower energy level. The energy released into the electromagnetic field by this process then creates new photons with properties identical to the incident wave (the original batch of photons). Now you've got a boatload of extra photons to shoot at whatever nasty creatures have invaded your hospital.

While it makes absolutely no sense that a hospital would have a weaponized laser, solid state lasers like the Nd: YAG are indeed being developed for military use. Goldsmith and Koseluk must have had a crystal ball, though, because it would be twenty years from Blue Monkey's release before defense contractors Northrop Grumman announced their FIRESTRIKE as the world's first combat ready laser weapon. They're also being developed as modular add-ons for the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter. Then in 2011 the United States Navy test fired an extremely high powered laser that they claimed had an effective range of miles. Just think of all the giant bugs you could zap with that!

There you have it. Blue Monkey is a reasonably amusing way to kill 90 minutes. If you don't see it, you're not missing anything, and if you do see it, you won't wish you hadn't. That's about all there is to say about that. But hey, if the women don't find you entertaining, they should at least find you informative. Remember, we're all pulling for you, so keep your stick on the ice.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Monday, May 23, 2016

Gnats! Movie fundraiser for Prescribed Films

So my buddies over at Attack of the Killer Podcast are also filmmakers, and they're gearing up to shoot their new movie this summer. It's called Gnats!, and is a spoof of 70's nature strikes back movies. But I'll let Insane Mike himself tell you all about it:


There you go, fiends. Time to put your money where your mandibles are and support independent horror! Tell 'em Ragnarok sent you and maybe they'll keep letting me ruin their podcast.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Watching horror movies with my kids





When this roundtable was suggested, I gave it some thought and decided to give it a pass. I had already reviewed my gateway genre movie, and although I did do a brief search for bizarre foreign children's movies just so I could write about something weird, my heart wasn't really in it. Most of the things I like that are aimed at a younger audience (Something Wicked This Way Comes or The Black Hole, for example) are just too well known for me to have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. And let's face it, unless it's kaiju, kiddie fare just ain't what we do around here.

Right around the time everyone was confirming their movie picks and the first couple of reviews were trickling in to the group, I had mentioned on Facebook that my son had been on a Chucky kick and my daughter had wanted to see more gleefully mean-spirited carnage, so we'd spent the weekend watching Child's Play 2 and 3, as well as Final Destination 4 and 5 (and yes, I know it's called The Final Destination, and no, I don't care, and yes, I think it should have been FIVnal Destination and the last one should have been called 5nal Destination). Good ol' Chad Plambeck had the notion that rather than a traditional movie review, I should join the party by writing a piece about my take on movies and parenting and watching horror flicks with my kids.

Growing up, I wasn't allowed to watch R rated movies. PG-13 was on the fence, depending on the subject matter. If you think that stopped me from watching them, I have a lovely piece of oceanfront property in Montana you might be interested in. Nights spent at the houses of friends with more lenient parents were gifts from the movie gods. I saw Predator at the house of a babysitter who had cable. I didn't care that something was wrong with it and the sound didn't work, I watched the whole thing silent and was absolutely enthralled. Best of all, mom and dad had no idea that “unrated” and G weren't essentially the same thing. I've expounded upon this more in my Creepozoids review. I got to see classics like Night of the Living Dead at the home of the Bruesewitzes; family friends who loved horror. I vividly remember Sandy reacting like I'd slapped a kitten when I told her I'd never seen John Carpenter's The Thing. Guess what I got for my 12th birthday? Boy was that an eye-opener.

Point is, by hook or by crook, I got my horror fix no matter the restrictions placed on me at home. Make something forbidden and it only enhances the temptation. It was a strange atmosphere of encouragement and proscription. I could watch any 50's sci-fi, Ray Harryhausen, or kaiju movie I wanted. They were, after all, free of objectionable material, and fed my love of monsters. Every birthday or Christmas there was practically guaranteed to be a new Video Treasures or Goodtimes Home Video tape with new rubber suited wonders for my eager eyes. What my folks didn't understand was, how could someone who loved monsters as much as I did let it stop there? They even had a hand in my obsession with horror movies, although until I told them about it recently, they didn't realize it. Along with Godzilla movies, they would occasionally rent the Jaws flicks for me and even watched them with me a few times. Dad would get a great kick out of sitting behind me, waiting for the music to crescendo or the shark to make a sudden appearance to claim a victim, and then grab my shoulders and yell, scaring the bejeezus out of me. Except instead of being truly afraid or making me upset, it just enhanced my love of those movies. I learned to anticipate the jolt of fear, and to roll with the thrill of it. It's a hoary old cliché, but kids enjoy being scared in the safety of their home. Confronting fear that can be dealt with in a comfortable and familiar environment sometimes makes it easier to deal with the real fears encountered out in the world.

I come at the question of what entertainment is suitable for my children from the completely opposite side of the table, obviously. Far from looking at horror as something to be shunned as garbage that children need protecting from, I eat, sleep, and breathe it. To paraphrase Chop Top from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (another one the kids and I watched recently), “Horror is my life!” One of the things I looked forward to about having kids was being able to share the things I love with them, and hoping they took to at least some of it as much as I did. Of course, you can't start them out on Italian gut munchers and 70's exploitation. At 9 and 11 (although an exceptionally mature 9 and 11, and those of you who know them know that's not just parental bragging), they're still a good few years off watching the really nasty stuff.

Basically my only two blanket restrictions are explicit sex (also explicitly crude talk about sex – it's going to be a good long while before they get to see Deadpool) and especially sexualized violence. I don't mind if they see a bit of nudity. We're all nekkid under our clothes, after all. I was always on the filthy hippy liberal side of the, “Why is it OK to show violence on TV but not sex?” argument until I was actually put in a position where I had to give it some thought. Kids learn about death early. Pets die, great grandparents die, when they're quite young. They know how to cope with it. It's a simple concept with easily grasped consequences. It takes a lot longer for a mind to develop to the point of being able to comprehend the deep personal and social implications and repercussions attached to sex, which could make it frightening in the not-fun way and maybe cause serious hangups down the road. We've had “the talk” with them, of course, read books to them about it and the like, but seeing it portrayed in an exploitative way in a movie is so far removed from real life that it's difficult to explain. “A monster just ate that guy” is a lot easier for a kid to get their head around. Kids' stories from the very earliest ages feature monsters eating people. It's, “Fee fi fo fum,” not, “Fee fi fo suck my cock.”

There are a frustratingly large number of movies which contain but a small amount of this objectionable material, which I am nonetheless forced to remove from my repertoire of movies to share with the kids, including some of my absolute favorites and things that I know they would enjoy. One such example reared its head just the other night, when my friend John came up to stay the night and we watched Razorback after the kids went to bed. Now, Razorback is one of my favorite movies. The only Jaws knockoff that's very nearly as good as Jaws and one of the few movies I consider to be shot-perfect, that there's nothing you could change about it to make it any better. Unfortunately, there's a scene of threatened but unfulfilled rape that is nonetheless carried off in such a brutal and straightforward manner that I don't feel the kids need to be exposed to such unpleasant and realistic violence, even if it is all only performances. My daughter told me only just today that sometimes she feels afraid that supporters of Donald Trump may hurt her if they know she doesn't agree with them. It broke my heart that someone as young as she is can sense the culture of hatred and violence that currently pervades our country. I see no point in making that worse with something that is intended to be entertainment.

Gore, on the other hand, is easy. From a very young age, I always made sure they knew that anything in a movie was make-believe. At the end of the day, these actors get up off the ground and wash off the fake blood and go home to have dinner with their families. They accepted that, and never once have I had a problem with them being upset by gore in a movie.

It's also important to know your kids' limits. You don't want to sit them down in front of something they're not ready for. For a long time, both the kids were terrified of Chucky. They wouldn't even look at the spines of the DVDs on the shelf. So those movies were reserved for after they were in bed. Beez took the plunge first, unsurprisingly. She's always been daddy's little horror fiend. Not long after, Phoenix decided he wanted to give it a shot. He'd seen some Friday the 13th and Halloween entries – had gotten his feet wet in the shallow end with some of the more harmless fare – and felt he was ready to see the killer doll in action. I've always made sure they understand that these movies are intended to be scary, and that there's nothing to be ashamed of if they do get scared and want to turn it off. Oddly enough, the only time either one of them has ever gotten disturbed enough to want to shut something off was an episode of the TV show Lost Tapes.

It's interesting to watch how their tastes have developed. Phoenix is into the franchise horror: Jason, Freddy, Michael, any character with a back story and a bunch of sequels. Beez goes for quality over quantity, and seems to have acquired my love of anything with a monster in it. Her favorite movie is Dog Soldiers. She even wrote it on a “learn about your classmates” type worksheet for her new school year that got hung up in the classroom. I've watched it more times on her request than I have of my own volition, although I'm not complaining. Honorable mentions include Ginger Snaps, Critters, Alien, and Frozen (she is a nine-year-old girl, after all). She's more like me in that she'll try just about anything once. If she doesn't like it, no harm no foul. Phoenix, on the other hand, takes after his mom, and is very set in his ways. It's like pulling teeth to get him to try something new if it's not on his own terms, but almost every time I've convinced him to give something a shot, he's loved it. He's also much more into comedy, so if a movie has a humorous bent, it goes a long way towards his enjoyment of it (I knew he'd like Texas Chainsaw, but I knew he'd love Texas Chainsaw 2). We recently watched Bad Taste, and I thought he was going to bust a gut when the sheep went kerblooie.

I think it's worked out pretty well. I get to share the things I love with my kids, and I have two people who I can hang out and watch movies with any time. They're even turning into quite the little movie critics. While we were watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Beez came up with this little gem all on her own during the dinner scene, ten dollar words and all: “I think gender is important in this genre. If it was a guy in this scene it wouldn't be as scary. Guys are stronger and so you'd expect him to escape. With a girl, you root for her more, and you're not as sure she'll get away so there's more suspense. It also makes you more excited for her when she does get away and wins over a bunch of guys.” I'll wager that's more thought than most third graders put into their movie watching experience. Horror is good for the mind.

It's also a good bonding experience. The kids have both said many times I'm the coolest dad they know. Now, that certainly makes me feel good but it's by no means why I want to watch these movies with them. It's something I love and I know they can handle it and will love it too. If they were of a more sensitive constitution I would never consider having these movies on, if there was a chance they would be upset by them. I'm just a lucky dad to have such awesome kids with whom I can share my artistic passions.

I struggled like hell to figure out what to say in this piece. It's still not what I'd like it to be. When I'm just blabbing about movies, any old thing will do most of the time. Since it's about my kids, I feel like it should be my magnum opus – the greatest thing I'll ever write. They are, after all, the greatest thing I will ever contribute to the world. But at some point you just have to publish and move on. I think what I'd like to do is leave it open ended. This obviously isn't the last word on the subject. They're young yet, and we've got a long way to go in our journey together. If you have questions or comments about anything I've said, or think of things I didn't cover that you'd like to hear addressed, let me know. If and when I get enough material, I'll do another piece, and we'll continue this conversation about parenting and kids and horror movies, because in the end, I realize that's what this is. Not one article. Not even a series of articles. It's a conversation, and one that needs to be had, because everyone's parenting style, and everyone's kids, are different. Just make sure they get to see some monster movies.

But you don't have to take my word for it:
Checkpoint Telstar: Time Bandits 
Micro-Brewed Reviews: The Magic Serpent 
Psychoplasmics: The Gate 
Seeker of Schlock: Spider-Man 
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Gamera vs. Viras 
Web of the Big Damn Spider: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Attack of the Killer Podcast - Bears

Once again I join the Attack of the Killer Podcast crew, this time to discuss killer bear movies. Pack your tent, roll up your sleeping bag, and make sure you hang your food up high in a tree!

Attack of the Killer Podcast: Bear Attack


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