Wednesday, January 28, 2015

B-Fest 2015 Part 1: Staring At Jade Carvings and Animals' Butts In Suburbia

The turn of the new year has seen some big changes in the Ragnarok household. Both Malorie and I are starting new jobs. Mine doesn't start until February 1, and so I have the week after B-Fest to run errands, get some writing done, and enjoy the biggest stretch of down time I've had since grade school and, barring a winning lottery ticket or getting lucky enough to become a full time writer, the biggest stretch I will probably see until I retire. Malorie's new gig, on the other hand, started the Wednesday of B-Fest week, and so it was that I set off for Chicago solo for the first time.

A recent update of my GPS maps seems to have altered something in the way Magic Voice sees the world, because barely more than an hour into the trip it took me in a different direction. Instead of taking Highway 20 all the way to the northern suburbs of Chicago, with a little jog at Belvedere to get around Rockford and some tollways, it swung me all the way down to Iowa City and in on a huge loop of interstates. It certainly wasn't as scenic and it definitely added some miles to the trip, with the tradeoff of actually being a little quicker because instead of crawling through a two hundred mile stretch of little towns with 25mph speed limits, you're rocking away at 65-70 the whole time. At the end of the day I think I still prefer the more rural Highway 20 route, but at least the mild panic that Magic Voice had flipped her lid kept things interesting.

I arrived at the Morton Grove Best Western around 2:30, where I met up with the inimitable Tim Lehnerer. Generosity was demonstrated and long-forged alliances were renewed as he presented me with this year's B-Fest mix CD (which includes some great music, as always, but this year also sparked a running joke that will be with us all for a long, long time in the form of the haunting driving theme from Truth or Dare: A Critical Madness) and another box of fantastic-looking books. I'm especially looking forward to reading Metal Rules the Globe. Then it was off to Half Price Books, where I had to show some restraint since although I've got one more paycheck coming from the old job, I am technically unemployed and as the new gig is partially commission-based, unsure of exactly how much money I'll be bringing in until I get good at it. Between trade-ins and a coupon, I got away with spending less than half what I did last year and scored a pile of really cool old Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels for dirt cheap, including The Land that Time Forgot, which I've been hunting for for ages.

Later that evening saw the arrival of Scott Ashlin and Jessica Ritchey, and Gavin Smith with his delightful lady friend Tori joined us for a delectable meal at the Palace restaurant. Phenomenal duck and almond pie, plus it's walking distance from the hotel and we all spent an entire day in our damn cars so no one wanted to drive anywhere. Not being on vacation like the rest of us slackers, Gavin and Tori had to skedaddle after supper, but the rest of us went back to the hotel for a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity. I also acquired all the currently available recordings of Scott's killer band, The Schismatics. Look them up, they kick ass. Think a punkier Iron Reagan and you'll be fairly close to the mark. Weary road warriors all of us, we turned in at a reasonable hour to meet up for breakfast the next day and being our suburban adventures.

Suburban adventures? I hear you asking. Well, yes. We've done the Field, the Shedd, the Art Institute, and so many other things in the city multiple times, and were feeling a little burned out on train rides and traffic fighting, so at the behest of Mr. Logistics Person, we headed into Chicagoland to seek new entertainments.

At the suggestion of one of the Best Western employees who always remembers the big dudes with glasses and Godzilla t-shirts who show up every winter, we checked out a diner called Kappy's. It was good, but not as good as Seven Brothers, which is, again, walking distance from the hotel. And of course nothing we've found so far is as good as the Omega Pancake House. From there we were off to the Cernan Space Center, which turned out to be one space suit, a couple of rocket engines, and a tack board with some articles ripped out of science magazines and pinned up. They can't all be winners. At least I got some neat glow-in-the-dark dinosaurs for myself and some freeze-dried astronaut ice cream for the kids, and perhaps the most ideal photo of Tim anyone will ever take.

Telstarman sensibly sets the anti theft system on his space capsule before turning his attentions to the conquest of Earth.
For all that the Space Center was a bust, our next stop at the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Arts was a resounding success. We learned some things about jade carving (despite looking incredibly fragile, it's only a couple of steps down the mineral hardness scale from diamond, which makes its ability to be worked in such fine and magnificent detail easier to understand), viewed many beautiful works of art, and got to look at a piece of rock that was 3.4 billion (yes, with a fucking B) years old. Mighty humbling, that is.

Chalcedony ghost skull is more metal than you.

Finally for Wednesday was Horrorbles, a horror collectibles shop. It occupies a tiny, odd little space with many cramped hallways and rooms, and it was really hard not to spend all of the money I have and ever will earn there. And then we went next door to Reel Art Collectibles, which was full of Godzilla and kaiju toys. Son of a bitch. I managed to restrict myself to a few Gamera chibis and the NECA Crimson Typhoon figure.

Back to the hotel to meet up with Jacob and Natasha, who gave me some lovely presents for my absent wife before we all headed off to the Himalayan for supper with Gavin (thanks for the Godzilla pen!), Edward, and his wife Melanie. Another round of Cards Against Humanity with Sampote Sands's Crocodile as background noise capped off the night.

Brookfield Zoo or bust on Thursday. The upside being it was a free day. The downside being that most of the large outdoor animals were in storage for the winter. We did get to see an Andean condor disembowel and devour a dead rat, and a black rhino taking a whiz, so that was fun. The reptile houses were a real treat, and I got a Mold-O-Rama alligator, but the real highlight was watching the otter run around chirping and being cute. If you don't love otters, you have a problem. The running theme for the day seemed to be that every animal we went to look at was dead set on presenting us with an unobstructed view of its butt. Of course, if I was put on display I would do nothing but moon my visitors too, so I can't really blame them.

Eyelash viper.

Exhausted but happy, we hit a little sandwich shop called Mr. Submarine for a late lunch, and then went to the Galloping Ghost arcade to spend the rest of the day reliving our childhoods. Well, most of us did. I never played many video games as a kid, but they did have the single greatest arcade game of all time: Lucky and Wild. For those not fortunate enough to have had one of these in your hometown arcade, it's a booth game where one person drives and shoots, with a second gun for a passenger. Or, if you're feeling wild and crazy, you can cram three people in and have two shooters while the driver just concentrates on dodging the un-dodgeable obstacles. You play as a pair of cops on the edge who play by their own rules, chasing down a variety of bad guys driving monster trucks, armored tractor-trailers with flamethrowers, Lamborghinis with laser turrets and the like, while their minions in black cars and motorcycles throw Molotov cocktails and grenades at you. Essentially it's Cannon Films: The Video Game. I have no idea how many quarters my friends and I pumped into that thing in high school, but it was a lot and it was money well spent. They also had a Godzilla/Ultraman cabinet that I had seen a console version of at G-Fest, which was neat, but my attention span for video games is fairly short so I spent most of the time playing pinball instead. The Creature from the Black Lagoon table is a beast.

Having downed an enormous and rather late lunch and feeling a little wobbly from either the van ride (typically as long as I'm not riding in the back the motion sickness doesn't get me, but it had been a long day) or the eight pounds of corned beef and garlic fries lodged in my gullet, I considered skipping the Hala Kahiki. I said last year that I had grown weary of the place, but this year it redeemed itself. I figure since I only get to see my B-Fest friends once a year, I should spend every minute with them that I could, and so I decided to give the tiki bar another chance. Since Malorie had to skip this year, Fistula and I decided to bunk together to save a little money. He had arrived while we were out, so we returned to the hotel to regroup and grab him and Lisa and Tim's friend Dave, both of whom had also arrived earlier in the day, and off to fruity booze land we went.

The past few years we've been stuck at the line of tables in front of the door rather than the back room we prefer, and this year was no exception despite Tim calling ahead for the group, but since this year was a sadly slim one for the BMMB regulars, we were able to keep up a lively round of chat. And for all that last year's waitress was surly and inattentive, the gal helping us this year was friendly and always right behind you the second your glass was empty asking if you wanted another. I stuck with lighter vodka drinks, figuring dark heavy rum would really do a number on my already questionable stomach. A few refreshing lemon and grape juice drinks settled things down nicely and before long I was back to full operational power.

Back to Jacob and Natasha's room to watch Daoism Drunkard, but despite the insanity of the watermelon monster, the events of the day began to catch up with us and we turned in to prepare for the Fest of B.

Friday morning saw Fistula and I driving into the city to do some galavanting with Scott, Jessica, and Lisa before the show. A visit to the Gallery bookstore and a used CD/DVD shop the name of which I can never remember, and then Scott aimed his van toward cinemasochist Heaven and we rode to our fate at the hands of A&O Films.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

Written by: Robert Hill, Jack Dewitt, and Willis O'Brien
Directed by: Edward Nassour and Ismael Rodriguez
Guy Madison as Jimmy Ryan
Patricia Medina as Sarita
Carlos Rivas as Felipe Sanchez

Dinosaurs. I'm willing to bet a solid majority of us b-movie fans can trace our love of monsters back to a childhood obsession with the terrible lizards that ruled our planet for hundreds of millions of years. I certainly can. My earliest movie theater memories are Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster and Journey to the Beginning of Time. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction! You dig up a picture of the craziest, most outlandish monster from any movie or Ultraman episode you've ever seen, and I guarantee you I can top it with an actual animal from Earth's prehistory.

Thus it is that I'm kicking off 2015 by joining Checkpoint Telstar by celebrating one of the underdogs of the dinosaur world, the Allosaurus. Today, the Checkpoint is discussing the best cowboys vs. Allosaurus movie ever made, while I will be handling the worst cowboys vs. Allosaurus movie ever made. Mind you, there were only ever two cowboys vs. Allosaurus movies made, this dinosaur theme was Tim's idea so he got to pick the good stuff, and, well, it does say “masochist” right there in the title, doesn't it? Interestingly, the two cowboys vs. Allosaurus movies both come, via the rather circuitous route of Hollywood's digestive system, from the same original script by legendary stop-motion artist Willis O'Brien, mirroring the story of how several collections of fossils originally thought to be from different dinosaurs all turned out to belong to Allosaurus in the end. Funny the ways in which art imitates life, eh?

The first known Allosaurus fossils were sent to astoundingly prolific anatomy and natural history professor Joseph Leidy by fossil collector Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden (incidentally, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Legacy of the Mastodon by Keith Stewart Thomson if you're interested in the history of American paleontology) in 1869. Initially Leidy lumped it in with an existing genus, but later decided to promote it to its own genus, Antrodemus.

Several years later, Othniel Charles Marsh gave the name Allosaurus to a different set of fossils, and he and his bitter rival Edward Drinker Cope went on a terribly unscientific spree of making up as many new genus and species as they could from extremely incomplete collections gathered throughout the American West. This sort of publish-first-study-evidence-later behavior was so much the norm in the early days of natural history that it's really quite amazing they ever managed to establish a proper science out of it at all. If I go too much farther into it here I'm going to end up writing a thesis paper instead of a movie review, so suffice to say a great deal of those fossils wound up belonging to the same animal, and after several rounds of back-and-forth between Antrodemus and Allosaurus, the scientific community and popular opinion landed on Allosaurus and here we are.

We meet our heroes Jimmy and Felipe, along with their head ranch hand Manuel, searching for a herd of lost cattle in the swampy area around Hollow Mountain, an area said by the locals to be cursed. The superstitious Manuel is convinced that whatever demonic entity occupies the titular geographic landmark has eaten them. The more pragmatic Felipe, on the other hand, is convinced that their competitor Don Enrique has either stolen their cattle or simply driven them into the swamp to drown. The evidence would seem to suggest Felipe is closer to the mark when they find a steer that appears to have been driven into the swamp on purpose to mislead the ranchers. More on this later, as Felipe nearly drowns in a patch of quicksand, and Jimmy calls a halt to their search to head back to town and regroup.

Here it is that we meet Pancho and Panchito, a father/son combo who simultaneously provide the comic relief and the heart of the human drama of the story. I don't think it's actually supposed to be the heart of the human drama, but these two are much better characters than our supposed heroes, so I prefer to think this story is about them and the boring love triangle bullshit is the B plot. Our introduction to the duo is Panchito trying to talk his drunk father out of leaving the local tavern and come back to the house to sleep off a drunken bender that we can infer has lasted for rather a long time. Pancho gets funny fat guy music to dispel any doubts we may have about his place in the world, as if being a drunk fat guy with a droopy mustache isn't enough of a cue in a movie like this. But then we get the much more human scene of Pancho telling his son that he drinks to forget Mrs. Pancho, who is in heaven. Already we get a taste of the schizophrenic way these characters will be presented, with stupid oompah music presenting the comedic Mexican drunk (because it wouldn't be as funny if it was a white guy), immediately followed by giving him a brutally depressing real-life reason for drinking while simultaneously portraying the no-more-than-10-year-old Panchito as not only having lost his mother but having to take care of his drunk father. And then we get a scene of the fat drunk guy comedically attempting to mount a horse immediately followed by his falling off the horse in a scene that it would be a miracle if the stunt man survived without a broken neck!

Luckily Jimmy is riding through town at this moment so he can rescue Pancho and gain his life-long loyalty. If only Pancho knew how short a lifespan he had left to him. But sure enough, the next morning he and Panchito are at Jimmy and Felipe's ranch, milking cows and feeding ducks, to show their commitment to Pancho's savior. Pancho even promises to give up drinking so he can continue to work on the ranch. Of course, his loyalty overtakes his common sense so that he runs off into the swamp to hunt for Jimmy's cattle, and he becomes the first victim of the dinosaur that will soon be causing problems for everyone involved.

Meanwhile, Jimmy has a confrontation with Don Enrique, once more accusing him of cattle rustling, while Enrique slams Jimmy right back about undercutting his prices and stealing his business. He seems genuinely confused and frustrated at Jimmy's continued accusations of cownapping, but hell, if he's destined to be the bad guy of the piece anyway, he may as well play the part. And when he sees his bride-to-be Sarita riding into town the next day on the back of Jimmy's horse (the Allosaurus ate hers, but they don't know that yet and think it just ran away), he seals the deal with fisticuffs and a dastardly plan.

On the day of the wedding of Sarita to Don Enrique, a couple of hired guns are all set to cause a stampede of Jimmy and Felipe's herd outside of town to ruin their business once and for all. Meanwhile, the large congregation of cattle has tempted the ravenous Allosaurus out of its swamp, and the creature sets off the stampede early so it's headed straight for the town. Can Jimmy stop the cattle and the dinosaur before it's too late? Well, it's the 50's, so probably yeah.

The big complaint about this movie is that it takes forever to get to see the dinosaur. Where most movies of this sort would at least give us glimpses of the creature here and there to get us excited for the main action, Beast of Hollow Mountain keeps the monster completely off screen until the movie is damn near over. Obviously that was done just to save money, but it has an effect on the story that I don't think the filmmakers intended. It makes Don Enrique seem not at all villainous. Our only visual cues that he's supposed to be the bad guy is that he wears dark colors and has a very well-groomed bad guy mustache and slicked back hair. On the other hand, he's getting married to the tough, independent daughter of the richest guy in the area. She doesn't seem very enthused about it, like it's more a marriage of convenience because they're both rich and what else would she do, marry a poor guy out of love? But she never seems to hate or fear him, and she's definitely not the type that would put up with any kind of abuse, so he's definitely not some kind of domineering monster. When it comes to dealing with Jimmy, well, constantly being accused of being a violent criminal by your upstart business rival would piss off everyone. Even when Jimmy says he follows government pricing and Enrique overcharges for his beef and does dirty deals under the table, we have no evidence that this is true other than it's a white guy accusing a Mexican. That may have been enough in 1956 to make it clear cut, and even today we're geared to root for the little guy over the big businessman, but all the evidence here points to Don Enrique being rich and successful simply because he's good at what he does, and after months of incessant needling by some chump whose business is failing because he had the godawful shitty luck to set up his ranch as a buffet for a dinosaur, finally just throws up his hands and says, “Fuck it, you want me to be the bad guy? I'll be the goddamn bad guy then if it'll get me rid of you, you little bastard. And stop making eyes at my girl!”

It's not high drama, but it made all the sitting around waiting for the dinosaur to show up a lot more interesting than it probably would have been otherwise. In fact, once the dinosaur shows up, it almost makes you wish the drama would come back. The fact that our first glimpse of the dinosaur is a stuntman wearing a pair of dinosaur feet that are slightly less convincing than those plush Godzilla slippers you can get from Toy Vault sets the mood nicely for the disappointment to follow. While there is a little bit of true stop-motion using an articulated puppet that looks very much like an O'Brien designed creature, the great majority of the beast's scenes are done using a much cheaper and faster technique called replacement animation. This is done using a series of static figures, each sculpted in a slightly different posture. Put one down, shoot a couple of frames, put the next one in the series down, shoot a couple frames, etc.

The biggest downside to this is the replacement animation figures are much smaller and far less detailed than the articulated head used for the closeups, so there's a huge gap in quality between the two (and the less said about those feet the better). There is one sequence of Jimmy and Enrique on horseback being chased by the dinosaur that actually looks pretty damn good aside from the shoddy matte job, where the movement of the creature is very fluid and lifelike as it runs. Unfortunately, it must have been decided that when the dinosaur was just walking it didn't look dynamic enough, so more body movement was required to make it look more realistic. The result is that it constantly waggles its apparently three-foot-long tongue around like Gene Simmons and rolls its hips in a ridiculously jaunty swagger. It's dino burlesque!

This was the first movie to use stop-motion animation and be shot in color and Cinemascope widescreen, so that may go some way toward explaining why they didn't have any money to spend on the dinosaur, but I think at the end of the day it would have been a better business decision to go black and white and have a better looking creature. It has sort of the opposite effect of watching The Land Unknown, which sacrificed color film for production value. Instead of wondering why a movie that should be cheap looks comparatively lavish, with Beast you find yourself captivated by the sweeping vistas and great cinematography, only to be brought crashing back to reality by those goofy floppy monster feet.

Now head on over to Checkpoint Telstar for some more Allosaurus action!

Friday, January 9, 2015

I Still Function...

Fear not, good readers.  I have not abandoned you to the cold and hoary wastes of the internet.  There will be new reviews aplenty this year.  The last couple of months have been extremely hectic and exhausting, but good things are afoot.  I will elaborate once things have finally settled down and are firmly in place. 

I've also been working on a few follow up stories to "Putting the Ground to Sleep", my piece in the mighty fifty-story anthology Dead Harvest: A Collection of Dark Tales, which was published this November.  I hope everyone likes them as much as they seem to have enjoyed the last one.  Or at least enough to publish them somewhere, anyway.

In the meantime, B-Fest is two weeks away, and I am ready for a well-earned vacation.  Unless it's the most boring five days of my existence (and honestly, spending a few quiet days with great friends would be just fine with me, but doubtless there will be misadventure aplenty, generosity demonstrated and alliances forged) the traditional travelogue writeup will follow.

Check back often, follow for updates, shoot me an e-mail, leave a comment, whatever you wish.  I'll see you all soon.  2015 looks to hold great promise, and I want to share it with you all.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mondo Cannibal (2004)

Written by: Bruno Mattei and Giovanni Paolucci
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
Helena Wagner as Grace Forsyte
Claudio Morales as Bob Manson
Cindy Matic as Cindy Blair

I thought it would be amusing to bookend Thanksgiving with a couple of cannibal movies, mostly because I had just bought a couple of cannibal movies and figured I needed an excuse to prioritize their viewing above some of the higher quality entertainment that's waiting for me on my shelves. I still haven't finished the Lone Wolf and Cub Blu ray set, for example, nor have I finished the extras on the Criterion Collection edition of Cronos, or even taken the shrink wrap off of Videodrome. Last week, we took a look at Bruno Mattei's Predator/Cannibal Holocaust fusion experiment, In the Land of the Cannibals. This time around, we have his straight up remake of Cannibal Holocaust, which was shot back to back with the other movie and features a lot of the same cast and crew.

This time around, Mattei actually expended a bit of thought on updating the story of his movie, rather than cut-and-pasting exact copies of scenes from other movies together. In one case, he is even so bold as to try to one-up the reigning king of Italian gut-munchers. The result is almost as clumsy and stupid as In the Land of the Cannibals from the writing and acting standpoint, but on a technical level is a much better looking movie. Or at least as much better looking as a movie can be when it's shot on such a low grade of video that it looks like it was produced for a PBS affiliate some time in the late 80's.

Grace Forsyte is a tough-as-nails journalist who hosts a news magazine program called Face to Face. Her ratings have been slipping behind as every other station has jumped on the salacious reality TV bandwagon, pulling in the viewers while she insists on journalistic integrity and real stories. She is called in to her boss's office at TVN, the station she works for, to be informed that her show is being canceled unless she can pull the ratings out of the tank. On the way to work that morning, she saw an old friend on TV who she thinks might just be her way out of this predicament.

I have a hard time believing any place in the world would allow the nauseating footage of real funeral rites shown in this bit on an outdoor public Jumbotron, but then again, as Mattei lets us know in his own special way, this is Hong Kong (these are the people who think rape and ebola are a solid basis for a slapstick comedy, after all).

Marvel at my high-tech screen cap technology!

Meanwhile, activist documentary filmmaker Bob Manson receives a call from his backers informing him that no one cares any more about the rainforests being cut down and native tribes being ruined by contact with civilization and all that other boring hippy-dippy crap he keeps spouting off about, and that his funding has been cut. Before he even has time to consider selling himself as the human cast member of a donkey show to raise money to buy a ticket home, Grace enters the little tavern and offers him a proposition. She wants to team up with him as her guide, using his expertise with local tribes to take them deep into the jungle to find some real live cannibals to put on TV. It's a win-win scenario; Bob gets the full resources of a huge television network to continue his work raising awareness about the plight of the rainforest, and Grace gets to show humans eating other humans on her show. That ought to bring in some ratings. Suck it, Fear Factor!

We all know what happens from here. Turns out most of the local cannibal tribes dropped full-on headhunting warfare generations ago and are now boringly peaceful. However, the film crew hear occasional rumors on their journey about a tribe called the Invisible People, who may be just the band of savages they're looking for. They eventually succeed in finding them, and though a few of their primitive rituals are shocking, it would appear they are no more interesting on the whole than any of the other tribes the film crew has encountered. Inevitably, they decide to stir the pot a bit in an attempt to incite the natives to violent action, but once they get that boulder rolling down the hill, its momentum proves difficult to stop, and the situation gets rapidly, fatally, out of control.

After the occasionally amusing but ultimately disappointing In the Land of the Cannibals, I was prepared to get a few chuckles in but in the end, be let down again. I was pleasantly surprised, then, that Mondo Cannibal is the superior of the two movies. That's not to say it's good, mind you. The movie is still comprised primarily of Bruno swinging for the fences and hitting himself in the face with the bat instead. It's just that whereas the previous movie filled the time between hilarious incompetencies with boredom, this one fills it with some stuff that genuinely works.

To start with, I'll touch a bit more on what I said up top about Mattei actually putting some thought into the script. Much had changed in the world of broadcast journalism and communications technology in the years between 1980 and 2004. Rather than having an entire second cast have to trek expensively into the jungle to retrieve film canisters to compile the atrocity footage later, the film crew in Mondo Cannibal has a digital camera with a satellite uplink that transmits the footage directly back to TVN headquarters, where the show's producer and Dick Cheney impersonator extraordinaire can watch and be sickened by it immediately. In this flick, it's this guy who delivers the, “Who are the real cannibals?” line, staring directly into the camera while doing so.

Smashing down the Fourth Wall, and selling the rebuilding contracts to Halliburton!

The footage is also being edited together as it comes in and broadcast in episodes as part of an ongoing special, so some of the horrors prior to the crew being eaten alive are actually seen by the viewing public to a boom in ratings that practically bankrupts TVN's competition. We see several of the scenes repeated on a TV in the boardroom, presumably showing the finished and broadcast version of events approved by the TVN top brass, which means that when they burn down a village and slaughter most of the residents to make it look like they were attacked by another tribe, the audience at home sees Grace, Bob, and the crew gleefully beating, shooting and burning people alive and cause a ratings coup that makes the Superbowl look like a 3:30am rerun of Perfect Strangers! And you thought Ruggero Deodato's view of humanity was cynical. Damn!

There's also some excellent gore on display. They presumably didn't have the time, money, or know-how to recreate the iconic chick-on-a-stick from Cannibal Holocaust (, but as I said before, Mattei did try to one-up Deodato on another, less well remembered scene. The abortion in Cannibal Holocaust is so unnerving to me precisely because you don't see much of it – just a couple of quick flashes of something pink and vaguely baby-shaped before it gets buried in the mud of a riverbank. Here, Mattei opts for the full-on gore gross out, with the pregnant woman's belly sliced open and the baby removed and displayed to the camera. While it's certainly icky, getting a good look at what appears to be one of those jumbo Gummy Bears covered in raspberry jam takes most of the wind out of the scene's sails. That is, until they drop it on the ground and start stepping on it. No matter how fake it looks, seeing that thing squish up through a bunch of toes is horrible. Not a patch on the original, but still icky.

There's also some full frontal animal violence. The native guide guts and skins a monitor lizard in plain view of the camera. Definitely the low point of the movie, as animal snuff footage always is, but it also brings me to my next point. Mattei may be a total klutz when it comes to writing and getting a performance out of his non-actors, but he's a hell of a visual mimic. The reason there was a dead pig in In the Land... was because there was a dead pig in Predator, and actual dead pigs are cheaper than building realistic special effects pigs. We don't see the demise of the pig in In the Land... not because it was considered too grotesque, but simply because we don't actually see the pig bite it in Predator either.

I think that's a big part of the reason In the Land... was more of a failure than Mondo Cannibal. Mattei simply bit off more than he could chew trying to reproduce big budget action scenes. He copied every set piece as closely as he could, right down to the blocking. Without the money for plasma beams and huge explosions and light-bending alien monsters, all he could manage were a couple of rubber spears and some M80's blowing up buckets of slaughterhouse guts. But playing in the mud with gore and a video camera? Even the most impoverished hack can pull that off reasonably well. And when you're copying from the very best, even your worst can't reach the absolute doldrums of suck. All he needed was a copy of Cannibal Holocaust to cue up whenever he needed to take notes on how to do a particular shot and presto! Instant semi-competent cannibal flick. It's the parts where he tries to make the movie his own where things go off the rails in truly spectacular fashion.

As I said before, we get the “Who are the real cannibals?” bit out of the way well before the movie is over, so what could possibly be the big stinger required to drive home the point that we've already had jackhammered down our throats for the last 90 minutes? I honestly don't have a damn clue because it doesn't make a lick of sense. The final bit of jungle footage ends as the camera man gets his skull crushed by a club, and the TVN board members express dismay not at the brutal ends met by their team, but that they won't have any more atrocity footage to scoop the other networks with (again, making Deodato seem positively cheerful by comparison)! The evil producer guy (not the one who looks like Cheney, but another one who looks like the guy that played Karl Rove on That's My Bush) claims that their money train hasn't pulled into the station yet, because thanks to the wonders of virtual reality, they can claim their team are still alive and have the audience participate in an interactive search for them, and even determine where in the world they'll go next! What the fuck!? I can't even begin to figure out how we're supposed to take that. It's like they realized they'd already done the bit they were supposed to end on and decided the solution would be to take all the drugs they could find in Manila and use the first thing they could come up with in a fit of narcotic insanity.

If you're a fan of the gruesome, the absurd, or the just plain stupid, this one is definitely worth checking out. There's something here for everyone. Unless you like your entertainment to have class and quality. But if that were the case, you wouldn't be reading this, now would you?

Monday, November 24, 2014

In the Land of the Cannibals (2003)

Written by: Bruno Mattei, Giovanni Paolucci
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
Claudio Morales as Romero
Cindy Matic as Sarah Armstrong
Lou Randall as Lt. Wilson

In its heyday, the Great Italian Ripoff Machine was a juggernaut of crap. Its massive gears ground out ripoff after ripoff, and it crushed international copyright law beneath its mighty treads. In 2003, it was a rusty two-door hatchback with the hood and one door the wrong color, that burned oil and had a leaky radiator, driven by Bruno Mattei after he found it in the back of the Italian film industry's motor pool and lovingly got it working again by stealing a bunch of parts from other people's cars and spray painting the rust to at least vaguely match the original color.

This is one of the movies he made during his brief comeback before a brain tumor killed him in 2007. Not giving a damn that the cannibal horror subgenre had passed its sell-by date more than twenty years before this masterpiece, In the Land of the Cannibals splits its time pretty evenly being a shot-for-shot, sometimes very nearly line-for-line remake of Cannibal Holocaust and Predator. The surprising thing is that no one thought to do something like this before. The two plotlines are a pretty good fit for each other. Unfortunately, Mattei seems to have lost a lot of the energetic stupidity that made his older movies such a delight. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty to laugh at here, and it's probably more fun with a group, but compared to, say, Rats: Night of Terror, this one can get pretty draggy in between bouts of delirious retardation.

A group of commandos led by Lt. Wilson (this is our Dutch analog character, and the guy playing him looks exactly like Phil Anselmo from Pantera, which opens up a whole new world of riffing opportunities) is sent into the jungle to retrieve the daughter of a senator, who was traveling with another army platoon and got shot down, or some such nonsense. Their guide is a tracker named Romero, who is an amalgamation of Robert Kerman's character and his guide from Cannibal Holocaust, taking on the actions and dialog of both characters. They head into the jungle, and from there with a few exceptions if there's an action scene it's one from Cannibal Holocaust and if there's a dialog scene it's one from Predator, up until dee choppah comes and Sarah makes it out alive while everyone else is cannibal chow.

Now, you may be thinking that I'm exaggerating when I talk about it being a shot-for-shot remake of the two movies. I thought the similarity might have been a coincidence when they aped the “meet the crew disembarking the helicopter” scene at the beginning. After all, they have to get out of dee choppah in order to get back to dee choppah at the end, right? I thought the similarity might have been a coincidence when Lt. Wilson sits down with the commissar (uh oh), or whatever, to get the lowdown on the mission. But then when they flat out fucking steal the helicopter footage from Predator for the airdrop sequence, my suspicions were confirmed.

You know, as great as it is, I never thought about Predator in terms of its dramatic impact and the acting chops of its cast. After watching this group of buffoons and their voicover crew woodenly ham their way (yeah, I didn't think that was possible either) through scenes from the far superior source, I realized how important those aspects of the earlier movie were. Sure, most of them were just a bunch of grunting weightlifters, but there were a few actual thespians in the cast, and even the grunting weightlifters acquitted themselves admirably. Bill Duke was probably the best of the lot, and the version of the “I'm gonna cut your name into him” speech from In the Land of the Cannibals really accentuates how good a job he and Jesse Ventura did of sketching out their characters' friendship with just a couple lines of dialog, because in Predator it's a surprisingly emotional moment, and in this flick it stands out as being a fucking awful imitation in a great sea of fucking awful imitations.

It also doesn't help that every time one of the commandos bites it, you remember the awesome action sequences in Predator and your mind's eye vividly recalls, say, Carl Weathers being literally disarmed and hauled into the air on the blades of the towering alien hunter, while your actual eyes are seeing nothing but a group of befuddled and slightly embarrassed looking Filipinos in loincloths and silly pastel-colored war paint.

There are a couple of interesting departures taken by this flick from either of its plagiarized sources. Well, they're departures. They could have been interesting if someone had bothered to make an effort here. For example, Lt. Wilson really only starts out as the Dutch analog. That role increasingly transfers to Romero throughout the movie, with Wilson losing his cool and taking over the role of Dillon, the incompetent loser who constantly endangers his men.

Most notably, though, is the character of Velasquez. Yes, because ripping off two things just wasn't enough, there had to be a tough Latina soldier who dies by grenade-induced self-sacrifice to buy the rest of the team some time. I was kind of disappointed she didn't grumble, “You always were an asshole, Gorman”, even though there's no one in the movie named Gorman. I mean, fuck it, it's Bruno Mattei, right? It's not like he gives a shit. Oddly enough, this awkward transplant gave the movie its one real chance to do something worthwhile since it seemed so determined to do nothing but slavishly (and astonishingly badly) copy two better movies the rest of the time. Early on, they come upon one of the cannibal tribesmen doing the adultery punishment bit from Cannibal Holocaust, and while all the men look on, Velasquez is the one who is all fired up to do something about it and you think maybe, just for a fleeting moment, that we're going to get a little feminist heroine action. Then Romero basically tells her to shush up and go make them some coffee like a good little girl and my sigh of exasperation was so deep I started seeing spots and thought I might pass out.

For being half a ripoff of one of the most notoriously graphic and brutal movies of all time, this thing sure is skittish with the sleaze. When there is gore, it's the one area where the movie mostly manages not to completely suck. There's one scene early on with Romero doing a very rough field postmortem with his Bowie knife on a really nasty looking badly decayed body and he nearly cracks its head in half trying to get a look at its molars. We also get a couple of pretty messy full-body explosions. But when it comes to the real nitty-gritty of cannibals dismembering people, it's pretty lacking. Whatever power the aforementioned adultery punishment scene may have had is pretty well dispersed by the female victim spending more effort on conspicuously trying to keep her nipples covered with her hands than keeping her insane boyfriend from shoving a ball of mud and nails into her vagina and bashing her head in with a rock. And although two different pigs are killed and mutilated, we only see the live before pig, and the dismembered after pig. Not that I particularly wanted to see a couple of terrified pigs killed for the sake of a shitty movie, mind you, but it seems an odd point of squeamishness. After all, you still have to see their guts spilled out all over the ground, so it's not like they're sparing any animal lovers in the audience. Since Mattei cuts back to the actors hacking up the carcasses to revel in the gore after the deed is done anyway, it almost makes it worse than if they'd just showed the whole thing, in a way. If you're going to have that kind of awful thing in your movie, at least have the balls to follow through with it instead of pretending you didn't do what everyone damn well knows you did.

It's worth checking out for its novelty, probably better with friends than a solo viewing, and make sure you have some alcohol on hand. You're going to need it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ebola Syndrome (1996)

Written by: Ting Chau
Directed by: Herman Yau
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang as Kai
Meng Lo as the Boss
Yeung-Ming Wan as Yeung

I don't remember exactly where I first read about ebola, but I know it was around junior high school when all the computers got wired up with this newfangled thing called the internet and we spent every study hall and free period just roaming around search engines hoping to find something cool that wouldn't set off content alarms. James Lileks's Gallery of Regrettable Foods was a big hit as was the Institute for the Easily Amused. And then we discovered that if you searched through Yahoo's pre-sorted website categories, there was a tab marked “Humor.” And if you clicked that there were subcategories of humor, and among them another tab marked “Tasteless.” Readers of a certain age know exactly where this is going. Who can forget one of the earliest – and still one of the greatest – webcomics, “Mr. T Ate My Balls” and its many spinoffs and copycats (and now I realize that the world, whether it knows it or not, needs a Cinemasochist Apocalypse Ate My Balls strip)? Surely I'm not the only one out there who clubbed a seal for world peace. It's where I learned that John Denver's favorite drink is Ocean Spray. And somewhere in this warped mess that probably helps explain the parts of my sense of humor that aren't accounted for by Monty Python, Red Green, and MST3K, there must have been a page devoted to ebola, because I distinctly remember the phrase, “So many nifty special effects in one little package of RNA”, although I can't remember now where I saw it.

That brings us to tonight's movie. I won't delve too deep into the specifics of Cat III Hong Kong movies, as it's been done better elsewhere. I'll just say that they're unlike any other type of exploitation movie you've ever seen. They'll give you whiplash trying to keep up with the tone changes from horror to sex to comedy to any combination of the three and back again. They pack enough gristly punch and are filled with enough weird shit to turn the stomach of your average movie goer, but they can be a frustrating experience if all you're looking for is visceral thrills because they often take lengthy departures from angry witches turning people into giant schlongs or disgruntled employees raping everyone they see full of ebola, to engage in fairly boring drama or comedy that is frequently abrasively unfunny to Western audiences (at least those Western audiences who wish everyone involved in making those fucking Grown Ups movies would wind up on the receiving end of a vengeful cock full of hemorrhagic fever).

Herman Yau is an insanely prolific director, most famous for either Human Pork Buns: The Untold Story, or the recent Ip Man movies, or both, depending on the kind of film circles you run in. It's pretty amazing what a guy can do with a little money and a high-def camera because those Ip Man movies look like a million bucks and the aforementioned flicks as well as tonight's movie...well...

The scene is set when we meet Kai screwing his boss's wife. The boss comes home early and catches them at it, threatening to cut off Kai's dick with a pair of scissors (threats of dick violence are a recurring theme). Feigning subservience, Kai offers to cut his own dick off so the great boss doesn't have to lower himself to such an unworthy task. The boss, so sure of his dominance, hands Kai the scissors. This, as you may imagine, goes poorly for all involved. Kai slaughters nearly the whole family and is just about to set the boss's young daughter on fire after dousing her with some kind of accelerant when he's interrupted by a delivery man, or maybe a concerned neighbor, or something. A lot of the characters aren't named often if at all and IMDB is nearly useless for this movie.

Ten years later, Kai is hiding from the law in Johannesburg, working as a cook at a Chinese restaurant. He splits his time pretty evenly between getting in fights with his current boss's wife and getting drunk while complaining to the one person who can stomach his company enough to be considered a friend that he's tired of fucking the same whore every night but none of the other ones in town will give him the time of day. After an unsuccessful attempt at soliciting some nookie gets him kicked out of the bar, he returns to his crummy little apartment above the restaurant, cuts a slit in a porkchop, and fucks it while he listens to his boss boffing his wife in the apartment next door. The scene where returns to the kitchen with the pork chop, sniffs it, rubs it around in his hands a little to thin out the spooge and tosses it back in the fridge is one of the funniest parts of the movie.

I know what you're thinking. Didn't he say the comedy in this kind of movie usually wasn't funny? Yes, I did say that, and when I watched this flick for the first time a couple of years back, I remember thinking it was slow and boring and unfunny. This is why watching subtitled movies while hammered out of your skull isn't a good idea. Ebola Syndrome is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Granted, you kind of have to be a horrible asshole to see the humor in the situations, but...well...have you met me?

Anyway, the real trouble starts when one day Kai's boss decides he's tired of the Afrikaner butcher he usually buys his meat from ripping him off. He somehow got a tip that a nearby Zulu tribe sells livestock for a much more reasonable price, and so he and Kai set off into the bush to buy some pigs. On the way there they see a clearly ill woman stumbling around near a riverbank, and since she's topless and Kai's an enormous perv, he wants the boss to stop so they can fuck her. Bossman is all business though, and it's off to the village they go. Half the village appears to be dead, and half the living population looks like they'll be joining the stiff brigade sooner than later, but a cheap pig is a cheap pig, and before long they're bouncing back down the dirt road with some hogs in the back of the pickup.

When Kai manages to ram the truck into a tree, he and the boss have a row and he storms off into the bush. And then he storms into an entirely different kind of bush when he finds that woman from earlier passed out by the riverbank. Credit where it's due, Kai's first response is the normal human one of trying to wake her up, and when that fails, to move her out of the sun so he can get help. Then his hand brushes one of her breasts and he decides, what the hell, might as well rock out with my cock out! Before Kai can finish railing the unconscious woman, she vomits a stream of infected puke into his face and passes the deadliest disease known to man on to him.

Wouldn't you know it though, he's one of the lucky few who are immune. As if being a violent, sex-starved pervert with a persecution complex wasn't enough, when he gets over the fever he's sweating out on the boss's couch he'll be Typhoid Barry to boot. And that little girl he almost burned at the beginning? She's now an airline hostess, and spotted him at the restaurant while waiting for her next flight. She didn't recognize him outright, but she has a sort of psychic link that make her smell blood and toss her cookies every time she's near him. That should be handy for her cop boyfriend to track Kai with once he returns to Hong Kong to begin his rampage of scrotum gravy and boogers and spit. You know, because the trail of melted corpses was so inconspicuous.

Aside from being repugnantly funny (Kai running through the streets of Hong Kong threatening to cut himself with a knife and screaming, “EEEEBOLAAAA! EEEEEBOOOOOOLA!” is hysterical), the South African portion of the movie is also extremely racist. That being the case, I figured for sure that when I looked it up I would find that the Zulu lived nowhere near Johannesburg. Turns out I was wrong, stupid American that I am. That means that someone involved in this stupid, hateful little movie actually took the time to do a little geography. Compare this to American cinema, where half the time we can't even get our own geography right in our movies, let alone someone else's. The remake of The Crazies, set near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was actually partially shot there AND THEY STILL GOT ALMOST ALL THE DETAILS WRONG! How in the fuck do you even do that!? They showed fields that looked like the fucking Dust Bowl and claimed the whole area would die if they didn't irrigate it with the infected water. We haven't had a drought like that in my lifetime, my dad's lifetime, hell, probably my grandpa's lifetime, and the Cedar Valley is a massive floodplain! How do you spend that many weeks shooting a movie IN IOWA, ABOUT A FARMING COMMUNITY, AND NEVER ACTUALLY TALK TO A GODDAMN FARMER!?!?

Ok, aneurism over. I'll leave you with this. Ebola Syndrome is a nasty, vicious exploitation movie full of rape and cannibalism and child murder and lots of talking about dick violence. If you look at it from a slightly different angle, it's also a sobering meditation on why it's a good thing superpowers aren't real, because if they were, you know damn well the great majority of the people who lucked into them would be a lot more like Kai than Kal-El.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Digital Harvest

For those weirdos among you who aren't incurable paper hoarders, Dead Harvest is now available as an e-book.  Hit the link below and download massive amounts of horror.