Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The COLOUR of Lovecraft, Part 2

In 1987 the stars aligned, planets converged and a movie crew came together that I still am having issues wrapping my head around. Imagine Ovidio G. Assonitis and Lucio Fulci as producer with the David Keith (yes, the David Keith of TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT and WHITE OF THE EYE fame) as director and Fulci shooting second unit with Claude Akins and Wil Wheaton as leads. Now imagine that this actually happened. This very underrated adaptation of “Colour” has one of the most unusual collections of cast and crew that I can think of off the top of my head and it completely blows my mind to think of them working together. I'd love to know how the whole thing came about, but what we do know is that according to a Fangoria interview, Keith stipulated that he would take the gig, but only if they were to shoot it in his home state! Hence the transplant from Massachusetts to Tennessee.

A meteor crashes near a southern farmhouse in which god-fearing farmer Nathan Hayes (Akins) rules the roost with the iron will of the lord. The lord's word is loosely translated via Nathan's open hand connecting with the mouths of his stepson (Wheaton) or anyone who even thinks of stepping out of line. The local chairman of the city council warns that no-one should speak of the meteor as it might attract the wrong kind of government attention, when in fact, he is worried that the EPA won’t put in a new reservoir and he won’t be able to profit off of buying up the local farmland for a pennies on the dollar. Almost overnight the meteor melts into “colourful” sludge and the crops grow huge and hearty. The lord gets the credit, but we soon find out everything that grows is rotten on the inside. As the family continues to drink the tained well water and eat the tainted food, the family starts to go insane and violent. All except the stepson and stepdaughter who have been sneaking in untainted food and water.

I have to admit, I like so many others, was definitely on the hatewagon that this film generated. I didn’t (and still don’t) like Wil Wheaton and at the time Claude Akins was just that “Sherriff Lobo” guy. The movie wasn’t ultra-gory like RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and FROM BEYOND (1986), didn’t have the brilliant casts that those two had and was pretty low-rent comparatively speaking, which accounts for the mixed reviews at back in the day. Current audiences seem hate this movie because of Wil Wheaton. Not because they hate Wheaton, but because they love him on “Star Trek: The Next Regurgitation.” They watch this movie because of fan devotion and discover it is (gasp) not like “Star Trek”! Then promptly run to their favorite blog/review site/discussion board and dis away.

This movie represents an epiphany of sorts for us at VJHQ. Mr. Wilson re-visited it a while back and found it to be entertaining; I watch it now and I have to say... I really enjoyed it. Particularly if viewed in context of other Italian-made genre films of that same year: the third Ator film, IRON WARRIOR, Lucio Fulci's AENIGMA, Umberto Lenzi's WARTIME, Joe D'Amato's KILLING BIRDS, Ruggero Deodato's CAMPING DEL TERROR, Sergio Martino's THE OPPONENT, Fabrizio De Angelis' KARATE WARRIOR, etc. I'm not saying these are all terrible films (except for AENIGMA, I'm saying that is a really terrible film), but hardly representative of their creator's best work and out of all those, I'd say THE CURSE comes out on top. Plus any film with a score by the great veteran genre composer Franco Micalizzi can't be all bad! Micalizzi, maybe best known for his classic score for VIOLENT NAPLES (1976), here provides a Ry Cooder-esque slide guitar combined with electronica for what I consider to be a score that may be even better than this movie deserves.

When you take a short story and expand it into a feature length film it is the opposite of adapting a 300 page book. A full book has to have lots of narrative and subplots dropped and some streamlining is required which can mean some restructuring of plot elements and characters. When adapting a short story, generally speaking, it’s going to either be padded out with lots of nothing which is not a good thing, or it’s going to have to have a clever writer figure out how to add characters, subplots and dialogue, bulking the film out to make a well paced feature. Here David Chaskin, fresh off of the not terribly well received A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 (1985), does exactly that. Chaskin, who would go on to write the excellent cult classic I, MADMAN (1989), retains a large amount of the Lovecraft story and builds a pretty solid foundation on which to build the necessary additions. Like all adaptations, the first half of the story revealing Lovecraft’s fascination with modern scientific techniques is gone, but are actually referenced in a scene near the end of the film. Many other little points from the story are woven into the plot here including the colour from the well, the crazed horse, the shrinking meteor, the reservoir, and a few others. He didn’t have to do that. It could have just ran with the seemingly "Jordy Verrill" inspired approach with a southern farm beset by formless evil, but he actually made the effort to work many of the stories points into the script and that counts for a whole hell of a lot in my book.

Shot with lots of fog and smoke, the filmmakers take every opportunity to inject atmosphere and make the film look bigger than it really is. There aren’t a whole lot of locations and admittedly the special effects are pretty “budget conscious” (you can plainly see the metal swing-arm attached to the meteor when it plows into the earth), no opportunity to get some visual excitement on the screen is missed. The subplot about the family dogs may seem superfluous, but adds another bit of menace and action when they start going crazy and end up mauling the doctor’s hot, but manipulative, wife. Interestingly, instead of outright gore, they decided to use a similar goo-factor approach as in the CREEPSHOW vignette. A cabbage is sliced open to reveal a puss-like multi-hued goo running out, as do the eyes and mouths of the afflicted chickens (who attack the young stepdaughter, played by Wil’s real life sister, Amy Wheaton) and the crazed family members.  That said, Fulci’s fingerprints are all over a scene that takes place in the basement. The scene, echoing a similar one in THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), features the crazed, mutated mother ripping out someone’s throat (no spoilers) with her clawed hands. It seems like this scene was tampered with by the MPAA as it looks like it was trimmed of some gore. After the victim falls to the floor she rips open his shirt and we get a quick glimpse of her ripping open his chest as it quickly cuts away. Whether this is censorship or maybe an effect that didn’t work, I can’t say for certain.

The cast is another factor that elevates the film. Sure the cast can’t compete with the larger than life presences of Jeffrey Combs and David Gale, but they really don’t have to. If taken by their own merits, the adult leads are actually quite good. Claude Akins, oddly sporting some product in his closely cropped hair, is nothing short of excellent as a strict, cruel farmer who makes up for his lack of education with a strong hand and a bible. Complimenting him is Kathleen Jordon Gregory (who died of cancer after making the film) as his wife, Francis, who damn near carries the movie with her subtle performance. She succumbs to madness without going way over the top, but is just loopy enough to be both creepy and rather amusing. The scene where she is darning a sock that is in her hand and begins to sew through her flesh while alternately laughing and screaming actually made me squirm a bit on my sofa, and lemme tell ya, that’s saying something. Coming from a background in Shakespearian theater, her performance as a mistreated woman makes a sharp contrast to Wheaton’s wooden acting and worse, the big bully step-brother Cyrus, Malcolm Danare, who’s “retarded fat guy” performance is more appropriate for a bad college comedy than an HP Lovecraft adaptation.

Speaking of Danare, who previously annoyed me in CHRISTINE (1983) and went on to annoy me in POPCORN (1991), he is easily the low point of this film. Not only does he rape the scenery like a high school attention-whore, but for some belial-only-knows reason, someone felt that he should only have one costume for the entire film: a mid-drift football jersey and low-rise jeans. This means we get to be subjected to more fat, hairy, ass-crack than a fistful of Jack Black movies. There is a scene that is far more disturbing than it should have been where Francis is starting to lose it and is suturing some barbed wire wounds in Cyrus’ ass. Cyrus yelps “what are you doing back there!?” to which Francis replies “connect... the... dots…” Slowly Nathan and Zach realize that is not the right answer and rush to look, cut to a shot of Cyrus bent over with thread zig-zagging from wound to wound. That was a very effective scene of horror until we got a big master shot of Cyrus' sasquach-like man-ass. And while we’re on the subject of too much skin, who was the chicken hawk who thought it would be a good idea to have Wheaton frequently shirtless and running around in his tidy-whiteys?

So, greatest movie ever? No. The best Lovecraft adaptation ever? No. But damned entertaining with some effective moments and, for the most part, a pretty cleverly adapted story.

More Italian "Colour"... NEXT!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: Legocraft!

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The Horrors of Dunwich, Part 2

So we saw what a modestly budgeted SyFy-licious take on "The Dunwich Horror" would look like. Now let's take a look at how some true independent filmmakers would tackle the subject.

BEYOND THE DUNWICH HORROR (2007) – I’m too lazy to write this plot out so here is they synopsis from the IMDb:

Kenny Crawford (Michael Reed) arrives in Dunwich after hearing that his brother Andrew (Jason McCormick) has been admitted to a psychiatric ward, and is suspected in a string of disappearances in the town. With the help of local reporter Marsha Calloway (Ruth Sullivan) and the eccentric Upton Armitage (Jeff Dylan Graham) he probes the last few weeks of his brother's life. As they do so, they uncover evidence of a plot in the works revolving around Andrew, his girlfriend Nikki Hartwell (Sarah Nicklin) and her twisted friend Otto Bellinger (Carlos Brum).

Lensed in Lovecraft territory (Providence, Rhode Island), this indie shot-on-video horror flick has a lot of things going for it. Unfortunately, the negatives swallow up the positives like a huge tsunami wave. For the first hour, you wouldn’t even think this has anything to do with Lovecraft outside of a few references here and there. I mean, when did Lovecraft write about goth clubs where people eat worms or frightening threesomes where a guy is raped? Then, roughly an hour and six minutes in, Upton Armitage gives the muther of all exposition speeches that reveals this is a sequel to “The Dunwich Horror” and that every major character is a relative of the Whateley or Armitage clan. Plus, we are introduced to the fabled Necronomicon as a major plot device. I liked that but, dude, could you have introduced the main plot a bit sooner? The scattershot plotting is a major problem here. But let’s look at the bright side first.


The filmmakers really tried. Even before seeing the film my interest was piqued by some amazing poster art, a well done trailer and some snazzy old school lobby cards. In my review of GRAVEYARD OF THE DEAD, I crucified filmmaker Vick Campbell for not even attempting to circumvent (or even acknowledge) budgetary problems. The same cannot be said for BEYOND’s writer-director Richard Griffin who clearly put his tiny budget ($75,000) to good use. The film opens with an aerial shot, so you know he isn’t going to be one of those whiney “We are low budget so we can’t do ‘big movie’ stuff” filmmakers. The film features some nice location photography, great sound work, moody lighting and some effective scare scenes. Also, the acting by most of the leads is decent, which is a rarity in low budget productions. Reed, Graham and Sullivan are all good in there roles and have some snappy exchanges. They even managed to snag Lynn Lowery (I DRINK YOUR BLOOD; THE CRAZIES) for a cameo. I also totally dug the downbeat ending, even if it is straight out of THE WICKER MAN (1973). By far the best thing about the film is the Fabio Frizzi-esque score by Tony Milano (check the trailer for a highlight).


Um, everything else? For all the positive work that Griffin does, there is always something there to undermine it. For every good line of dialog, there are two equally bad ones. For every good performance, there is one that will make you yog your kothag and go, “Oh, almighty Old Ones, you can’t be serious!” I hate to single folks out but rail-thin McCormick and rail-thinner Brum – who looks like an anemic Buster Poindexter – are particularly bad. And then there are THE sex scenes. Ouch! I get including stuff like this to add an exploitation element but this might contain the most unattractive threesome in the history of cinema (not to mention both guys look like they weigh 90-lbs. soaking wet). You know you are doing something wrong when I pine for the eroticism of the dreadful WITCHCRAFT series! This leads me to the biggest problem with the film: the bloated running time. BEYOND is one hefty sumbitch, clocking in at 1 hour and 44 minutes.  There is absolutely no reason this should run that long. I don’t mind long films at all; I just mind films that are pointlessly padded or not subject to some judicial editing. I was having a pity party for myself for having endured this until Tom informed me that MYSTERY OF THE NECRONOMICON ran a whopping 2 hours and 7 minutes.

In the end, BEYOND THE DUNWICH HORROR is a film that is halfway there. They get an A for effort on what is ultimate a C film. A solid 5 out of 10. Hell, these guys did better than Ulli "No sugar added" Lommel and he has been making flicks for 30 years! Shot-on-video horror can be done effectively. For example, Ivan Zuccon’s COLOUR FROM THE DARK (2008) cost just a tad more than this and blew it away. I’ll let Mr. Simmons elaborate more on that later. With this one, just check out the trailer below and call it a day. I always like to end on a positive note so let me say that BEYOND does have a place in Lovecraft cinema history as it is probably the only Lovecraft film to feature the following line of dialog:

“Look, just come down to the club this week. My band Suicide Pudding is performing.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: Dan O'Bannon on H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The COLOUR of Lovecraft, Part 1

One of my favorite, if not the favorite, Lovecraft story is “The Colour Out of Space”. Highly influential and way ahead of its time, the story builds up slowly until it crushes you with the weight of the eldritch horror of the Blasted Heath. The narrator is a surveyor who is doing the leg-work for a new reservoir in Arkham. He tells of his attempt to visit the Grower’s farm and his encounters with spooked locals, the blasted heath and a reputedly deranged old man, Ammi Pierce, who was an eye witness to the horrors. The first half of the story tells of the discovery and thorough scientific examination of a meteorite that crashed to earth next to the Grower family farm house. Lovecraft revels in the hard details, of what was no doubt cutting edge science at the time, to illustrate just how other worldly this meteorite is. For those of us who didn’t pursue chemistry past our public educations, either you are going to have to read it with a pocket encyclopedia handy or just skim through it mumbling “yeah, yeah, words, words, where’s the eldritch horror?” If you do look up some of that stuff, it’s pretty impressive and must have spun a few science-minded noggins back in the day. Following the science lesson, Ammi (who turns out not to be so crazy after all) recounts the trials of the Grower family who’s sudden bounty crop could seemed like a windfall, but the bitter, foul flavor and aroma was a harbinger of their ungodly fate. When I first read this story as a teenager, there were several parts that genuinely made my skin crawl. The sequence near the end where Ammi is halfway down the stairs, frozen in terror, while listening to something that was once human do inhuman things and then start moving towards the stairs is, in my opinion, one of the most chilling moments in any piece of horror literature. You can read the full story here.

The first HP Lovecraft adaptation I ever saw, and coincidentally one of the earliest if not the first adaptations, was DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965). Obviously drawing *ahem* inspiration from Roger Corman’s seven Edgar Allen Poe adaptations made from 1960-1964, AIP’s  adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” sported Corman’s classic swirling colors and rear-projection opening credits and gothic mansion story-telling. Taking place in Arkham, England in modern day (well, modern for when this film was made) this version tells of the Witley estate, shunned by the country locals who are terrified of the family’s legacy of evil. An American, Stephen Reinhart (TV veteran Nick Adams), arrives in Arkham at the behest of the mother of his college sweetheart, Letitia Witley (Freda Jackson). Upon arrival he finds that the villagers refuse to not only drive him to the house, but even renting him a bicycle is out of the question. After humping down the road he finally comes to the Witley manor where he is all but thrown out on his ear by a wheelchair-bound Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff). Seems Nahum doesn’t want him there and refuses any explanation. Letitia, however, is delighted to see him but avoids any probing into the issue and the mother, hidden behind the curtains on her bed, has a strange tale to tell that vaguely outlines the horrors that have unfolded within the house. The grandfather was well known for being evil (this is reinforced by a close-up of his family portrait with his eyes highlighted) and it seems that it is being hinted that Nahum is continuing his “work”, though he adamantly refuses this. It’s never really implicitly stated what sort of evil it is that the grandfather was up to, but the implication is the use of the meteorite.

After a long patch of minor incidents and lots of drama we find that Nahum’s green house is filled with exceptionally healthy plants, one so healthy that it tries to get a piece of Letitia EVIL DEAD style (well, in a G-rated way)! The best part is the revelation that pieces of some sort of glowing rock are not only making the plants a little too frisky, but they have mutated animals into what Steve calls “a zoo in hell”. These rubbery tentacled horrors are actually the highpoint of the film. All of this “evil” is attributed to radiation from the space rock which Steve declares to be Uranium. He knows this because he went to college and apparently there he learned that uranium glows with funny colors. As we all know from watching GODZILLA (1954) and old Jerry Brown speeches, radiation is in fact evil and causes stuff to grow all crazy (though if I’m not mistaken, then Governor Brown seemed to have missed that last point during his crusade). Of course this radiation will also turn elderly, wheelchair-bound men who accidentally break the rock to turn into a super-strong, silver-skinned maniac that likes to run around and try to kill damn nosy kids with his bare hands. Ha! They didn’t teach you that in college, did they, mister smartass American guy?

As much as I like the brief appearance of some rubber monsters and Patrick Magee (who is completely wasted, so to speak, as the town doctor), this movie’s only saving grace is really Boris Karloff. There is nothing that man could do that wouldn’t be instantly transformed from a sloppy mess to, at the very least, an entertaining sloppy mess. Some of the changes made to Lovecraft’s story are reasonable (assuming that you find the fact that AIP wanted to turn Lovecraft into Poe reasonable); Merwyn is no longer the Nahum Gardener’s son as in the story, but now is Nahum Witley’s elderly manservant. Gone is the lengthy scientific evaluation of the stone in the beginning, instead a knee-jerk “radiation screws everything up, let’s run for it” explanation is thrown in at the end. Lots of clumsy red-herrings are attempted by trying to make out as if Nahum is involved in some evil Eldritch rituals that go back a generation, when it turns out he's actually trying to save the world. One character runs amok dressed like a reject from a Mario Bava giallo wielding a kitchen knife, but serves no purpose other than to drum up some excitement in the second act. Another, previously presumed dead, pops up out of nowhere dressed exactly the same, to attack Nahum and cause him to accidentally break the meteorite with a battle axe. Other than that, most of the horror elements from the very end of Lovecraft’s story are strangely omitted. Most I can see being removed due to budgetary concerns, but they could have managed the some of it, including the sequence on the staircase instead of the silver-lamé killer.

While I don’t totally dislike this movie, it’s a pretty piss poor Lovecraft adaptation. Though it’s well shot, Jerry Sohl’s disjointed, blundering screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The leads are left to hold up most of the movie and unfortunately Freda Jackson and Nick Adams are way too bland and uninteresting to be able to do that. They almost seem like they were lifted from a William Castle film, the only difference being that Castle surrounded his typically uninspired leads with all sorts of crazy stuff that was either effective or amusingly not. Every time I've watched the film I can't help but think how great it would have been if the creatures from the "zoo" had been able to break free and go on a rampage. Now that would have been a crappy adaptation, but a damn cool one! Sohl went on to do another equally sloppy Lovecraft adaptation of "The Dreams in the Witch House" for Tigon Studios, released as THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968) with no credit to Lovecraft.

It seems that AIP was going to try their hand at making a more faithful adaptation in 1971 with a project titled THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE. Unfortunately details on this unproduced film are about so scarce that it’s entirely possible this could be nothing more than a rumor or an incorrect factoid in a book (anyone else remember the cavalcade of errors in John Stanley’s “Creature Features” books?) . Hard to say without seeing some real evidence.

In 1982 when Lovecraft was surging back into popularity, George Romero’s CREEPSHOW featured a 14 minute vignette based on “Colour” titled “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” based on the short story “Weeds” by Stephen King.  Written and played very broadly by Mr. King hisself, and brother when I say “broadly”, I mean that it’s about as subtle and nuanced as an episode of “Hee Haw”. Verrill is a farmer who is an apple tree short of a orchard, and we know this because he talks like Gomer Pyle and watches WWF (Bob Backlund vs. The Samoan, for those who care) on a little black and white TV.

After a small meteor crashes near his farmhouse, Verrill gets the idea to sell it to the local university as he’s sure they’ll pay top dollar for it. While trying to cool it off, the meteor cracks in two spilling out an oddly colored goo which, as everyone remembers, Verrill declares to be (say it with me) “meteor shit!” The meteor shit causes a strange fungus or moss-like plantlife to grow all over everything including Verrill. This adaptation seems like it is set in the south, but as the road-signs indicate at the end of the piece, it’s actually in King’s favorite stomping grounds of Maine. It’s got a few of the elements from Lovecraft’s story; strange colored lights, plant growth and the meteor being carried in a lead bucket. Other than that this bit is strictly played for laughs, though the end is nicely grim and keeps the “good luck turned deadly” theme of Lovecraft's story.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: TO OBLIVION

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The Horrors of Dunwich, Part 1

Well, here we are a week into our “A Week of Howard Phillips Lovecraft” with no signs of stopping. See, we’re rebels and we refuse to conform to THE MAN’s idea of a week so hopefully you will enjoy the bonus days of more coverage of all things Lovecraftian in cinema. Also, a special thanks to the amazing UNFILMABLE blog for plugging us. Check them for the absolute best news on Lovecraft film projects big and small.

H.P. LOVECRAFT'S THE DUNWICH HORROR (2009) – Hmmm, a modern adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s most well known stories starring Dean Stockwell and Jeffrey Combs? How can you screw this up? Well, leave it to The Asylum alumni (escapee?) Leigh Scott to create a cheap film that not only does disservice to Lovecraft but also genre movies in general. Here we go!

Dr. Henry Armitage (Stockwell), Walter Rice (Griff Furst) and Professor Fay Morgan (Sarah Lieving) are searching for the original copy of the Necronomicon because it has the missing page 751, which outlays the way to open and close portals for the Old Gods. Also looking for this page is Wilbur Whateley (Jeffrey Combs), a ten-year-old boy from a cliché redneck family who has rapidly aged to look forty. Wilbur also has a habit of chloroforming hotties to feed to his twin with tentacles living in the family attic.

This is reminds me of the Corman Poe adaptations. No, not those classic adaptations from the 1960s, but the cheapo Concorde productions from the late 1980s. While it does retain the general plot of Lovecraft's story, nearly everything is left unfulfilled or poorly executed. Director Scott appears to be a Lovecraft fan, yet he contorts the story enough to make it frustrating. For example, Morgan is now made into a woman so we can get the relationship angle with Rice. And the Whateley family is now an inbred redneck family (screeching mom in wig, grandfather in wheelchair) that would give Rob Zombie a boner. Nothing regarding their dabbling in the black arts is referenced.

Of course, poor adaptation can’t be blamed for lame moments like Rice and Morgan visiting a floating fat man with S&M belly dancers in the Louisiana swamps, Necronomicon writer Abdul Alhazred being shown on a cave set measuring 3X3 with the fakest beard EVER or Rice donning a Harry Potter-esque cloak for the final battle. A frustrating translation to the screen is further marred by Scott’s insistence that he has some sense of style. He fills the movie with fade outs for no reason in the middle of scenes, annoying glitches and hyper-edits every ten seconds. If you didn’t know it was intended to look like this, you’d be kicking your TiVo and screaming, “Stop screwing up!”

And then there are the effects. Whooooo boy! The monster is laughable, looking like Martian queen from INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) crossed with Grace Jones (see pics). Even Scott might have sensed how bad this thing looks as he keeps the glimpses brief. The storm effects during the final black magic showdown at the Whateley farm are worthy of the Sci-Fi, er, SyFy Channel, which is where this disaster fittingly debuted last fall. What does it say about your film when you can see better effects work during a Bosley hair restoration ad during a commercial break?

Better special effect? This:

Or this:

In fact, the only interesting thing about it is that Dean Stockwell also starred as Wilbur in the 1970 adaptation of the story, a fact that Scott fails to exploit. Sadly, the scariest thing in the film is Stockwell's gullet that boasts a huge lump that dangles over his shirt collars. I’m not one to endorse plastic surgery but you might want to get that bad boy checked out. Jeffrey Combs actually gives a decent performance as the man-child, one deserving to be in a better film. Furst and Lieving get a majority of the screen time and they are serviceable. So my own lack of judgment at 2am gets me nothing in return. Shocker. I think the tagline on this release of the film (under the title WITCHES) just about sums it this experience up...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: Elder Sign

Friday, May 14, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: Mystery of the Nothingtodowithlovecrafticon

In the interest of full disclosure I should let you know that I am not one of those “Anime Guys”. It takes a whole hell of a lot to drag me to an anime. In about 1990 bootlegs of a Japanese animated series called THE WANDERING KID (1989, aka UROTSUKIDOJI) started making the rounds in Japanese with no subtitles. A jaw-dropping onslaught of gore, sex and monsters, and monsters having gory sex; things that should not be, doing things that should not be done. At the time it was total insanity. Hell, even these days after being exposed to hentai for the past 20 years, it’s still pretty freakin’ nuts. WANDERING KID pretty much started a huge fanbase for extreme anime in America and part of that is because of its extremely shocking content. What gave it legs was the fact that the animation was better than average and the storyline was actually an epic end-of-the-universe kind of thing with tons of subplots and allegoric overtones. Because of this, it’s always got a place in my movie collection.

Other anime that I’ve watched tends to be either a bad anime that was the basis of a great movie. RIKI-OH (1989) was a mediocre Japanese anime that was adapted into an amazingly violent Hong Kong film titled THE STORY OF RICKY (1991) which was strangely lifted out of the bootleg market when “The Daily Show with Craig Kilbourne” featured a clip of the head-smashing scene in damn near every episode. Conversely SUPERNATURAL BEAST CITY (1987) was a stunningly stylish, beautifully animated horror anime about a Men-in-Black-esque organization who maintain the integrity of the barriers between our world and what is tantamount to hell. Dark and gruesome with major Lovecraftian influence, it was a gorgeous, well produced masterpiece, adapted into a completely uninspired, low-budget Hong Kong Tsui Hark film, WICKED CITY (1992).

When I heard that the latest outing from WANDERING KID director Hideki Takayama was a Lovecraft-inspired tale and was getting a stateside release, I was pretty excited. Animation is a great forum for Eldrich Horrors, if it's done right. The operative words being "done right".

I guess if I was one of those guys that watches nothing but anime and sits through all kinds of badly animated OVA crap, the half-assed detective story in MYSTERY OF THE NECRONOMICON (1999) might be a breath of fresh air. The plot slowly rolls out as a swarthy, long-haired private detective goes on vacation with his 20 year-old, no-longer adopted, daughter of his dead girlfriend. Once there he finds the bodies are starting to pile up, all with their eyes and faces removed. One of the female suspects was being blackmailed over a video in which she is masturbating while looking at a photo of her young female student. More suspects die and after the cops give him a hard time about being found near the scene of a similar crime years ago, the detective finds himself at another hotel. Here the same thing happens, except more graphically. A late-night lesbian S&M session between two college girls leads to them being found brutally killed. This extended sex scene features one of a couple unintentionally funny bits where as her lover forms the fabled 69, she gazes into her spread-wide much box and in a hushed voice whispers "mysterious..." before diving in. Hey, in an entertainment desert, that's a cool glass of water, lemme tell ya. Anyway, as the cops investigate, the girls suddenly re-animate and are re-killed with a bullet in the head. Next!

The wandering around, talking to witnesses, finding someone dead sort of thing goes on over the span of 127 minutes and while it’s not entirely a bad premise, it could have been 45 minutes easy and would have been all the better for it. If only for the fact that there would be less of it to sit through. Even though we spend almost two hours with a relentlessly padded mystery, the whole thing is wrapped up in a few half-assed minutes that half-heartedly tries to answer all the questions it posed in the last 120 minutes as fast as it can and if some slip through the cracks, if it doesn't make any sense, well that's just too bad because you've already paid your money! Sucker! The ending is as lame as anything you’d see in an episode of HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE or SCOOBY-DOO... except maybe with out the nudity, urination and subsequent cunnilingus.

Compounding its errors is the fact that it’s got fuck-all to do with H.P. Lovecraft. For some reason I was thinking “Necronomicon = Eldritch horrors” and I thought animation would be a great medium to be able to show the things that should not be. Apparently I was wrong. The plot and characters have nothing to do with HP Lovecraft and his mythos other than the villain being named “Herbert West” and in his possession is the Necronomicon (modeled after the one in EVIL DEAD II, by way of Leatherface), which he explains is “the Devil Book. The book that contains the power of the Devil”. That’s it! Done! Peace out! Please go back to the kitchen and pack your knives. Seriously? Is that all you got? It makes me wonder if the script wasn't given a quick re-write to add those two elements so that they could slap "Necronomicon" on the cover and push a few more units.

Since this was directed by Hideki Takayama of UROTSUKIDOJI fame, I was expecting some sort of style or at least some crazy monster action. You’d think that there would probably be some elder gods popping up with the Necronomicon being bandied about, but no! The closest thing you get to a monster is a couple of brief appearances of a couple of zombies that are nothing but the same characters rendered with no pupils and grey-green skin (or, for some reason, just purple). It's pretty sad when an episode of "The Real Ghostbusters" sports more monsters and more authentic Lovecraft influence than an adult anime! The animation is rank, low-budget stuff. Stiff and jerky with no detail and a bland color palette. There isn't much gore past the few discovered murder victims and the sex scenes are perfunctory at best. Most are dull, lifeless scenes that are typical of R-rated movies, some are a bit more explicit with specific fetishes being catered to, but either way, you’d have to be really into cartoon sex to find any of this even marginally exciting.

I usually dismiss most of what the on-line Lovecraft fanbase has to say about adaptations because they’ll bitch, piss and moan about a movie not being an exact translation of the source material, and then ironically talk about how great RE-ANIMATOR is (which it is, but c'mon now, it’s hardly got anything to do with Lovecraft). Unfortunately this time they were right. I was particularly disappointed to see Hideki Takayama turn out such cheap, sloppy crap because of my fond memories of THE WANDERING KID, but then I remembered that he was also responsible for the awful, cheap-ass sequels too. The biggest mystery here is why they even bothered to try and associate this with Lovecraft at all. Something, I guess, man is not meant to know.

H.P. Lovecraft Week: DAGON

Thursday, May 13, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The Unwatchable!

Nearly 75 years after H.P. Lovecraft’s death and the Cthulhu Mythos is going strong in books, comics, games, movies and music. Cinematically speaking there have been nearly 100 adaptations of his work. Naturally, this high level of output is going to bring out the hucksters looking for a quick buck. Today we will examine two of the worst offenders.

H.P. LOVECRAFT’S THE TOMB (2007) – Two quick history lessons before we begin. Lesson #1 – Lovecraft’s short story “The Tomb” was first published in 1922. The story centers on a young man who, from an asylum cell, tells the tale of how he became entranced with the titular location by a burned down estate and how it eventually drove him insane. Lesson #2 – German director Ulli Lommel’s biggest claim to fame is hanging out with Andy Warhol and Fassbinder. His cinematic notoriety comes from the vaunted THE BOOGEYMAN, a semi-effective HALLOWEEN knock off from 1980. He is also responsible for what I once considered to be one of the worst films I’d ever seen, REVENGE OF THE BOOGEYMAN (aka THE BOOGEYMAN 3; 1994). Until now…

As a VJ rule of law, you always know you are going to be in for a rough time when the opening credits feature grammar errors. No joke, the on-screen title here reads H.P. LOVECRAFT THE TOMB. Is Lovecraft starring in this and top billed? Yup, they forgot the oh-so-important apostrophe “S” on there (the box gets it right). Anyway, Tara (Victoria Ullmann) and Billy (Christian Behm, who also edited under the pseudonym Xgin…really!) wake up in what appears to be a warehouse filled with 9 candles, 2 doll heads (creeeeeepy) and 8 coffins. A disembodied voice informs them they will “play a game” in “the tomb” as they must find 6 other folks and guess their captor’s name in addition to their connection. “Eight nails. Who fails?” he constantly teases them over the PA system.

Hmmmmm, the plot sounds awfully familiar. Yup, good ol’ Lommel is getting his SAW on big time. One can’t even begin to convey how bad this film is. It is shot-on-video and looks terrible. The sound is so muffled that I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what characters were saying. The set design consists of handing some poor PA $50 and telling them to go wild at the dollar store during Halloween. And, of course, you have the fact that Lommel is ripping off SAW hard. But the killer’s motivation is laughable. Everyone has wronged him in some way and he writes down their offense in his little book. One guy’s offense? “He sold me a lemon!” Yup, our killer Morris (Gerard Griesbaum) is willing to kidnap someone and torture them because he wasn’t smart enough to kick the tires on the used car lot. I’d almost want to give Lommel credit and assume he is doing a spoof of the inane SAW revenge motif. But then he shows the killer watching his captives on a computer WITH THE MONITOR TURNED OFF and I just remember Lommel’s an idiot.

All of this deems it pretty much unwatchable so the H.P. Lovecraft in the title is just the icing on the cake. Lommel actually has nods to Lovecraft’s work in the story as the villain throws out some names from Lovecraft’s fiction that Billy recognizes. Also, one future corpse is a high school English teacher who inexplicably starts quoting “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Finally, when Tara “wins” the game she is given money, a Ferrari and a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Tomb” for her trouble. What? Lommel went batshit around 2004 and started pumping out these SOV serial killer flicks like crazy. To date he has made 18 (!!!) of these flicks with his band of collaborators. The only thing worse than this flick is knowing that Lionsgate - who make a shitload of money off the SAW franchise - are cynical enough to pick this SAW-knock off up and release it to the masses, proving they have less respect for the horror audience than Lommel. A special screw you for the “Curiosity will lure you in” tagline.

CTHULHU MANSION (1990) – Compared to THE TOMB, this one gets off easy when it comes to the Lovesploitation. Magician Chandu (Frank Finlay) decides to use some spells from a book labeled Cthulhu (no Necronomicon, sheesh!) to spice up his husband 'n wife magic act. This results in him actually levitating his wife before a crowd (sweet) before she bursts into flames (d’oh!). Years later, Chandu is working a father ‘n daughter act at a carnival. After a drug deal gone bad (because all drug deals go down at the carnival), Hawk (Brad Fisher) and his gang kidnap Chandu and his team and head to his creepy Cthulhu (the only Lovecraft connection) Manor. Naturally, strange things start to happen after the criminals find the Cthulhu book.

This ain’t got hell all to do with Lovecraft stories outside of Lovecraft adaptations being all the rage in the late 80s. “From the imagination of H.P. Lovecraft” boasts the video box. Please point me in the direction of his stories about cocaine deals gone wrong at a carnival. The actual screen credit is a little more diplomatic, claiming the film was “Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.” So if you pretty much throw the word Cthulhu onscreen you are good to go in the world of video marketing. 

Of course, this type of exploitation is understandable when you know who was behind it. Director Juan Piquer Simon is a favorite round these parts for his goofy slasher masterpiece PIECES (1982) and the world’s best killer slug movie ever SLUGS (1988). This film, sadly, lacks the charm and insanity of those two but it is not without its moments. At least Simon was honest when he said of the film in 1991 to Fangoria, “It would be pretentious on my part to say that CTHULHU MANSION truly ‘does justice’ to Lovecraft’s writings.” The aforementioned on stage tragedy is a riot, especially when the mute assistant bolts onto stage and tries to put the flame engulfed floating wife out with a fire extinguisher. I can’t think of a worse day at the office. The whole gang gets it in a variety of bizarre ways including death by monster in the fridge, a blood spewing shower, killer ivy and flying cutlery. And the end demon is dispelled by literally turning his upside down cross right side up. Genius!

Finlay graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and I bet the day he received his diploma he never foresaw himself acting in this. Of course, he is a pro and gives it his all (hard lessons learned from starring at Mathilda May’s breasts on LIFEFORCE, no doubt) in what is easily the worst entry on his filmography. The rest of the cast is not quite up to Finlay’s snuff. Fisher is a riot (in all the wrong ways) as the gang leader Hawk. He eventually ended up in several RED SHOE DIARIES episodes and that seems appropriate. Sweet gang member Melanie Shatner is, indeed, the daughter of Captain Kirk and she is pretty damn attractive. She thankfully hasn’t inherited her father’s flair for the overdramatic and went on to earn her stripes in SYNGENOR (1990) and the first two SUBSPECIES sequels. Sadly, she keeps her clothes on. In fact, nudity is lacking in the entire thing and I shame you Mr. PIECES.

This was released in some territories as BLACK MAGIC MANSION and I think that title is more apt. It would stifle the Lovecraft crowd hate and be seen as merely a goofy ass 80s house with monsters flick. As I mentioned in THE UNNAMABLE reviews, there is an inherent charm to be found films like this. After all it is at least shot on film, has decent actors, some monsters and enough unintentional laughs to make it worth while. It has its fans. In fact, I know my good friend Jon Kitley loooves it.

H.P. Lovecraft Week: THE BOOK

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: Dark Adventure Radio Theatre - The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: THE UNNAMABLE films

Thanks to the successful Empire productions (RE-ANIMATOR; FROM BEYOND) and a little thing called public domain, the stories of H.P. Lovecraft became hot film properties in the mid-to-late 1980s. Quick to jump on the trend was director Jean-Paul Ouellette (pronounced Well-lett), a Boston born filmmaker who had been toiling around in Hollywood's low budget world. Ouellette's biggest claim to fame is that he directed second unit on THE TERMINATOR (1984) starring some musclebound nerd and directed by some geek (both men went on to do nothing). When given the chance to leap into the director's chair, Ouellette settled on childhood reading fave H.P. Lovecraft to make a pair of low budget shockers.

THE UNNAMABLE (1988) - Wow, talk about lazy filmmakers - they couldn't even be bothered to come up with a title. Oh, that is the title! Published in 1925, Lovecraft's short story "The Unnamable" has Randolph Carter terrorizing friend Joel Morton with a graveyard spook legend about an unnamable monster that haunts a nearby house in the town of Arkham, Massachusetts. The duo are subsequently attacked by this beast but survive with enough wounds that tell their tale. It is a quick 7-page story that will leave you wondering, "How the hell did someone turn this into a movie?" Surprisingly, director-writer Ouellette does faithfully adapt this short story as everything that happens it happens in the movie. It is just that he needed to add another 80 minutes to bring it up to feature length.

THE UNNAMABLE focuses on Miskatonic University students Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) and Howard Damon (Charles Klausmeyer, billed as Charles King). Carter indeed tells one Joel Morton the story of the haunted house with its unnamable monster and, when Morton ends up missing, the detective duo head to the house to check things out. What they don't know is that two jocks and their respective prey, er, the ladies they would like to get to know are already there to make sure the house is safe for some pledge initiations (smooth line). Once there, everyone encounters The Unnamable (Katrin Alexandre), a monster created in the 17th century by Joshua Winthorp as he was fooling around with the Necronomicon.

I can remember seeing this when it first hit video and being disappointed. Of course, I was a Freddy and Jason obsessed teen so maybe the lack of showing the monster until the last half did me in? The film is incredibly cheap (you can see the set walls shake when folks kick doors) and is basically a dead teen (they are supposed to be college freshman although everyone looks mid-20s) flick sprinkled with some Lovecraft lore. Yet THE UNNAMABLE does have a few things going for it though and there is something charming about it when I revisit it some 20 years later. Released on video in R-rated and unrated versions by Vidmark Entertainment, the film does at least have the gore factor going for it. The throat slashing and head bashing are quite graphic in the un-truncated form. A decapitated body leads to the best line of dialog as Howard sees the HEADLESS body and exclaims, "Oh my God! It's Joel!" Female lead Laura Albert also supplies the required nudity, which leads to another funny exchange:
Tanya: "Why do boys like Wendy so much? Is it her big boobs?"
Howard: "Uh, yeah, I guess so."
Tanya: "Damn."
Perhaps the single best thing about this film (and the subsequent sequel) is lead the performance of Mark Kinsey Stephenson as Randolph Carter. A recurring character that appeared in 7 Lovecraft stories, Carter is pretty much a surrogate for the author himself. Stephenson, who somewhat resembles Lovecraft, plays Carter as kind of a nerdier version of Jeffrey Combs' Herbert West. He has the same strain of dogged intensity, but without the arrogance or desire to kill. His steadfast geekiness also reminds me a bit of Don Knotts in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966). So Jeffrey Combs mixed with Don Knotts - wrap your head around that. The slightly odd performance just really seems to fit in Lovecraft's world. And the film seemed to do well enough that Ouellette was able to get a sequel financed a few years later. So we then turn our attention to...

H.P. LOVECRAFT'S THE UNNAMABLE II: THE STATEMENT OF RANDOLPH CARTER (1993) (aka THE UNNAMABLE RETURNS) - Try saying that five times fast. Yes, that is how the full title for this sequel reads on screen. And, believe it or not, I actually enjoyed this more than the first one. Director Ouellette brings back his two leads and rightly begins his sequel mere hours after the first one ended (a trick I tend to love).

Following the slaughter at the house, Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) and Howard (Charles Klausmeyer) notify the police of their horrible night. Surprisingly, the cops aren't shocked by this carnage ("Remember what happened in Dunwich," says the corner) and try to keep a lid on the happenings. But while Howard (whose is inexplicably renamed from Howard Damon to Eliot Damon Howard!?!) is in the hospital recovering from his wounds he has a visitation from Winthorp's ghost that warns that the unnanamble beast is still still alive and in the tunnels under the house. So Carter, Howard and mythology expert Professor Warren (John Rhys-Davies) head back to the graveyard to try and kill the beast once and for all. Of course, they screw up and release the monster's human half Alyda Winthorp (Maria Ford) and this leads to the monster half (former Penthouse Pet Julie Strain, completely hidden under the monster costume) hunting Carter, Howard and Alyda all over the campus of Miskatonic University.

This might be the only Lovecraft movie sequel to actually adapt a Lovecraft story ("The Statement of Randolph Carter," which actually preceded "The Unnamable") and is a superior follow-up. As with the original, Ouellette does completely adapt the short story on which it is based. "The Statement of Randolph Carter" first appeared in 1920 and has Carter recounting the tale of how he and a companion took the Necronomicon (never mentioned by name) to a graveyard to open a portal to the underworld. The duo keep in touch via a crude telephone device as Carter heads into an underground tomb. Like I said, Ouellette puts everything from that story in here. And, like the previous film, he has to fill out the rest of the running time. Which is how we end up with scenes like Carter and Warren separating the demon from the girl using some insulin and candy (both of which Warren had readily available...really! Fat bastard!).

Ouellette has a noticeably larger budget this time around and definitely makes use of it. There are lots of locations and the monster suit by R. Christopher Biggs gets an revamping. As with the first film, it is suitably gory with the original severed head from the original even making a cameo appearance (I'm easy to please apparently). Stephenson is again the unusual lead. He is great and even more nerdly focused on the task at hand to the point that he is oblivious to the advances of his 17th century charge. Klausmeyer, who has decided to accept his real name, is also good and reminds me of William Ragsdale from the FRIGHT NIGHT films. In fact, this reminds me a bit of the college-set FRIGHT NIGHT PART II (1988). In the "Completely Underutilized" department we have David Warner, who has one scene as the college chancellor, and Rhys-Davies, who manages to make the most absurd lines sound plausible. The real star, however, is B-movie actress Maria Ford. This might be her strongest acting role as the displaced 17th century girl (and I'm not saying that because she spends 50% of her screen time nude). Sure, I bet Ouellette told her to "act like a cat" but you can't deny she is good, especially since she has to pretend to be in love with Carter.

This one hit VHS in 1993 via Prism Entertainment and I'm sure it was a success. By far the best thing to come out of it is this video promo featuring Stephenson doing the hard sell of the film for distributors. Now which one of you will confess as to having written him a fan letter?

Monday, May 10, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: RYLEH