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!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween Havoc: WILD COUNTRY (2005)

In a market where actors are getting younger and younger and producers embarrassingly show how out of touch they are, desperate to pander to their barely cognizant target audience, it’s refreshing to see someone do the youth horror thing without it being gimmicky. In addition, how often to you see any movies, much less a horror movie come out of Scotland? Granted I’d probably see more if I were, oh, say, living in Scotland, but still, my point stands.

Opening in a hospital room teen mom Kelly (Samantha Shields) is delivering her baby which will be given up for adoption. After telling the consoling priest, Father Steve (Peter Capaldi), to “get the hell out”, we figure she’s due for some life lessons. Sure enough, the very next scene has Kelly along with fellow chums David (Kevin Quinn), Louise (Nicola Muldoon), and Mark (Jamie Quinn) off in the parish short bus with Father Steve at the wheel. As they drive through the country Father Steve tells them a story about this very area being home to the (real) Scottish legend of Sawney Bean. Bean as the story goes was a family man, who kept his kin well fed on the flesh of wayward travelers. Having had enough, the villagers got out their torches and pitchforks, raided Bean’s home slaughtering his family and dragging Bean back to the village. The villagers burned Bean alive and some witnesses claim to have seen Bean gnawing on his own charred arm. The thing is, some believe that a few of the inbred grandchildren esacaped and are still out there somewhere. Well shit-howdy! We have THE MOORS HAVE EYES going here, I’m totally down for that. See; I’m easy! Inbred cannibal killers in the moors of Scotland? Bring it!

Faster than you can say something about a witch project, the kids are dropped off in the middle of nowhere with maps and bedrolls and told to make their way to an inn several miles off. I’m not familiar with Scottish parish field-trips, but I’m beginning to think Father Steve is a bit of a prick. At this point I have to say I was a bit fired up. They got the hook right in me. The cast is rock solid in their parts and there are no grating MTV teen stereotypes, no canned comic relief, plus Scottish moors, inbred cannibals, and because of the marketing I know that there is a werewolf involved somewhere too. And this, my fiends, is where things start to go to pieces.

Kelly’s ex-boyfriend, and father of their child, Lee (Martin Compston), shows up to add some drama to the mix. After running across a creepy shepherd who Lee chases off with a switchblade (hey, where’d you get that?), the group decides to make camp. Of course there are beers passed around and Kelly decides to go off alone to answer the call of nature. Yeah, it's a major cliche, but I can deal with that old saw if you have something else to offer. While doing her business, Kelly realizes that Mr. Creepy Shepherd Dude is watching her water the vegetation. Suddenly, just when you think she is about to end up in a cannibal campout, a large hairy beast rips out the shepherd's throat and drags him off into the darkness. Hmmm… ok, so much for a subplot about inbred cannibal freaks. Hey, ya know that Father Steve seemed to be casting a shadow, maybe there will be an interesting subplot about him... Or not.

After spending a lot of time running from the shambling beast, the kids stumble across a castle containing human remains, including bits of our buddy the shepherd, and a crying baby. Kelly’s maternal instincts kick in and she takes the baby, rescuing it from it's presumed horrible fate. Essentially, the rest of the movie is Kelly and Lee, and baby makes three, running scared while the other friends are picked off one by one. But what about the cannibals? Nope, you get nothing. That was just a set-up to throw you off the scent, or maybe they are the wolf-thingies. The movie doesn't even bother to hint in that direction, so who knows? The real killer is supposed to be a wolf and while it seems that the HOWLING sequels were unwise to refrain from showing their raison d’etres, here they give the creature a lot of exposure and perhaps they really shouldn’t have. I hate to kick special effects head Dave Bonneywell (who worked on KILLER TONGUE [1996] and the 2010 CLASH OF THE TITANS remake) in the teeth here. I realize the budget was very low, and I know it actually isn’t called a wolf anywhere in the script, but it does in fact look like a giant, shambling possum. Granted, I grew up near the hills and I’ve had more than one run-in with a possum in the middle of the night and truth be told their naked, toothy grins scare the shit out of me, but giant rubber ones in movies? Not so much. The saddest thing here is that the gore effects are flat-out stunning. They are all physical, no digital crap, properly lit, very detailed and could go toe-to-toe with anything out of a mega-buck Hollywood production.

The other major disappointment is that after going to lengths to ensure that the characters were real (though, inconceivably, out of five teenagers only one has a cell phone), that the acting was on an even keel, and the story was nicely set up, we are delivered a blend of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) meets AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), except with less plot than either one! Father Steve, who could have provided a subplot, shows up again at the end of the movie to provide a somewhat comic comeuppance that completely goes against the grain of what has come before it. Matter of fact the whole ending (which includes a twist that I won’t spoil, but you can see coming a country mile off) seems as if it was written and shot by another crew. The surprisingly film-like shot-on-video production looks great and is well shot in all respects. However the last 15 minutes of the movie features a shakey-cam chase with lots of video bleed indicating that there were some significant reshoots done quickly with inferior equipment. I wouldn't be surprised if those reshoots weren't due to a re-written ending, perhaps at the behest of some financial backers. Then again, that ending probably sounded much better on paper.

WILD COUNTRY could have been (and still for the most part, is) the antithesis of THE HOWLING REBORN (2011). It plays everything straight and unpretentious, the dialogue is realistic, the attacks are gruesome and there are some genuinely effective moments. Because of this, all of the blunders writer-director Craig Strachan makes in this, his freshman effort, become even more dissapointing. It is a teen film (there are four adults briefly seen in the movie, none of whom are role-models), but done without the Hollywood cynicism. Not something you see very often.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Halloween Havoc: THE HOWLING: REBORN (2011)

Despite Clive Turner giving the werewolves of the HOWLING films a seemingly terminal case of fleas and mange with the life-questioning seventh entry, the series lived to howl at the moon another day (or night) thanks to some enterprising producers. The horror genre had changed a lot since HOWLING VII rotted video store shelves – SCREAM gave audiences neo-slasher geek chic; the remake train left Hollywood, destination everywhere; and millions of teenage girls fell in love with high school vampires and werewolves of the TWILIGHT saga. The not-so-fine folks at Moonstone Entertainment felt the time was right to resurrect the beast with all of those elements. So the werewolf was pulled from its grave, thoroughly groomed and spruced up for this remake – oh, sorry – reboot the HOWLING series.

The story opens with a pregnant woman (Ivana Milicevic) being stalked and killed by a werewolf in New York City. Cut to 18 years later and Will Kidman (Landon Liboiron), her grown son, is getting ready to graduate from high school. His life sucks because he is bullied, unsure of himself and pining for the girl of his dreams, Eliana (Lindsey Shaw). We know all of this thanks to his whining voice over. After a wild night at a high school dance where he thinks he was chased by a werewolf, Will begins to notice changes. He can see better without the need of his glasses (SPIDER-MAN who?) and he takes out his bully nemesis Roland (Niels Schneider) in a fistfight. He asks his horror nerd friend about werewolves and, sure enough, Will is exhibiting the signs (his cut wrist heals itself). Virgin Will is going to be getting some tail alright – his own! Things go from bad to worse when love struck Will and Eliana get trapped in their high tech school and stalked by Will’s returning mom, who is building an army of werewolves to take on the world. Thanks mom for ruining my special day and making it about you!

“You staring at my girl, Harry Potter?”

Having revisited the previous HOWLING sequels over the past week, I’m quite unsure what to think about THE HOWLING: REBORN. It is certainly a slicker production than anything from part III forward. At the same time, it is probably worse than any of the other HOWLING sequels (well, save part VII) because the film is trying so hard to be something else. I can just see writer-director Joe Nimziki pitching this to the producers. “Imagine this - it will be like THE HOWLING meets TWILIGHT with some SPIDER-MAN high school drama thrown it,” he certainly said. And with those two film series raking in billions, I’m sure the producers slobbered up like Pavlov’s dogs. Unfortunately, Nimziki and crew didn’t seem to understand the ultimate HOWLING tenant – just because you include the elements that made something else successful, it doesn’t mean you will be.

Oddly enough, the film’s opening credits boldly claim this film is based on the book The Howling II by Gary Brandner. Even though I haven’t read that book, a quick read of the synopsis shows that is about as factual as Sarah Palin being a Mensa member. Like the other sequels, there are werewolves and that is about it. There are a few in jokes (a character says they will be at Brandner’s Pub; Nimziki includes his own name as an author of a lycanthrope book), but Nimziki’s script offers very little in terms of actual scares or drama. Will is constantly spouting lines like, “You know what we do? We let moments pass, opportunities pass, our lives pass.” And I just about died when his final voice over offers “we’re always at our most monstrous when we ignore our humanity.” Really? You went with that. How much do you want to bet Nimziki wrote that line and then thought “damn, I nailed it” to himself? Of course, this is a guy who wrote a bully getting his ass beat in the toilet by a nerd and then deciding to pull out his gun post-beat down when he wakes up.

Like I have said this past week though, crappy scripting can always be forgiven if we get some damn cool werewolf action. Yet again, when it comes down to the werewolves, we get cheated. Most of the beast action occurs in the film’s last ten minutes. Despite obviously having a budget to make some decent creatures, the filmmakers never give the audience a great look at them thanks to some chaotic camerawork that would make Michael Bay clutch his seat and scream “turn it off” like he is George C. Scott in HARDCORE (1979). When will they learn that jerky camera work doesn’t translate to super fast-action? I think what I saw of them that they looked cool. The finale – where Will convinces now werewolf Eliana to change back – is the only time we get a good look at a costume.

One of the most annoying things about THE HOWLING: REBORN is how aggressive it is with the “dis is for da kidz” intention. The werewolf gang has the annoying crossbred demographic that seem to haunt every modern flick. I’m actually shocked there wasn’t a scene of them riding motorcycles or driving souped up cars. It is laughable, like they had a target audience check list. There is also an unhealthy amount of texting on display. One entire scene has our two young leads courtship extending to a classroom scene where they text each other from ten feet away. Perhaps the most offensive bit has the horror geek go off on Hollywood for casting adults in horror movies (“That’s what studios get for casting geezers in their lead roles. If I want to see people in their forties, I’ll just go home and look at my parents.”). “Yeah, take that you stupid old movies,” says the totally slick, pandering new movie made by old geezers probably in their 40s.

So, the journey ends here…for now. In the end, HOWLING VIII is just like all the other werewolf sequels, just with a finer coat. Yeah, I called it HOWLING VIII just to piss off the producers. Here’s how I would rank the sequels from best to worst.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Halloween Havoc: HOWLING VI (1991) and THE HOWLING: NEW MOON RISING (1995)

In just five short years, producer Steven Lane had pumped out four HOWLING sequels with each successive one getting cheaper and cheaper. One would think that would be a bad sign for the sixth entry, but a small miracle occurred in the HOWLING universe. The producers returned to the United States and – gasp – actually waited a few years to properly develop a film that features more than just a werewolf costume in the shadows. The end result is HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS, a marked improvement over the previous sequels in nearly every department. While the end result still has some problems, it is interesting to see some filmmakers try to restore a bit of bite to the howling (it didn’t last long, trust me).

Following a prologue of a young girl being murdered by a mysterious beast, Brit Ian Richards (Brendan Hughes) wanders into the dying drought-town of Canton Bluff. Initially hassled by the sheriff for being a stranger ‘round these parts, Richards soon endears himself to the community by helping Reverend Dewey (Jered Barclay) restore his church. He even starts a relationship with Elizabeth (Michele Matheson), the reverend’s daughter. All of this stranger’s new life ends when R.B. Harker (Bruce Payne) and his carnival World of Wonders roll into town. You see, Richards just happens to be a werewolf and, once his hairy secret is revealed, he is captured by Harker in order to be displayed among his freaks including three-armed Toones (Deep Roy) and Winston Salem the Alligator Boy (Sean Sullivan). Of course, everyone has their secrets and Richards and Harker are no exception. Seems Richards wanted to be caught by Harker to enact some personal revenge and Harker – like all bosses – just happens to be a blood sucking vampire.

This is by far the best HOWLING sequel. Now before I get lynched for that statement, I should explain that it in no way reaches the level of the original THE HOWLING. It is the best of the sequels, which is like singling out the smartest person in a group of dumb people. Debuting director Hope Perello got her start at Charles Band’s Empire Pictures and perhaps this exploitation upbringing bestowed upon her the importance of actually showing the monsters. It was either that or just plain logic. Neophyte screenwriter Kevin Rock also ups the ante by making the werewolf a sympathetic figure (something only briefly attempted in the first and third films). In addition, Rock provides a worthy adversary with Harker’s vampire character. Thankfully, both leads are well trained enough to pull it off. The script still has some major problems. The romantic subplot between werewolf Richards and the preacher’s daughter seems to go nowhere and the town’s folks don’t seem too disturbed to have a werewolf in their midst. Even funnier is a werewolf falling asleep and forgetting a full moon, only to wake up in a panic.

Perhaps the biggest asset to the film is the make-up effects. After HOWLING V’s disappointing “werewolf gets 10 seconds screen time” swindle, the filmmakers put a little bit of faith back in the FX. Two groups, Todd Masters Company and Steve Johnson’s FX, worked on this one and their work is top notch for a low budget production. Johnson’s team handled the werewolf and vampire stuff and it is the best of the sequels. Yes, we actually get a werewolf transformation this time! Another nice touch is they have the werewolf walking on leg extensions, creating a more canine look. Perhaps the most impressive work in the film is the design of vampire Harker. Resembling a sunburned Barlow (of SALEM’S LOT), it is one of the more original vampire designs of the 1990s and Perello holds it off screen for the proper amount of time. The final vampire disintegration and alligator boy are also very well done.

You have to admire the producers for actually attempting something with a slight up tick in quality. They really didn’t have to and the extra effort is appreciated. The producers even got a little cute by having HOWLING V’s werewolf Mary Lou (Elizabeth Shé) pop up in a cameo. She can be seen during the carnival’s werewolf show when Harker is doing his carny spiel on the crowd (“he could even be your son” he says as they cut to her). They even bring her back for HOWLING VII (more on that later). Producer Lane was obviously pleased with the results and was giddy at the prospect of direct sequel HOWLING VII when he spoke to Gorezone in 1991. Screenwriter Rock originally wrote a continuous follow up which would follow the exploits of werewolf Ian and his alligator boy pal as they travel through Romania (ah, back to Eastern Europe I see). However, LIVE Home Video squashed the idea and it would be several years before the eventual HOWLING VII came to life at the hands of series regular Clive Turner (HOWLING IV & V). And that was a very, very bad thing.

“I hope you really present this film in a positive light. It is really, completely, utterly unique.” – writer-producer-director-actor-singer Clive Turner to Fangoria

With HOWLING VI establishing some lycanthropic capital with horror fans, it seemed like the series was on the upswing. Well, not so fast there, mister. LIVE Home Video squashed the idea of a direct follow-up and then decided the best cost-cutting measure would be to do an entry that used footage from the previous films. That is always a great sign of quality if you ask me. Even worse, they handed the creative reigns over to Aussie Clive Turner, who had co-written, co-produced and co-starred in parts IV and V. With the relatively good part VI pissing on his territory, Turner set about to do what any filmmaker would do – he burned the series to the ground with a HOWLING entry so bad that it killed the profitable direct-to-video series.

The story revolves around Ted Smith (Turner) coming to Pioneertown, CA, Land of the Linedance. He quickly secures a job (by walking into a bar) and becomes real tight with the yokels who have names like Pappy. About the same time he arrives, someone (or something) starts chewing up some of the locals. Naturally, they suspect a werewolf and you can guess who the main suspect is. Not so hot on the heels of this werewolf are Inspector Kester (John Ramsden) and occult investigating priest Father John (Jack Huff). This deadly duo likes to sit around and talk about what is going on. Seems Ted Smith is the lone survivor of the HOWLING V castle massacre (even though Turner’s character in that was named Ray Price) and werewolf villainess Mary Lou might have possessed someone in town. Country music montage follows country music montage until the true identity of the werewolf is revealed, resulting in one of the worst werewolf films ever made.

Technically I shouldn’t even refer to this as a werewolf movie as the creature doesn’t appear until the last 5 minutes of the film. Think about that: a werewolf movie without a werewolf. What a concept. Even worse are the morphing effects on display during the monster’s scant 30 second screen time. I challenge you to find me a worse werewolf transformation on a film that came out on a major label (New Line Home Video slummed for this one). Seriously, look at this CGI on display. No joke, there is better computer animation work in the two studio logos that open the film.

Even funnier is Turner’s attempt to do some werewolf-o-vision ala WOLFEN. He slathers the screen with red to the point that you can’t tell what his happening 90% of the time. Turner was raving to Fangoria about how awesome this process would look. Wow, the man is easily thrilled. $50 to anyone who can tell me what is happening in this framegrab/Rorschach test:

Perhaps the worst thing with this sequel is that Turner tries to connect the unrelated parts IV, V and VI all together (via the priest’s talks with the cop). Now I’m not going to complain about attempts to bring some sort of chronology to this disjointed series, but at least try to do it right. I could have done a better job of connecting BAMBI (1942) to DEBBIE DOES DALLAS (1978). The major villain they are looking for is Mary Lou, and they did bring back original actress Elizabeth Shé. However, according to Fangoria, her scene was cut out (really!) so they go for a “she is hiding because a werewolf can possess someone” mystery storyline. Huh? The lead cop even throws in a tape of HOWLING VI to show her cameo and describes it as “home video footage shot at the carnival.” Wow, apparently someone shot their home video footage on film. Ugh. Even more bizarre is Turner brings back Marie Adams (Romy Windsor) from HOWLING IV and he actually gives her screen time so she can recount her story. It gives him a chance to show even more footage to pad out his running time. In total, about 10 minutes of footage from the other films is used.

The fact that the script is a disjointed mess is actually the least of its problems. The screenplay features perhaps the worst table talk ever committed to paper. Turner fancies himself a bit of a funnyman and nearly every line he has is some joke or bad pun. Here is how he wins over the odd assortment of characters at the bar during his first scene.

Jim the Bartender: Come right from Australia?
Ted: Right, but I flew most of the way.
Brock: Are your arms tired?
Ted: Only when I flap them.
Jim the Bartender: That could give you arm-ritis.
Ted: That’s alright. I just had a bout of (grabs hip) hip-atitis.
Jim the Bartender: Yeah, a little bit further down your leg you might get knee-monia.
Brock: Hell, I’d be more worried about small cocks.
Ted: Well, I’m pretty luck there. I’ve already had dick-theria.

Jesus, make it stop! I mentally stopped aging at 15-years-old and even I find that dialogue embarrassing. I did, however, get a laugh out of the priest telling the story of HOWLING V to the cop and saying of Turner’s character, “Ted, the only Australian, became the fall guy.” Yeah, because when times get tough, I always blame the Australian.

Truthfully, all of those things seem petty when you realize that nearly every major character in this film is either shown singing or dancing to a nauseating country song. No joke, there are fourteen (!) different country music montages over this films 89 minute running time. How can you not be riveted by songs like “Nobody Tells Amy What to Do” and “Prescription Beer” on the soundtrack? Turner, who now sports a beard and fancies himself a cowboy, goes balls out in trying to secure that coveted “werewolf movie fans who love line dancing” demographic. No joke, there are three (!) separate instances of line dancing on screen. I believe that is a criminal offense. At the end of the day, the only impressive things about this HOWLING entry is that they managed to put the “The” back in the title and avoid using a roman numeral. It tarnished the series forever and it would be a full 15 years before anyone tired to do anything HOWLING related.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Halloween Havoc: HOWLING IV (1988) and HOWLING V (1989)

14-year-old me on HOWLING IV: “Okay, Philippe Mora is gone, that is a good sign. And Fangoria did a profile on FX guy Steve Johnson and the werewolf stills looked pretty awesome. And what’s this? They signed John Hough to direct? Damn, he’s done some good films including THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. The series could be getting back into shape here.”

36-year-old me: “You freakin’ dumbass.”

With all the accuracy of a full moon on the lunar calendar, the HOWLING series reared its head just a year later with a fourth entry. Despite the artistic damage done by HOWLING III, the film proved to a home video success and ensured at least one more sequel. The producers were howling all the way to the bank. Things definitely changed for the furry films though as, outside of panning reviews, Fangoria didn’t cover the films at all and theatrical prospects in the US disappeared. Yup, HOWLING IV was the first to go direct-to-video and the series has remained there ever since.

Best selling author Marie Adams (Romy Windsor) has a nervous breakdown after she starts seeing things like blood running from her eyes, ghost nuns, and werewolf heads leaping out of a grill flame. Her doctor suggests she take a break and Marie’s husband Richard (Michael T. Weiss) books a secluded cabin in the woods for some much needed R&R. The couple decides to visit the nearby town on Drago, where they meet an odd assortment of townies including seductive shop keeper Eleanor (Lamya Derval). Unfortunately, this little getaway has done little to calm Marie’s mind as she still sees visions of this mysterious nun and hears an odd howling every night. The stress drives her husband away, resulting in him having an affair with Eleanor. Meanwhile, Marie has befriended avid fan Janice Hatch (Susanne Severeid), who might know more about Drago’s town secret history and this mysterious nun than she is letting on.

Bearing the subtitle THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE, HOWLING IV is certainly an odd little film. Believe it or not, it is more of a straight adaptation of Gary Brandner’s original novel, which goes to show you how much Dante, Sayles and company spruced up the source material. To be honest, the only thing I could recall from my initial viewing of this film 23 years ago was a scene where a guy melted. And there is a reason that was my only dim recollection because it is probably the only interesting thing that happens in this snoozefest. It isn’t until an hour into this 90 minute flick that we get a glimpse of a werewolf (for about 2 seconds) and the aforementioned meltdown doesn’t happen until the 80 minute mark. And while Johnson’s team did supply a cool looking final beast, the audience barely gets a glimpse of it during the finale as Hough shows hidden by fire in rapid cuts. Feast your eyes as these are about a good a shots as you get in the movie:

To be fair, HOWLING IV was a bit of a troubled production. Filming started with co-screenwriter Clive Turner in the director’s chair. Filming was halted for a while before Harry Allan Towers swooped in to resurrect the production. You know you’ve got problems when Towers is saving your ass. Anyway, John Hough came in on extremely short notice and resumed filming in South Africa, which the production does a great job of disguising as rural California. Still, that can’t make up for the film’s complete lack of action for nearly 90% of its running time. The script is also a mess with bits like Richard, responding to Marie mentioning the howling, saying, “You’re probably just hearing the animal in me.” Ooof. There is also a ridiculous late act revelation where a character figures out the nun’s warning of “we’re all in fear” really means “werewolves in here.” Ooof again. A complete lack of blood during the werewolf attacks also hurts. On the bright side, you could probably start a drinking game where everyone chugs any time a character says the word howling. I’m glad I don’t drink.

“HOWLING V? Isn’t that the one where a lot of people run
around in a castle and nothing happens?” – Joe Dante

Dante, director of the original THE HOWLING, was pretty spot on when he gave that quote to Gorezone in 1991. Vitalized by video receipts, the HOWLING producers felt no reason to slow down their goldmine. This resulted in the shortest gap between sequels with HOWLING IV debuting on video November 1, 1988 and HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH hitting shelves just over six months later on May 9, 1989. This quick turnaround brought about some severe cost cutting as the filmmakers headed to Hungary to shoot their latest monster movie.

HOWLING V opens in 1489 in a castle strewn with dead folks in Budapest. Seems everyone is committing suicide to end a family curse, but – wouldn’t ya know it – a baby is heard crying just as the last couple are offing themselves. “We died in vain,” screams the husband, unaware of the films THE REBIRTH subtitle. Cut to 500 years later in a modern day Budapest hotel where a group of nine strangers are gathering. Seems they have all been invited to a castle opening by Count Istvan (Philip Davis). Now who or what this castle opening is for is never explained, but, c’mon, how can anyone resist a castle opening. The group of nine little Indians, er, random strangers include: Prof. Dawson (Nigel Triffitt), who is interested that the castle has no recorded history; pop star Gail Cameron (Stephanie Faulkner), who is recovering from a breakdown; photographer David Gillispie (Ben Cole); struggling American actress Mary Lou (Elizabeth Shé, no doubt typecast); successful European actress Anna (Mary Stavin); Aussie Ray Price (co-writer and producer Clive Turner, always with a drink in hand); tennis pro (!) Jonathan Lane (Mark Sivertsen); Richard Hamilton (William Shockley, hoping someone runs a John Glover look-a-like contest), resident rich Yuppie asshole; and Dr. Catherine Peake (Victoria Catlin), resident bitch who is also seeing cheating Richard. Got all that? Good because you will be quizzed later. Anyway, it is weird because, as the characters soon find out, they were all orphans and all bear the same triangular birthmark. Oh, and one of them is a werewolf.

In case you haven’t been keeping track, this is one globe hopping horror series as HOWLING V marks the fifth country the series has been produced in. I don’t want to falsely accuse anyone, but it seems odd no sovereign nations want the company back.

HOWLING II: Czechoslovakia & USA
HOWLING III: Australia
HOWLING IV: South Africa
HOWLING V: Hungary

Is there some kind of U.N. resolution against these films? It wouldn’t shock me. Heading to Eastern Europe can only mean one thing, the producers were looking to go ultra-cheap and indeed this is the most threadbare of the HOWLING sequels up to this point.

Like HOWLING IV, this was also a troubled production. Original director Michael Fischa (DEATH SPA) was fired three days into production and first AD Neal Sundström was promoted to the job with six hours notice. To be fair, this is a pretty good looking film that benefits greatly from the scenery in its host country. Also, the castle and underground tunnel sets are well done and there is some decent cinematography and lighting. Regardless of behind-the-scenes turmoil, you can’t deliver much with this Agatha Christie-lite script. The mystery is no surprise because one character is left alone to rest in a bed for a majority of the action. Gee, I wonder who the werewolf is. More puzzling is how this character manages to keep their clothes intact, despite turning into a werewolf every ten minutes or so. There is a very weak attempt to connect this to the rest of the series with an “it all started here” bit, but it is never fully capitalized on. The filmmakers’ stinginess also carried over to the werewolf effects as the same costume from part IV is used here. You actually get a better look at it on the cover than you do in the actual film. In a testament to how little the producers cared, this entry marks the first HOWLING film to feature no onscreen werewolf transformation. Hey, they’re setting records, baby.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Halloween Havoc: THE THING (2011)

Full disclosure right off the bat – John Carpenter is my favorite director of all-time.  His run from 1974 – 1988 is unparalleled in my eyes by any genre filmmaker and it was a true shame when he died in that bus accident the day before he started filming MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).  Anyway, that decade plus of dominance gave us his remake of THE THING (1982), which is now considered a modern classic.  The film is the perfect combination of action, horror, sci-fi and machismo.  It is also proof positive that a remake can be as good (hell, even better) than the original.

With Carpenter’s filmography from that time period getting remake raped (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, HALLOWEEN, and THE FOG actually getting made; talk of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE remakes still alive), it seemed like only a matter of time before his sci-fi classic would be dusted off by some braid dead bean counter to be exploited.  Initially, plans were announced for Frank Darabont to produce a 4-hour miniseries sequel in 2005 titled RETURN OF THE THING. Scripted by David Leslie Johnson, the direct sequel’s screenplay got good reviews, but never materialized.  In early 2009, Universal Studios announced that the producers of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake would be handling a new version of THE THING.  Oh, crap. But in a strange twist, they opted to do a prequel to Carpenter’s film rather than remake it. Okay, they just bought some much needed respect from me.

Set in the same winter of 1982, THE THING prequel opens with three Norwegians in a snow mobile tracking a strange signal under the ice, which gives way and offers them a glimpse at just what was sending out that signal. Cut to paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in her lab examining a frozen fossil. She is recruited by Norwegian scientist Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) and his assistant (and her possible old flame) Adam Goodman (Eric Christian Olsen) to head to Antarctica to help extract something from the ice. All she is told is that they have discovered a large structure and a specimen.  Flown to the isolated Norwegian base by American Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton) and his two co-pilots, Kate and the scientific team are quickly whisked away to the discovery site where Edvard Wolner (Trond Espen Seim) shows them what all the fuss is about – a huge spaceship and its sole inhabitant encased in ice.  The crew carves the solidified space invader out and, once back at the station, Halversen orders a tissue sample to be taken.  Bad news as it causes the thing to thaw out and you can guess what happens next.

“If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, 
how would you know it was really me?” 
– Childs (Keith David) in THE THING (1982)

A lot of confusion has surfaced about this film in recent months.  The filmmakers were adamant that they were paying homage to Carpenter’s film (to remake it would “be like painting eyebrows on the Mona Lisa” said producer Eric Newman) with their prequel, but the trailers revealed more than just some casual compliments to Carpenter’s work.  Hell, there were identical shots in there.  So what is this thing?  Is it a prequel?  Is it a remake? A premake?  And, most important, is it a good thing or a bad thing?  It actually ends up being a little bit of both.  Afraid to truly make waves, the producers tried to have their cake and remake it too.  The first half hour or so this THE THING is entirely original stuff (if I was grumpy, I could complain about the base looking exactly the same). However, once the alien escapes and begins attacking folks, we see some eerily familiar ground.  We have nearly the exact same autopsy scene, a cell assimilation explanation, a “testing who is human” scene, a Blair is locked in the shed bit, an outdoor body bonfire (which looks nearly identical), and an ill victim suddenly surprising his caregivers. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer got extremely lazy here. Helping him in the Xerox-process is debuting helmer Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., who goes so far as to mimic Carpenter’s shots (watch the crane up during the autopsy scene).  How fitting is it that Carpenter’s film about creating perfect imitations finds itself confronted by one in the guise of a prequel.  Sadly, that isn’t the only source material being copied as the film’s last 15 minutes strives to give us some heroic Ripley scenes from the first two ALIEN films as Kate runs around inside the big alien spaceship.

“Producer Newman said that the balance 
is about 80/20 practical to CGI”
-AICN set report on THE THING

To quote classic Carpenter CHRISTINE villain Buddy Repperton, “You fuckin’ liar!” Whether they were just paying lip service to the fan base of Carpenter’s movie or Newman just got his numbers mixed up, the effects are my biggest gripe with the new THE THING (update: see video below). For starters, the majority of them are done with computer imaging and they look terrible.  It is just a busy bile burst of CGI that fills the screen.  It is really sad that real latex effects in a film nearly 30 years old outshine what is supposed to be cutting edge technology.  Second and perhaps more importantly is that the alien creations all seem to mirror the work of the 1982 film’s creator and designer, Rob Bottin.  The filmmakers had absolutely free reign here in terms of their design, but nearly every transformation recalls something from Carpenter’s earlier film. Most embarrassing is the end monster that recalls the Blair-monster almost tendril by tendril.  Even the thing in its alien form is derivative as it reminded me of the Arachnids from STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997).

Another annoying aspect to this film is the female lead character.  Now there was a lot of stink about putting a female in this setting and, honestly, that didn’t bother me.  Carpenter’s film will always have its all-male cast and you can’t change that. What is troublesome about Kate is that screenwriter Heisserer has written her as the doubting know-it-all.  I lost count of the number of times she said, “Do you really think that is a good idea?”  She knows from the get-go that things are off and it is pretty frustrating.  One of the best things about Carpenter’s THE THING is the exchange where Kurt Russell’s MacReady says, “How the hell should I know” when asked what the alien wants.  The Kate character is so overstated that she not only knows what the thing wants, but probably knows who it is going to vote for when it reaches America (the thing is totally a Reagan supporter).

“Now I'm gonna show you what I already know.” 
– MacReady (Kurt Russell) in THE THING (1982)

One of my biggest fears when it was announced that Universal was going to do a prequel to THE THING was that they would screw it up.  In a sense, they didn’t; mostly because they followed the path of the Carpenter film so closely. While I think it is a shame that this film couldn’t have been more original, I am still thankful that I got a prequel rather than a full blown remake with someone like Jason Statham pretending to be Kurt Russell. There were some nice nods to Carpenter’s film and the ending was a great way to tie the two films together. But what does it say about your film when the most thrilling moment for me is that ending? Despite all my bitching in the previous paragraphs, I will still have to admit that seeing the story before the story was thrilling for a die-hard THE THING fan like me.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off as I’d rather not spend the rest of this evening TIED TO THIS FUCKING COMPUTER CHAIR!

UPDATE (in Robert Stack voice): Tom pointed me to this video showcasing the practical FX that the production initially used before the execs decided it was best to cover them in bad CGI.  A classic case of Hollywooditis and whatcouldbeen.


Thursday, October 13, 2011


The Japanese are a fascinating people. They have an island all to themselves and it seems like the centuries of isolation has given the country a case of cabin fever unlike anywhere else. A country obsessed with social and sexual taboos is the same one that gives the public vending machines that dispense erm... “fragrant” women’s undergarments. To Western eyes their culture while in many ways refined, delicate and elegant, can be incomprehensibly bizarre. This oddness spills over into their cinema and for every Akira Kurosawa, there is a Kiyoshi Kurosawa lurking in the background causing western audiences to stumble away from their sofas, glassy-eyed with incomprehension. This is what makes Japanese cinema great.

Back in the days before digital video when there were independent filmmakers Westerners turned out some fine off-beat movies that defied conventions and made a crapload of profits in the process. In Japan even the majors took those risks. While Toho stuck to the path of the easily accessible mainstream film, their top competitor Toei took risks. Toei happily wallowed in exploitation cinema didn’t seem to fret too much if their movie was so weird it defied description. WOLFGUY ENRAGED is a perfect example of this.

Hard-bitten reporter Inugami (Sonny Chiba) witnesses a crazed man running through the neon-lit streets screaming something about a curse and a tiger, and is suddenly torn to shreds by invisible claws. Taking the dead man’s story about the curse totally seriously (how could you not?), and finding that the coroner ruled the death a case of “Death by Spectral Slashing” (well, yeah, of course), Inugami sets out to investigate. As he discovers, Miki, the singer for the band The Mugs, was raped, given syphilis, addicted to heroin and has some sort of power that allows her to attack people with her mind and tear them apart with an invisible tiger. The rape was performed by a gang (look quick for Tomisaburo Wakayama as one of the main offenders) who were paid to do it by the band's management company because Miki was getting an attitude problem (yeah I'm sure having her gang-raped and infected with a venereal disease will help with that). As it turns out, the insidious orders may go higher than the streets and into the halls of public office.

Not content, like any other filmmaker, to let the story lie there, Inugami is also a descendant of a village of lycanthropes who were massacred by an angry mob. His form of lycanthropy (seemingly necessitated by the lack of budget) makes the movie all the more strange; on a full moon Inugami becomes unkillable and boasts superhuman strength, but doesn't change appearance at all. A sinister group, who I'm guessing is Yakuza (it's never made clear or something was lost in the translation), wants to use both Miki as a brainwashed assassin and Inugami to help them create more lycan killers via his blood and organs. Of course the filmmakers don’t sit down and tell you this, no, no. This information is doled out a piece here and a piece there, some in flashback, letting the viewer piece it together as the movie jumps from one scene to another, inexplicably switching locations, introducing new characters out of nowhere, launching into bloody fights and throwing additional wrinkles into a story that already has more than a litter of shar-peis in a bingo hall. Of course, ss far as I'm concerned, that's one of the things that makes this movie so much fun.

Never released on video, even in Japan, the only way to see this movie is from a recording of a rare, uncut Japanese TV broadcast. Information on this film is about as scarce as the movie itself. Based on the manga of the same name, this appears to be the author’s attempt to do justice to his own work. In ’73 Toho released an adaptation titled WOLFGUY – WOLFEN CREST, that while plenty violent, doesn’t follow the plotlines of graphic novels and aims for a teen audience. Here with ENRAGED, the film is clearly cobbled together from bits and pieces of the original work, but makes it seem as if it was made on the fly without a script. For example, early in the film Inugami tangles with a gang who murder his friend, a fellow reporter. After being shot in the arm and running for his life, a leather-clad motorcycle girl picks him up, takes him home, strips naked and seduces him, all while he’s bleeding out on her bed. The girl eventually shows up later in the movie, but writer Hirai Kazumasa has no problem letting you scratch your head for an hour wondering what the hell that was all about. In another scene Inugami is fighting an assassin who whips a white mouse out of his back pocket to distract Inugami, allowing him to get the upper hand. If you are a fan of the manga, I’m sure you could probably tell me which volume and page number this is from, but if you have never seen them before, this is the last thing you expect to see in the middle of a brutal tight-quarters rope-fight! And speaking of brawls there are lots of ‘em. It is certainly not lost on Toei that Sonny Chiba made them an assload of cash and catapulted himself to international stardom with the previous year’s THE STREETFIGHTER trilogy and THE EXECUTIONER films. For an investigative journalist Inugami is one lethal ass-kickin’ machine!

Yes! You're killin' me with this awful crop-job!

It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it.
While this movie may not make much sense to those who, like me, have never read the manga, it’s still totally captivating for some reason. Part of it is that it moves so fast and throws so much at you in a mere 86 minutes, that it’s almost like an assault on the senses. Before you are through scratching your head about why Miki is singing a lounge ballad in a strip-club in front of some very angry patrons, you’ll be thrust right into another bloody slashing or back-ally fight. In addition to that you have some great film-noir settings and cinematography (that is somewhat neutered by the cropped TV broadcast), a cool, funky ‘70s score and Sonny Chiba being a bullet-proof bad-ass! What more do you really need?