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!

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Gweilo Dojo: NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR (2013)

Let’s not beat around the bonsai: We love ninja movies here at Video Junkie.  I dream of a day when I can have Richard Harrison screaming “ninnnnnjjjjjjjjjja!” as a ringtone and Tom is always contemplating a full back Sho Kosugi tattoo.  Growing up in the ‘80s, ninjas were part of our everyday viewing life, thanks mostly to the Chuck Norris vehicle THE OCTAGON (1980) and nearly half the catalog of The Cannon Group.  The masked assassins were on our screens and hiding in the dark recesses of our minds.

With ninjas on the brain, you can no doubt understand that the announcement back in 2008 that director Isaac Florentine, currently the best action director going, was going to make a ninja film hit us like a throwing star to the chest. Even better, he was going to reteam with Scott Adkins, currently the best action star going, for this journey into the land of ninjitsu.  Holy shinobi, this was gonna rule.  Unfortunately, by the time NINJA (2009) arrived, our hopes were a bit dashed.  Sadly, Florentine took some major missteps with this project.  He abandoned his trademark fluid shooting style for action scenes in favor of a heavily edited “crash-zoom-morph” style that was more distracting than anything.  It did a disservice to the film’s main selling point, the martial arts skill of leading man Adkins.  Fans complained and, thankfully, Florentine and Adkins listened.  The team rebounded quickly with the excellent UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010).  And now they are back with a NINJA sequel that throws a flash of powder in the eyes of fans, making the problems with the first film disappear.

NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR picks up after the events of the events of the first film back in Japan. Casey (Scott Adkins) is living a peaceful life and running a dojo with his wife Namiko (Mika Hijii), who has just told him that she is pregnant. Uh oh. You know in an action movie that means one has a big target on their back and she is dead before the 11 minute mark. Casey believes the culprits were a pair of thugs who tried to rob him and, having recognized a distinct kicking style in his earlier brawl with them, becomes an ass kicking Sam Spade.  This involves him heading to a dojo and whooping the asses of 5 dudes.  He quickly finds the pair and brutally exacts his revenge upon them. When I say brutal, I’m not kidding as he chops one dude's hand clean off.

Needing a bit of a respite (and getting the hell out of dodge), Casey heads to Thailand to stay with family friend Nakabara (Kane Kosugi), who runs a marital arts school and antiques business.  While there, Casey loses his cool during a sparring session and, unable to put the death of his wife behind him, proceeds to go out and get plastered among the locals.  Bad news for the locals as booze plus lightning fast reflexes ends in lots of busted heads from this drunken master.

Goro gives new meaning to
the old ball and chain
Back at the school, Casey opts to atone for his behavior by picking fruit but a kind student takes his place.  Minutes later this poor kid is dead and, even worse, is sporting wounds similar to those Namiko had around her neck. When Casey brings this up, it leads Nakabara to tell the story of Goro (Shun Sugata). During World War II, a squadron of ninjas was sent into Burma by Japan.  The leaders were Namiko's dad, Nakabara's dad and Goro's brother. When Goro’s brother went off the deep end, he was killed by the two dads and his younger brother swore his revenge.  Now a big time drug dealer, Goro is living up to his promise with his barbwire studded chain weapon. Naturally, Casey decides to head into the jungles of now Myramar to get his revenge.  Not only does Nakabara give him a map, but he also tells him where a cache of ninja gear is buried in the jungle.  Game on!

Chances are if you are watching something called NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR, you aren’t looking for DOWNTON ABBY style dramatics. And, to be fair, the plot of this action sequel isn’t going to win any awards. Like White’s earlier UNDISPUTED sequel scripts, the scenario is riddled with martial arts movie clichés (the only thing that doesn't happen is Casey being thrown into a tournament) to the point that you feel he and Florentine are paying homage to the classics from the ‘80s without feeling the need to mock them.  (You get that sense of respect also with the casting of Kane Kosugi, son of the legendary ‘80s ninja star Sho Kosugi.  Kane is not only an excellent fighter, but he acquits himself well as an actor.)  And, honestly, the film could have the plotline of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981) and I’d be happy as long as it has fantastic fight scenes like the ones on display here. Ten minutes can't go by in this film without some brutal brawl taking place and I think this sets the bar for the number of fights in a Florentine film (thirteen in total). Choreographer Tim Man lives up to his surname as there are some beautiful moves on display. He plays Goro's right hand man and his showdown with Adkins is the highlight for me. The fight was so good that I had to watch it twice so I could see every intricate move.  Honestly, his work is a beautiful ballet of brutality where people miss and get hurt, creating a storyline within the fight itself. Thankfully, Florentine also captures it to maximum effect.  There are lots of long take shots going on here so that you can see all the moves and Florentine films it all with fluid motion.  The end result is probably Florentine's best action film so far.  Yes, we may only be three days into 2014, but I have a sneaking suspicion NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR is already going to be the best action film I see this year.

The obligatory Scott "Boyka" Adkins 
topless/shirtless shots to ensure our blog gets hits:

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December to Dismember: SILENT NIGHT, ZOMBIE NIGHT (2009)

If the 11-year-old William S. Wilson ever heard me say this, he wouldn’t believe it and probably cry.  Anyway, here it goes: I’m sick to death of zombie movies.  Yes, the genre I ate up as a kid now causes my gag reflex to go off at the slightest hint of the z-word. Post 28 DAYS LATER (2002), the DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) remake, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), the subgenre has exploded thanks to mainstream stuff like ZOMBIELAND (2009) and THE WALKING DEAD (2010).  It seems like every damn person is making a zombie movie. Hell, zombie boss George Romero is about to see his DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) remade for the second (!) time in a decade and even he is apparently only allowed to make movies about flesh-eaters now.  Yes, I’m asking Romero to stop making zombie movies.  The new millennium is strange.

That is not to say that the resurgence hasn’t provided the opportunity for some good films – I’ve enjoyed stuff like [REC] (2007), DEADGIRL (2008) and PONTYPOOL (2009) – but the good ones are few and far between the shuffling brain dead masses.  Sorry, my 11-year-old self, but I’m skipping RESIDENT EVIL part 75 and you wouldn’t catch me renting something called ZOMBIEZ (2005) under a pseudonym.  But didn’t you just review a shot-on-video German piece of crap called ZOMBIE: THE RESURRECTION (1998) I hear you ask.  Hey, that’s…uh…different.  Anyway, my point is I think I manage maybe one or two gutmunchers a year now and it takes something special to get me to watch it.  Hey, SILENT NIGHT, ZOMBIE NIGHT (2009) is set around Christmas and we’ve got a “December to Dismember” quota to fill.  Does that say Vernon Wells on the cover?  Sold!

The film wastes no time getting right to the action as police officers Frank Talbot (Jack Forcinito) and Nash Jackson (Andy Hopper) respond to a 911 call about a dispute between neighbors where someone got bit. Before arriving at the house, it is established there is some tension between Frank and Nash with the latter informing his partner he has scheduled for a transfer.  Once at the scene, the cops encounter a man in a wheelchair who says his neighbor’s daughter bit him.  They investigate and are quickly pounced upon by a blood-soaked girl, who proceeds to clamp her teeth onto Nash’s boot.  Frank fires to get the girl off and succeeds in doing that and blowing his partner’s toe off. (Note my amazing ability to refrain from “and this little piggy…” jokes.)  Meanwhile, Frank’s estranged wife Sarah (Nadine Stenovitch) has been suffering a zombie attack of her own.  The two cops drive to Nash’s place to get some shelter and Frank is surprised to find Sarah there.  Uh oh, tension! They perform a quick surgery to stop the bleeding on Nash’s foot and soon begin to start assessing their situation.

The state of affairs looks grim.  It appears the brain dead skeletal folks looking to feast on the flesh of the innocent are shuffling the streets of Los Angeles.  Isn’t that just regular L.A.?  Oh, these folks are the dead returning to life and feasting on the living.  Frank quickly identifies that there seem to be two kinds of zombies shuffling around – slow ones and fast one that will even prey on their own kind.  With Nash zonked out, Frank and Sarah take some time to talk about their marital issues (I’m not sure why we never see them try to turn on a TV or radio).  The clever Frank soon discovers that he can walk freely among the living dead by using hunting masking spray.  He heads out into the night to try and find more food rations and ends up in the house of Jeffrey Hannigan (Lew Temple), who has holed up in the attic with his unconscious son.  Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Nash has woken up and decides the best course of events is to get drunk with Sarah.  Bad move as he drunkenly tells her that he loves her. Perhaps realizing that was a bad move (zombie apocalypse love traversing is tough, man), Nash heads out to find Frank.  Once he reaches Jeffrey’s house, Nash is accidentally shot in the head by Frank, who thought he was a zombie.  Frank returns home to Sarah and tells her about what happened. What he doesn’t know is that Nash survived and is now being taken care of by Jeffrey.  Meanwhile, a ragtag group calling itself the Los Angeles National Preparedness League (LANPL?) shows up and their members (including Vernon Wells and Felissa Rose) explain what has been learned about the two different zombie contingents.  They also convince Frank and Sarah that they will take them to safety at the Burbank airport.

SILENT NIGHT, ZOMBIE NIGHT won’t be replacing any of the Romero undead classics any time soon. However, I’ll give writer-director Sean Cain decent marks for his attempts to do something a little bit different with the film. The theme of people struggling with personal problems during mass chaos extends from Romero’s efforts, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a full blown love triangle in Romero’s zombielands.  I liked that Cain focused on the emotional elements, although some viewers might find it a bit soap opera-like. There is actually one scene in the attic where Jeffrey talks about Christmas morning (SPOILER: The unconscious son by his side is actually dead after his father had to shoot him) that plays really well.  There is also something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a zombie film before where one of the living dead seems to be reacting in pain to having lost some fingers and yells out in agony as Nash keeps chopping at him.  I also like that Cain introduces some depth into the outbreak (Speeders apparently have something wrapped around their brainstems), but never gives us the full answer.  After all, why would anyone know the cause right away? Also, the film has a great ending. Stuff like this makes me appreciate the film.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to all of this. While Cain has a well-done script and surprisingly great actors to pull it off, he doesn’t appear to have the funds. Trying to create the chaos imagined on the page when you only have 9 or 10 zombies shuffling around hurts.  Also, it doesn’t help that the streets are lined with rows of nicely parked cars.  It hardly conveys the chaos of what the City of Angels would look like with millions of infected and, as we are told, only “a few thousand” survivors.  It pains me that someone like Uwe Boll can get $7 million to crap out HOUSE OF THE DEAD (2003), while these guys struggle with what I assume is less than the estimated $100,000 budget listed on IMDb.  It is doubly disappointing because Cain relies mostly on practical effects for the zombies and the requisite bloody headshots (there are some CGI gun shots and hits) and anybody who does that gets my vote of confidence.  All in all, there is a lot of admirable effort here both in front of and behind the camera.  I just wish they had more funds to capture their zombie apocalypse vision.

Friday, December 27, 2013

December to Dismember: TALES OF THE THIRD DIMENSION (1984)

Even though Christmas has now passed us by, we’re going to keep talking about some flicks centered on the holiday.  Why?  Because we break the rules like Bud Spencer breaks heads. And we’d feel like we cheated you if we didn’t cover one of the most deranged flicks about Christmas ever to be made.

Earl Owensby has always been on our short (long) list of subjects to cover.  A true renaissance man, Owensby is a seemingly larger-than-life North Carolina figure whose rise to fame seems like it could only have taken place in the 1970s.  A successful businessman, Owensby decided one day to chuck it all and pursue his childhood dream of making movies. The story goes that he saw the smash-hit WALKING TALL (1973), thought, “I could do that” and was soon on his way.  He purchased land in his native Shelby, North Carolina and built a huge studio completely self sufficient from Hollywood.  Naturally, he cast himself as the star of nearly every film that came out of there.

Sadly, most cinephiles will know Owensby for the film WOLFMAN (1979), a werewolf film seemingly only made due to capitalize on the hirsute Owensby.  But his filmography is filled with fun and exciting Southern Fried action flicks.  Tom initially turned me onto the man by sending me a copy of his stunt (and food fight) filled DEATH DRIVER (1977).  A quick succession of CHALLENGE (1974), MANHUNTER (1975), DARK SUNDAY (1976), and BUCKSTONE COUNTY PRISON (1978) followed and I was hooked.  By the time the ‘80s rolled around, Owensby had jumped on the resurgent 3-D fad with titles like DOGS OF HELL (1982) and HIT THE ROAD RUNNING (1983).  One of the last three dimensional features he produced was the horror anthology TALES OF THE THIRD DIMENSION (1984) and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t have a segment that is easily one of the most demented Christmas things I’ve ever seen.

TALES is hosted by a Rod Serling sounding skeleton who calls himself Igor (even though his tombstone says Clyde Jones on it).  Igor has three wisecracking vultures to his right who are supposed to be the Three Stooges and two other vultures to his left who are supposed to be Laurel and Hardy.  Don’t ask. The first two stories are rather mundane.  “Young Blood” is about a vampire couple living in a spooky mansion that adopts a boy with a secret of his own.  “The Guardians” is about two greedy grave robbers who end up getting their just desserts in some damp catacombs.  It isn’t until the final segment that the crazy comes to town.  Take a gander at that poster above.  What is that in the upper right hand corner?  Is that an old lady in a wheelchair pointing a shotgun at some kids by a Christmas tree?  It gets crazier, trust me.

“Visions of Sugar Plums” is the third and final segment in the film and it completely redeems any of the unexciting events beforehand.  The story centers on Dennis (Neal Powell) and Susy (Katy O’Toole), two youngsters who are dropped off at the home of their Grandma (Helene Tryon) for the holidays. Roughly a minute into the segment you’ll get an idea of how subversive this is going to be when Dennis tells his dad as they are driving to Grandma’s house that he was too cheap to take them on vacation with them to Hawaii.  Dad’s response is to pull off his own belt while driving and whoop his son while screaming, “You better get into the Christmas spirit or I’m going to burn your little butt!”  Eventually the parents drop the kids off with overly-kissy Grandma before peeling out. WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) this ain’t.

The trio settle down in the home and do normal Christmas things like setting up the tree and playing with toys.  However (insert dramatic music cue), things start to go south on December 21st when we see Grandma discovering she has no more pills in her bottles.  The next day, she starts exhibiting some odd behavior at the breakfast table. She overfills each child’s bowl with oatmeal and then starts giving some to Grandpa. Problem is Grandpa ain’t there and has been dead for years.  If that didn’t let the kids know she was off her rocker, the next scene does as they spy her in the bedroom just spinning around in circles in her electric wheelchair. December 23rd picks up with the kids back in normal holiday events as they are making cookies with Grandma.  But she starts going off when Susy asks if Santa is bringing toys.  “Toys? Ha!” Grandma shouts before spitting on the floor.  She then keeps rolling her dough, smashes a bug with her rolling pin and then eats it.  That night in their beds Susy asks, “You notice Grandma has been acting a little funny lately?”  Just wait, Susy.

Christmas Eve is when it all goes down. The day starts with Grandma making Susy some hot chocolate.  As she puts the powdered mix box back on the table, we see that it is actually rat poison! Grandma coaxes Susy into drinking some and asks the young child, “How ‘bout them Cowboys?”  Oh shit, this lady is really crazy.  Problem is, Grandma accidentally drank the wrong cup and is now hacking up a storm. Obviously concerned, the kids call the airline to see if their parents’ plane has landed as they are scheduled to come back Xmas eve. Grandma gets on the phone and, when the kids are put on hold, impersonates the airline rep and tells the kids the plane crashed in the mountains and everyone died.  I’m not kidding.  In reality, the plane has been delayed by 5 hours. This gives Grandma opportunity to offer Dennis a toaster while he is taking a bath (!) and to recite a screwed up version of “Twas the Night before Christmas” poem (modified lines include “the children were nestled snug in their beds, while horrible tumors grew in their heads”; is this the David Cronenberg version?).  Her poem ends lovingly though with Grandma describing how she bashes Santa’s head in with a brick.  Again, I am not kidding.

The finale finally kicks into gear as the kids are asleep and Dennis gets up to go to the bathroom.  He then sneaks into the kitchen to get something to eat and discovers their cat dead in the freezer and made into kind of a cat holiday ham. Grandma catches him in the kitchen and says it is bad to snack between meals and he must be punished. What is her preferred method of punishment?  A blast from a shotgun! Yes, Grandma whips out the ol’ 12 gauge and points it right at Dennis’ head.  He escapes by throwing flour in her face and goes to hide in the closet.  Grandma, meanwhile, decides to put a colander on her head (!!!) and goes upstairs and points the shotgun at sleeping Susy’s head.  Susy wakes up and high tails it out of there, while psycho Grandma discovered the gun wasn’t loaded.  See, the kids were never in any real harm, the filmmakers beam.  Oh wait, she just found the ammo.  Gun-toting grandma eventually finds both kids hiding in a bedroom and blasts the head off a teddy bear. This makes way for a montage set to “Jingle Bells” as Grandma blasts holes in everything.  Meanwhile, the parents have arrived back.  They make it all the way to the house, only to realize they forgot the presents for the kids at the airport and drive back. Somehow they miss the kids pounding on the window screaming for help.  These poor kids are eventually trapped by Grandma by the Christmas tree as comes at them with a hedge trimmer.  Just as she is about to slice them into bits, the machine turns off.  Grandma turns around at the sound of a “ho, ho, ho” to find…wait for it…Santa Claus standing there. Obviously not a fan of the mentally imbalanced, Santa magically sends Grandma’s wheelchair back to the chimney and shoots her up it into the night.  The parents, driving back to the airport, see the airborne corpse and go, “Aw, look, a shooting star!”  Santa then laughs and heads off into the night.  Fa la la la la la la la la!

It might seem odd to write up just one segment of an anthology, but this totally deserves the recognition.  Not only is “Visions of Sugar Plums” one of the most insane stories we’ve ever seen, but it might be the most demented 30 minutes ever to lay waste to the Christmas season.  This is not hyperbole.  Outside of Jorg Buttgeriet doing A VERY NEKROMANTIK CHRISTMAS, I can’t think of anything darker dealing with the holidays. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)? Eh, you just have a killer Santa.  Nothing tops a Grandma off her meds deciding to blow away her grandchildren on Christmas Eve when it comes to demented holiday horrors.  The director credited to this segment is one Tom Durham, who hasn’t done anything else. Maybe it is a pseudonym, or maybe he realized he made a masterpiece and did the cinematic equivalent of dropping the mic and walking off stage arms outstretched?  I just spent over 900 words describing this segment to you and even I know I am not accurately describing the insanity that unfolds onscreen.  I can still remember when I first watched this and how my jaw just kept dropping with each successive crazy moment.  By the time I got to Santa shooting Grandma out of the chimney, I had dentist in China working on my teeth because my jaw dropped so far.  I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through the filmmakers mind when they made this.  It was shot in 1983, so it was pre-SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT hullabaloo, so the idea that they were openly courting controversy is out the window (or chimney, if you prefer).  In my research, there is no evidence this ever got to theaters (although the Alamo Drafthouse did secure a non-3-D 35mm print of it to show). I’d hope that it did at least play some dates in California and that some poor, misguided families paid to see this in the theater.  I can only imagine the conversations afterward. Anyway, “Visions of Sugar Plums” is not only an anthology saver, but a certifiable Christmas classic ‘round these parts.  Watch it or we’ll send a shotgun wielding Granny your way.

Monday, December 23, 2013

December to Dismember: THE CHRISTMAS SEASON MASSACRE (2001)

Pre-modern Christianity believed that suffering in this mortal coil would put you on Saint Peter's Nice List. When the Jesus peeps were running around slaughtering nations and re-booting their pagan holidays, ironically that whole suffering angle seems to have dropped in favor of active niceness. In other words, instead of a passive activity such as suffering, Santa Claus demands that you are actively nice to make the index delicatus. Therefore after watching the movie, I have become holier in the eyes of the old church, but after this review I will definitely be getting a lump of coal in my stocking.

Seemingly taking a cue from the violent shit that came out of Germany in the '80s, the movie opens up with a girl in jeans running away from someone holding a home video camera who can't afford a steadycam harness. I thought it might be someone who was desperately trying to avoid being in this amateur mess, but after she trips and falls, a guy with a bandana, an eye patch and a wife-beater stabs her in the guts and proceeds to pull out her intestines... and plays with them. I'm guessing playing with them is the right way to put it. He grimaces and grunts while mushing them in his hands and pulling them... and he grunts some more, and pulls some more, and grimaces, and mashes and... Can we get on with this already?

A riveting way to spend 7.5 minutes
Set in Christmastown, CA (which suspiciously looks like Missouri), this alleged "horror/comedy" tells the tale of one Tommy "One Shoe" McGroo (Michael Hill) a scrawny kid who was so poor that when schoolyard bullies stole one of his shoes, he had to ask Santa for a replacement. Instead of a shoe, he gets "a pussy eye-patch" which pushes him over the edge. He disappeared, but every Christmas one of his classmates is found brutally murdered. We are told this by one of his former classmates, Boom Boom (Eric Stanze), who is drinking tequila with his rather homely girlfriend in a parked Toyota in the middle of a clearing. And lemme tell ya, that story takes some time to tell. Shot from the backseat and the side window, this loser rambles on and on, repeating points and digressing into soliloquies about what a "pussy" McGoo was. If you are in your 20s and you miss being around your loser friend who thinks he can tell a story and just bores the shit out of everyone, you will love this stuff. Of course when "the Boomer's gotta drain the main vein" he gets attacked by McGoo. This takes seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds of the movie. Seven and a half of the longest minutes of your life.

Shot silent with dialogue dubbed in later, a doughy dork laments to his equally doughy woman about how Christmas is for children and damn his low sperm count! Naturally it takes a loooooong time to get through this monologue and when we finally do, it's time to open presents! Well, when I say "presents", what I mean is an old suitcase filled with sex toys and random objects. After going through about 20 items and making funny faces at each other they strip down and have sex under the Christmas tree while the dude wears a watermelon piñata on his head. Oh yeah, this is supposed to be a "comedy" isn't it? Cue McGoo, who stumbles into the "set" and pulls watermellon dude off his chunky monkey and climbs aboard himself to which the wife coos "oh you've gotten bigger." Is it me or did someone miss the memo here? I would think that if you are going to have a killer stalking a guy with a piñata on his head, you might have the killer take him out by... oh, I don't know, maybe beating his head with a stick? Say what you want about Lloyd Kaufman, but he would have never blown that obvious set-up.

But wait, we haven't even gotten to the main plot yet! Seriously, there is one... sort of. The surviving classmates get together at a local summer camp and decide that "we're going to stay here, have some fun and fucking kill Tommy McGroo!" Note that they say they are going to have some fun. The viewer is not invited. Or rather we are invited to watch them have fun. Clearly the "cast" (ie: a group of friends) is having fun as evidenced by long sections of tomfoolery including a music montage of everyone tormenting the fat guy (how is burning his hand with a lighter funny?), placing a whoopie cushion on the slutty girl's chair, arguing and playing a very, very long game of Strip Trivial Pursuit in which no one strips or even plays the game. Oh, and there's the dorky redneck guy who is constantly serenading his girlfriend via acoustic guitar. The goofy ballads, with lyrics like "you are like a tall weed in a parking lot", might actually get a laugh if they were in a better movie. Remember how I said that the backstory on McGroo were the longest seven and a half minutes of your life? I lied. This part is the longest. It just goes on and on. Not like the Energizer Bunny, but more like that lingering, phlemmy cough that you can't get rid of after catching the Christmas flu.

Don't believe me? Wait till you see the sidesplitting scene where two of the oakie cast members have what they clearly think is a hilarious, drunken exchange that starts like this:
"Lemme ask you something. Is fish meat?"
"Why would you ask me a question like that? Of course fish is fish!"
Whether this is a flub that was left in or just terrible scripting is unclear. What is clear is that this is going to go on for a while. We cut away. We cut back and the conversation is still going and going and...

The most horrifying thing in this movie... perhaps ever.

Give me fear! C'mon, terror!
You are scared! You're... oh, fuck it.
McGoo stumbles around attacking the classmates with knife, ice pick, chainsaw and screwdriver, finally chasing the last two chumps into a graveyard. We know it's a graveyard because there is a montage of shots of the headstones that goes on for at least a full minute. It may not sound like much, but when these moments of obvious padding interrupt the flow of an already uneventful movie, 60 seconds of static shots of tombstones is asking a whole hell of a lot from your audience. Same can be said for the shot of one of the guys with a screwdriver through his head. No, we don't get to see it put there, but the guys are so proud of the application they shoot it from multiple angles over and over like it's a Jackie Chan stunt from the '80s.

Distributor Sub Rosa definitely lives up to their Latin name with this one. This release is so far under the radar that it is in danger of melting in the Earth's core. This is without a doubt the longest 69 minutes I have ever spent in my life. That 69 minutes includes a full four and a half minutes of bloopers that are awkwardly inserted in the middle of the end credits and a whopping seven and a half minutes of credits leaving a mere 57 minutes of actual movie that makes SHOAH (1985) feel like a penny arcade short. In the final act, the killer is chasing down the last guy in the cemetery, the victim has enough time to sit down and set up a Ouija board and try to mess with it for a while. No doubt writer-director Jeremy Wallace would like to chalk that up as part of the "comedy" but I call bullshit on that, it's just more stalling for time. At this point the sweat is starting to break and I was like David Naughton in a porn theater, except I'm not turning into a werewolf, I'm just in agonizing pain.

So inept is this production that the, presumably, TV news coverage of the killing of Boomer and the assault on his girlfriend is simply a bunch of black and white still images of the movie footage we just saw with a long droning narration that recaps the events we just saw in a "news anchor" voice-over! Ghaaa! You couldn't video one of your friends in a suit against a wall with some fake call signs and then play it back on a TV? Apparently not. Look, Jeremy Wallace, even the ultra-cheap know how to work the old "news" bit. You have someone driving a car, they turn on the radio and bam, there's your news story that fills in the audience on some exposition that, and this is the important part, you haven't covered previously!

Ultimately it seems as if Wallace watched VIOLENT SHIT (1989) and REDNECK ZOMBIES (1989) one too many times and said "That's easy! I can do that!" Much of the antics feel like they've been borrowed, except REDNECK ZOMBIES was genuinely clever, funny and really graphically gory. Here we have a "comic" scene with a girl massaging her breasts, a guy picking strange objects out of something and making comic faces and remarks, parody folk songs, an over-acting fat guy, and a moment of shotgun splatter that is the highlight of the movie. Seems all a bit too familiar. The comedy is painful (though it is funny watching Jason Christ accidentally smack his head into a truck windshield so hard that it legitimately spiderwebs), the gore is barely adequate and at just over an hour, it is far too long for the paltry few ideas that Wallace has.

So watching this movie may not get me past the pearly gates, but it's got to be good for some leverage with ol' Saint Pete, I'm thinking. If I can just make sure Santa doesn't read this till the 26th...

Saturday, December 21, 2013


With Tom guiding our review slay…er, sleigh into the television arena, I figured it would be appropriate to look at some smaller Christmas TV terrors.  The ol’ cathode ray tube has always been a bonding device around the holidays as folks would sit around to watch classics like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964) or 24 straight hours of A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983).  So it was nice of TV movies like HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972) to introduce the darker side of the holidays to viewing audiences.  The Brits were one step ahead of us with the BBC’s A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS series, which debuted in 1971.

Naturally, this Christmas fear also extended into the horror anthology shows.  Earlier omnibus shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY had shown some Christmas spirit with classic episodes like “Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid,” “The Night of the Meek” and “The Messiah on Mott Street,” respectively.  But those maintained the sappy Yuletide spirit and were a little too nice for horror fans.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it wasn’t until the ‘80s that horror shows got their Xmas freak on.  By far the most famous holiday horror for the small screen anthology format is the remake of “And All Through the House” for TALES FROM THE CRYPT in 1989 (I’d like to think this was a big reaction to the sappy “Santa ‘85” in AMAZING STORIES).  But a few series were doing it before then, showing a darker side of the silent night where lots of creatures were stirring.

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE debuted in October 1983 and went to series the following fall.  With compact tales of terror, it is actually surprising that they didn’t do a Christmas tale in the first two seasons.  That was corrected in its third season with the holiday-themed episode “Seasons of Belief,” which debuted on December 29, 1986.

The story involves a family settling down on Christmas Eve.  The father (E.G. Marshall) and mother (Margaret Klenck) are trying to get their two unruly kids to wind down for the night. Knowing Santa Claus isn’t real, the kids want to hear a new Christmas story and the dad opts to tell them the scary story of The Grither.  Living on the opposite side of Santa’s mountain in the North Pole, The Grither is a monster built from people’s fears that will attack and kill anyone who says its name aloud.  Uh oh, the young boy has said it several times and his parents inform him that the beast is now on the way to the house to get him.  The only way to prevent its attack is to finish the story before The Grither arrives at your doorstep.

A true example of the DARKSIDE formula (one set, one monster), “Seasons of Belief” is probably the best of the Xmas episodes from these series.  This relies most on the work of writer-director Michael McDowell, adapting a story by Michael Bishop.  McDowell – who would pen BEETLEJUICE (1988) and the DARKSIDE movie before dying prematurely in 1999 – sets up a great holiday mood, but with a dark edge. When the episode starts, you assume Marshall is the kids’ grandfather, but he is indeed their dad with a wife at least 30 years his junior. Also note that Marshall’s character is shown drinking the entire time he tells his story and the folks seem to be enjoying scaring their kids.  Finally, the ending is pretty dark for something involving kids.  Had I seen this as a 6 or 7 year old, I’m sure it would have messed me up.  

The following year in 1987, DARKSIDE continued on the holiday tradition with “The Yattering and Jack.” This episode was a bit of a coup for the series as it was based on a short story by Clive Barker (remember him?) and he actually did the teleplay.  Barker’s feature directorial debut HELLRAISER (1987) had just hit theaters two months prior to this episode’s November 8, 1987 airdate and he was hotter than hell (ah, boo yourself).

The story focuses on Jack Polo (Tony Carbone), a divorced middle aged man looking to spend the holidays alone.  Jack is perpetually peppy, so he always has a positive outlook on the poltergeist happenings in his home.  Mirrors smashing? Must be the house settling.  Goldfish being boiled alive in their tank?  Gotta have that thermostat checked.  All of these events are the handiwork of The Yattering (Phil Fondacaro), an invisible demon working for Satan to try and break this man in order to steal his soul.  Things get complicated when his daughter Amanda (Danielle Brisebois) shows up unannounced for the holidays.  Furthermore, the devil is getting tired of waiting for this soul and puts the Yattering on a tight schedule to get things done (“Break his pathetic human heart.”).

Originally appearing in volume one of Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD series, “The Yattering and Jack” is a nice, compact story about the battle for one man’s soul.  Unfortunately, he also wasn’t in the director’s chair of this episode because it clearly lacked the punch (and funds) to make it work.  The action all unfolds on one set and director David Odell does a nice job making it Christmassy (damn, I can’t believe Word accepted that spelling).  But the episode loses it when it comes to the titular demon.  The FX budget was obviously limited, but this demon is so botched that Fondacaro ends up looking like a mini, red John Oates on his way to an S & M club.  A far cry from how Barker originally envisioned his little devil. In the end, I’d only recommend this for curious Barker fans who want to see his work adapted...or anyone who wants to see Phil Fondacaro topless...or anyone who wants to see a frozen turkey jump onto a Christmas tree.

With TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE doing Christmas stuff, you just knew that the sister-series MONSTERS would be doing the same. Debuting in 1988 from the DARKSIDE parent company Laurel, MONSTERS was all about the horror with a new fiend showcased each week.  The timing of their first Christmas episode was a bit off though as “Glim-Glim” debuted on February 4, 1989.

The show drops the viewer right into the action as a father (Mark Hofmaier), his daughter Amy (Jenna Von Oy) and a guy named Carl (Brian Fitzpatrick) break into the basement of the town library.  The reason for their hiding is upstairs, an alien dubbed Glim-Glim by Amy.  It crashed in the town a few days previous and a virus wiped out all of the 7,000 residents save our lead trio.  The four-armed, four-eyed big green being upstairs is plowing through books trying to learn about humans and how to communicate with them.  Naturally, the adults want to kill the beast, but Amy is drawn to it.  We are told via alien voiceover how Glim-Glim is only an explorer that crashed with natural bacteria in its intestine that is deadly to humans.  The extraterrestrial has the town quarantined behind a force field to prevent it spreading and is working on an antidote, but will it be able to communicate in time with the humans.

Written by author F. Paul Wilson (THE KEEP), this episode seems like a pessimistic reaction to the overly positive message delivered by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982).  After all, director Peter Michael Stone recreates the iconic “finger touch” moment.  But there is no happy ending here.  The story ends with the alien being blown away while it is trying to send the greeting “Merry Christmas” to the fearful adult survivors.  If that weren’t dark enough, the ending alludes to the fact the actions of the men will result in the end of the entire human race.  Merry Christmas, indeed.  The episode is good, but loses some points for the alien design, which looks like a big pear with four limbs stuck on it.

The show’s next (and last) Christmas episode “A New Woman” debuted in the third and final season on December 16, 1990.  The plot revolves around the impending death of a multimillionaire Thomas (Tom McDermott).  His much younger wife Jessica (Linda Thorson) can’t wait to see him croak, even going so far as to have him sign papers on his deathbed evicting a bunch of poor people around Christmas time.  David (Dan Butler), Thomas’ nephew, objects to her money grubbing ways.  Also objecting is a mysterious new doctor (Mason Adams), who warns Jessica if she doesn’t change her ways that she will live to regret it.  When Jessica takes a bump to the head while scheming to unplug Thomas’ life support, she gets to see exactly what the doc means by peaking into her uncertain (and undead) future.

Obviously this episode was inspired by Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL and that makes sense as parts of that story are scary as hell.  The updates are nice as the Scrooge character is now a woman and the story comments on the ‘80s Yuppie dreams of wealth, power and greed.  I don’t know if you can accurately convey a total character transformation in 22 minutes, but the team does a good job of it.  Of course, anyone would change their ways if they were haunted by rotting flesh spouses and skeleton-faced ghouls.

So there you have it.  It's actually a shame both series didn't delve more into the Christmas season as it is extremely fertile ground for spooky stories.  Of the four, I'd probably only call "Seasons of Belief" a must-see, just because it sets the Christmas mood so well.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December to Dismember: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

In the epic annuls of "They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore" there are entire subvolumes devoted to the '70s. Counter-culture was in the air and being subversive was super-chic. This was a time when mainstream couples in their 20s and 30s would go on first dates to see DEEP THROAT (1972) in an actual cinema. This was a time when wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth, wing-nut misanthropes were safely tucked away in barber shops instead of hosting cable news shows that claim to be "fair and balanced".

During this amazing period in history, filmmakers would actually try to surprise audiences. Now it seems that mainstream audiences demand to have their pre-fabricated expectations fulfilled by cinema without a single twist or misdirection. The bad guys are bad and the good guys are bad, but the good guys have an ironclad just cause. No vagueness, no ambiguity, if someone gets punched, killed, or tortured, they had it coming, and it was for a good reason. Usually because they aren't nice to women, animals or those of ethnic origins.

Ironically theatrical films of the '70s were suddenly unshackled from the draconian censorship of the Hays Code by Jack Valenti's new MPAA ratings board, whose first incarnation went into effect in 1968. Ironic because as we all know, Valenti and his MPAA slowly turned into something even more twisted than Will H. Hays could have ever dreamed up. TV movies, under the censorship of the FCC, unable to show the graphic content of theatrical films, were forced to resort to creative concepts, interesting casting, twisting plots and clever dialogue. Case in point, the Aaron Spelling / Leonard Goldberg produced ABC TV movie HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS. As director Paul Kyriazi told us, this movie came out of left field for some (like his mother) who thought they were sitting down to some wholesome home-spun Christmas movie back in '72.

Alex Morgan (Eleanor Parker, who passed away on the same night that I watched this), the big sister in the family, is meeting her strangely male nick-named sisters at home for Christmas for the first time in a long time because their father, Benjamin Morgan (Walter Brennan), is dying. Right off the bat we know there isn't a drop of saccharine in this yuletide tonic as the angriest of the sisters, Jo (Jill Haworth) vents her ire the minute Alex tells them of their father's impending demise. "Is that the only reason you made us come back? I swore I'd never set foot in that house again, not even to have the pleasure of seeing his coffin closed!" So no cocoa, knit sweaters and choruses of "O Tannenbaum" this year then? Well, it's just one malcontent, right? Alex then tells the girls that Dad sent her a note saying that his wife was poisoning him and says "we can't let that woman get away with murder... again."

Not only do the girls blame dad for the death of their mother, but apparently their homelife up until that point wasn't exactly out of a Pipi Longstocking novel. When they gather around their father's bed, Dad decides that this is the perfect opportunity to take them all down a peg. He slams Freddie (Jessica Walter) has been self-medicating with pills and vodka, Chris (Sally Field) gets a slap on the wrist for being naive, but Dad saves the best for Jo in this exchange:
Dad: "Jo, I lost track of all of the husbands..."
Jo: "So did I, until I realized that you didn't have to marry them to sleep with them."
Dad: "As I remember, you found that out in junior high school."
Oh daaaaaaayyyyummm!! And I thought my family had some issues with lingering resentment over parental disapproval! Better still, Dad demands that his flock of female failures spend the most wonderful time of the year killing his wife, before she kills him! God bless us, everyone.

As it turns out the new stepmom, Elizabeth Hall Morgan (Julie Harris), was not just suspected of poisoning her last husband, but actually tried in a court of law and spent time under special psychiatric care. While the suspicious sisters delicately probe around the issue over the dinner table, Elizabeth tells them of the strange circumstances of her late husbands death and how it drove her mad. Only temporarily, of course, but "if for some evil reason I am ever accused by anyone of killing, the next time, I will not be the one that wakes up screaming." Well ok, then! There's always someone who has to drop that not-so-veiled threat before you even make it to dessert, isn't there?

This sets the stage for a surprisingly atmospheric reworking of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), complete with thunder and lightning, torrential rain (it's California, no snow) and an American gothic mansion in which someone in a yellow slicker and red rubber gloves is picking off the family one by one. Just as much as it owes a debt to John Willard's seminal 1922 stage play (by way of many film adaptations), HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS pre-dates much of the '70s Bava-inspired slasher films in the US and was made four years prior to ALICE SWEET ALICE (1976) which made the yellow rainslicker an icon of evil.

You could make an argument that it is full of the same trappings that have been in these "Old Dark House" movies and stage plays for nearly 100 years, but this raises itself well above similar TV outings, benefiting from a surgically sharp script by Joseph Stefano. Stefano may be best remembered for writing the screenplay for a relatively unknown low-budget film titled PSYCHO (1960), plus many other TV and film credits, including both incarnations of "The Outer Limits" (1964 and 1998). Unlike many of the TV movies that gave the medium a bad rap, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is not a 22 minute concept stretched out to a flabby 73 minute feature. Instead it is a 90 minute concept squeezed down to a tourniquet-tight 73 minute feature. Because of this, it moves at a blistering pace in spite of being what is essentially a brooding and atmospheric horror film laced with humor painted so dark that it almost blends into the black, stormy night.