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!

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.

Monday, December 16, 2013

December to Dismember: SATAN CLAUS (1996)

The personal pendulum of Santa Claus has always amused me.  After all, he is one of the most beloved people in the world (and white too, according to Fox News) according to children. How can you not love a dude who breaks into your home and leaves you awesome things?  At the same time, ol’ St. Nick has produced more tears than Michael Bay’s filmography.  Yes, the most adored man in the world turns most kids into blubbering messes when they see him in person (like if Tom were to meet Brian Trenchard-Smith).  Truth is the dude is scary and the stuff of nightmares.  Naturally, cinema has exploited this fear.

It seems only appropriate that a killer Santa would first appear in the subversive cinema of the 1970s.  The Amicus anthology TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) made history by having a wacko in a Santa suit terrorizing an equally evil housewife (to show how far ahead of the times EC Comics producer William Gaines was, the story was originally featured in “The Vault of Horror” in 1954).  It seems only appropriate that the Killer Santa theme exploded in the “go big or go home” cinema of the 1980s. Audiences were treated to a myriad of killer Kris Kringles starting with CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) and continuing with DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984) and the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) series.  Hell, even the TALES FROM THE CRYPT cable revival in 1989 remade the classic “And All Through the House” story.  Now in most cases it was just a loony in a Santa suit, but the deal was done. The dude scared people and was perfect horror movie material.  After all, with a quick letter switch Santa becomes Satan.

Now, close your eyes for a minute so I can tell you a story…oh, wait, open them back up as you need to read this.  Imagine a film set in 1990s New York that had a killer Santa Claus running around the city on dark nights chopping people up with an axe. Sounds amazing, right?  Gives you that kind of tingly feeling you had when you heard Jason Voorhees was going to be set loose in the Big Apple, right?  Well, now imagine how disappointed you felt when you saw FRIDAY THE 13th PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (1989).  Now take that dissatisfaction, multiply it times 100 and transfer it to video.  Hurts, doesn’t it?  That is the crushing sense of disappointment you’ll get watching the shot-on-video SATAN CLAUS (1996).

The movie opens with a woman clad all in black performing some kind of satanic ceremony over an 8X10 of some random dude.  The next scene has a lady walking home at night and she is confronted by a guy dressed as Santa Claus.  Apparently she was on the naughty list as he quickly decapitates her with an axe and puts her head in his sack.  Cut to a downtown police station where Captain George Ardison (Barie Snider) gets the word that it was his wife that was the victim.  Oh damn, Ardison was the dude in the photo in that opening ritual.  Somebody must not like him. Our killer Santa proves his lack of Yuletide cheer by taunting the police captain with phone calls and placing the lady’s severed head on top of his Christmas tree.

Meanwhile, we meet out loveable lead Steve Sanders (Robert Hector), a struggling actor who lives with a psychic black lady named Maman (Lauretta Ali). In the film’s one true scene, Steve questions his desired occupation by saying, “Truth is I’m not an actor. Maybe I should find a real job?”  I couldn’t agree more, pal.  Anyway, he is helping out his buddy Ken (Roy Ashton) by hanging out in the park dressed as Santa (sans beard) to collect donations for St. Mary’s orphanage. While ringing their bells, Steve and Ken are visited by Sandra Logan (Jodie Rafty), the woman who did his actor headshots, and her model boyfriend Jeff.  While walking in the park and trying to get romantic, Sandra and Jeff are attacked by the killer Santa with Jeff getting an axe to his beautiful face for his trouble.  With Steve as a witness, he heads to the police station to be questioned by Ardison and runs into his old flame Lisa (Daisy Vel), who is also working this case.

Anyway, the victims keep falling and the calls keep coming. Santa is dubbed “Satan Claus” by the NY media because, well, he’s evil and they love the attention-grabbing headlines. As if a killer Santa stealing body parts weren’t bad enough, the city that never sleeps now has redneck posses (well, three guys) running around pulling guns on anyone dressed in red with white trim.  Wait…is it even legally possible for rednecks to be in the Big Apple?  Anyway, Steve literally disarms a situation by using his acting skills (“You’re no different than the man you are hunting.” Oh, burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn!). Maman, meanwhile, is having bad visions about this Satan Claus.  She gives Steve a pendant to protect him (it is never seen again) and later has flashes of the killer at home.  This results in a great scene where Steve is saying, “What can you see?” and she vaguely describes the visions flashing in her head before screaming “31 Washington Street!”  Damn, Maman good. Steve arrives at that address to find the killer Santa under his body part decorated tree and it is…Captain Ardison!  But wait, Ardison had actual phone conversations with the killer Santa and was working when his wife was brutally killed.  That is when a second killer Santa shows up and it is…photographer Sandra Logan!  SUH-WERVE!  Seems Sandra was pissed that her boyfriend Jeff was cheating on her so she decided the only recourse was to begin a series of seemingly random murders so she could off him.  She then possessed the police chief via Satanism to have him commit the other murder.  Ah, woman logic.  Much more effective than saying, “We need to break up. I want my key back.”  Such effective planning is never fully appreciated though as the cops arrive and shoot her dead.  The end...thank goodness!

Sorry if I ruined the twists and turns of SATAN CLAUS for you there.  Who am I kidding?  The only person dumb enough to watch this would be me.  This magnum non-opus is the handiwork of one Massimiliano Cerchi.  Had the internet not been able to prove his existence as a real person, I would have assumed this was the handiwork of one Wally Koz, the auteur behind the shot-on-video 555 (1988).  After all, Cerchi has the same aesthetic and plot style as Koz, relying on hard to make out night shots as much as scenes set in a detective’s office. The film is so dark in spots that you can barely make out what is going on.  I totally wanted to see an evil Santa Claus loose in NYC movie.  But I literally couldn’t see it.  Even worse, Cerchi shoots the film’s lone nude scene with such a lack of care that he deserves nothing but pitch black coal this year. Believe it or not, Cerchi survived this mess and went on to make more films.  Hell, he even graduated to shooting on film for the likes of THE MUMMY THEME PARK (2000), a film so bad that when Tom sent me a copy he wrote “worst film of all-time!?!” on the DVD.  Damn, brother, can you pass that pen over here?

Friday, December 13, 2013

December to Dismember: ALIEN RAIDERS (2008)

A few days back, Tom reviewed the Christmas set sci-fi flick THE BLACKOUT (2009) and was left wondering why exactly the filmmakers opted to place the events of the film during the holidays. After all, it wasn’t integral to the action or any of the character motivations.  Instead, it just seemed to be there.  Well, I think I figured out why they set it on Christmas Eve – the filmmakers watched ALIEN RAIDERS (2008), another sci-fi flick set during the Yuletide season for no apparent reason.

Back in the 2000s, it seemed like every DVD company was creating some kind of horror imprint label.  Lionsgate teamed up with the After Dark Horrorfest people to release a bunch of stuff on DVD; Sam Raimi’s pockets swallowed the souls/cash of viewers with his Ghost House Underground label; and the Weinsteins, naturally, jumped in with their Dimension Extreme (oooooh!) sub-label.  Not wanting to be left out in the cold, Warner Bros. set up the subsidiary label Raw Feed in order to release horror themed direct-to-video titles.  First up was their redneck-are-bad title REST STOP (2006) and over the next two years they released 7 more titles.  The final one to date was the ridiculously titled (more on that in a bit) ALIEN RAIDERS (2008).

The film opens with a heavily edited credit sequence full of clichés.  We get freeze frames, oversaturated colors, guns, handheld video footage, drugs, bad rock music, criminals. Thankfully, this is a bit of misdirection on director Ben Rock’s part. The six criminals are in Buck Lake, Arizona and heading to a local grocery store just around closing time.  Before they arrive, we meet the principals at the store – thieving manager Tarkey (Joel McCrary), bagger Benny (Jeffrey Licon), his sweetheart Whitney (Samantha Streets) and her mean stepdad Seth (Mathew St. Patrick), a cop who leaves as the hoods arrives and just happens to be a former big city hostage negotiator *sigh*.  The criminals enter and seal the place off, but start making some odd moves.  One of them, Spooky (Philip Newby), begins grabbing hostages by the head and staring into their eyes before declaring that they are “clear.” Unfortunately for the robbers, another cop was in the store and has called for backup. In an ensuing shootout, both the cop and Spooky are killed.  Ritter (Carlos Bernard), the team’s leader, says they need to send for another “spotter.”  Just what is going on here? Viewers might be wondering…had the film not been titled ALIEN RAIDERS.

Yes, the “criminals” here are actually a well-armed scientific group searching for an alien beast that is hiding inside humans.  Their “spotters” are previously infected humans who the aliens could not survive in due to their drug habits, so now they can see them (a nice twist). Outside of the supermarket, the cops arrive and, naturally, Seth is in charge.  They locate the group’s truck and find out it is registered to one Aaron Ritter, a former worker at Jet Propulsions Laboratories.  Even more interesting are the videos inside the van, which seem to show Ritter and his accomplices discovering and fighting an alien being.  When contact with the police is established, Ritter demands that they bring him Charlotte (Bonita Friedericy), another spotter locked up in Phoenix for drunk and disorderly charges.  Meanwhile, the team begins to do their own decidedly non-scientific test to find out which of their six hostages is the alien.  The hostages, meanwhile, are plotting their own escape, unaware of the alien threat in their midst.

Unfolding like a mix of THE THING (1982) meets THE MIST (2007), ALIEN RAIDERS is an admirable attempt at a straight faced horror/sci-fi hybrid. Unfortunately, that makes its missteps all the more painful.  Obviously the biggest one is something I don’t think I can lay at the feet of the filmmakers.  The title ALIEN RAIDERS is just horrible.  Not only does it reek of some generic SyFy Channel movie and something slapped on by a Raw Feed exec, but it completely gives away the film’s mystery.  It would be like if FROM DUSK TIL DAWN (1995) was called VAMPIRE STRIPPERS or THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) called CONVERSATIONS WITH A DEAD GUY. The film apparently shot under the title SUPERMARKET and toyed with the idea of being called INHUMAN at one point. Any of those are all bad, so it appears it was in a hard sell situation from the get go.  Of course, I would have just called it THE HIDDEN.  Haha.  The other obvious problem is director Ben Rock’s inability to go all the way. This is obviously a low budget effort, but I’m sure fans would have appreciated more in the gooey alien department.  How do you make an alien-in-human film and not have a nod to the chestburster?  Also, Rock barely captures the film’s prosthetic work thanks to a deadly combination of dark cinematography and dreaded shaky cam.

How the main monster looks in publicity shots:

How the main monster looks in the film:

Finally, there is the head scratching decision to set this during the Christmas season. There is no real reason it is done so (only one character moans about the holidays) and ultimately the filmmakers wasted some of their budget on Xmas decorations for no reason whatsoever. Hell, have someone pick up one of those big ass candy canes you have laying around at the very least.  In the end, ALIEN RAIDERS would get a recommendation from me.  It earns credit for trying something new and being mostly serious in its effort. Unfortunately, it is still called ALIEN RAIDERS.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

December to Dismember: THE BLACKOUT (2009)

One of my favorite films is ALIEN (1979). Not exactly a shocker, it's been somewhat popular over the years, from what I understand. One of the many things I like about it is the fact that created a template for the modern monster movie, by being a reworking of the "old dark house" films. Better still that template meant cheap, exploitation knock-offs. Suddenly, black, toothy creatures with no love for peanut butter candies were tearing up humankind from astronauts to hillbillies. Actually more like astronauts or hillbillies. Until now...

Christmas in Los Angeles can be hell. A massive heatwave of over 100º causes rolling brownouts and constant tremors shake the city threatening to cause hair to fall out of place. Regardless of this, the residents of the Ravenwood apartment complex in downtown LA are throwing a Christmas party and have invited the neighbors. Note this is a Christmas party, not a birthday party and nobody says "my hair stinks" (mainly because they are in LA and nobody has bad hair). Invited to the party are the uber-douchey married couple, Daniel and Elizabeth (Barbara Streifel Sanders and Joseph Dunn) who are barely tolerating an allegedly homeless, alcoholic loser brother-in-law Dylan (Ian Malcolm), who actually looks quite fit and healthy and is stylishly dressed and coiffed. I guess it is LA, so even barflies have to look good. So how do the filmmakers express that he's a deadbeat? He farts while sleeping on the sofa in the afternoon. Brilliant, right? If Sergei Eisenstein had been able to use sound, I have no doubt that someone would have farted during the Odessa Steps sequence. Naturally, they decide also to have him show heroic qualities once the proverbial shit goes down.

Next up is the uber-douchey trendy couple. He wears a small-brim fedora and she wears one of those low-cut, quasi-maternity blouses that were all the rage back in the pre-twenty teens. Oh and it doesn't stop there. We have another couple in their early 30s who are constantly fighting and on the verge of a divorce, we have a George Zimmerman wannabe who shows up at the party with his presumably adopted brother (Ace Gibson) that nobody likes and two loaded glocks. Guess which one is perceived as worse? Right. It's LA, guns are fine, it's the socially awkward black man that is the pariah of the party.

Tonight we're going to party like it's 2009
Why nobody likes this guy is ever explained, also unexplained is why people keep saying they know who this roid-rage gun-nut is. Who is he? Who knows? Certainly not the audience. If this hadn't been made three years prior to the Zimmerman case, I'd say they were making a statement of some kind, but no. Screenwriter Jim Beck (who went on to script a few episodes of a new "Pink Panther" cartoon series the following year) is aiming for simultaneously higher and lower brow stuff. Oh yeah, and there's the Super, who is from London, his electrician, another maintenance guy, a nerd who has his apartment set up with "high-tech" ham radio set-up... am I forgetting any of these utterly forgettable characters?

The audience reacts to the dialogue scenes
With all of these characters, I'm sure screenwriter Jim Beck was thinking that he was breaking into Robert Altman territory, when in fact he is simply creating an abattoir of subplots that never go anywhere and are simply more vehicles for his pre-SAT level dialogue. Honestly, it takes a lot to get me to bitch about dialogue in a monster movie. Oh wait, did I not tell you? Yes, this is supposed to be a monster movie. It will be, but it sure does take a while to get there. Meanwhile we have to wade through exchanges that are painful to listen to. For example, when we are being introduced to the trendy couple whose names I can't even be bothered to remember: 
Guy: "Tell me again why we have to go to this thing?"
Girl: " I told you."
Guy: "Oh yeah, right, so everybody can check out your rack and you get promoted."
Girl: "[explains how the job is really important to her]...besides you love checking out this rack."
Guy: "I told you, you don't have to work, I can support you."
Girl: "And then I'd have to blow you, like every day. What would that make me?"
Guy: "Full?"
It doesn't get any better than this folks! Of the film's 78 minutes, this sort of thing comprises nearly an hour of it.

The action finally kicks in when the married couple send their son, by himself during brownouts and earthquakes, down to retrieve a Christmas present that's been locked in a trunk that is just sitting in the middle of the empty basement of the highrise. Of course if you've seen THE ALIEN'S DEADLY SPAWN (1983) or any other monster movies with a basement, you know what happens next. Apparently in addition to everything else the rumblings are causing fissures to open up in the earth and one has cracked a hole in the basement floor allowing a big nasty, toothy creature that looks incredibly familiar, to invade the complex. It takes a while for the parents to start wondering what the hell happened to their kid, dad manages to misplace the daughter as well and heads back to the apartment as the creature attacks the party. Presumably attracted by sounds of merriment, or possibly just annoyed by all of the cliches. Cliches such as the survivors of the attack running over to the married couple's apartment and having a confrontation ala NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). The final half of the movie consists of the survivors running up and down stairs (and ultimately a CG elevator shaft) with the creature picking off stragglers one by one while they alternately panic and discuss theories as to what these things are (turns out there is more than one).

In spite of the community theater acting and the 8th grade script, the movie is surprisingly watchable. It feels like it should be headlining an After Dark film fest. It's that... uhhh... good. Perhaps it's due to the fact that everything feels like it was copped straight out of the '80s. The opening title sequence (which amusingly powers down briefly), showing a view of earth from space with lights winking out in a wave is effective in setting the stage for what is to come and is reminiscent of the opening of John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). The highrise setting was huge in the '80s with DEMONS 2 (1986), POLTERGEIST III (1988), and GREMLINS 2 (1990) to name a few. The alien is cool enough, but an obvious Giger rip-off and the even the idea of having this horror happen on Christmas is an '80s convention. The most disappointing part is that the Christmas setting is barely even utilized. You'd think, if it's Christmas there would be, I don't know, Christmas decorations everywhere? Sure, we get a random Christmas trees at the alleged Christmas party, but that's it! You'd think that someone would maybe bleed out under the mistletoe or maybe be feasted on in the middle of a nativity scene, but sadly there is none of that '80s juxtaposing the (alleged) joyous holiday with the horror at hand.

The cinematography for a digital feature is more than adequate, although the dreaded shakey-cam rears it's head, and the creature and gore effects are surprisingly good. Though, honestly, if you can't nail down a good camera man and effects team in freakin' Los Angeles, you shouldn't give up your day job. The big let-down here is that some of the gore is practical and some is CG. Clearly they couldn't afford to hire Weta Digital, so we end up with some really lamentable gags. Some of the CG looks even worse than they normally would because the director (Robert David Sanders, also of "Pink Panther and Friends" fame) has a cheap, crappy CG effect directly following a nicely executed practical effect. The bad CG ending is actually rather bleak, which is pretty cool, but I feel like I've seen it a million times before. This feeling of deja vu permeates the movie with children in peril, drunks redeeming themselves,  and couples professing eternal love before being killed, not to mention the fact that the title BLACKOUT has been used by at least 30 feature films and scores of shorts over the past century of filmmaking. Plus there's that Scorpions album. I guess that is to be expected since it was made in the shadow of Hollywood by folks who mostly work in children's television. As much of a mixed bag as it is, it's surprising that this has never shown up in the US. Like I said before, it would be perfect fodder for After Dark and would be right at home in NetFlix's new streaming line-up.

Friday, December 6, 2013

December to Dismember: SAINT (2010)

Damn, it’s nearly a week into December and we haven’t rolled out any Christmas-themed reviews. Please accept our sincerest apologies. Truthfully, it is getting harder and harder to find stuff to review around this time of year as the Christmas horror output is pretty nil and we don’t want to be a blog boring you with yet another review of BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980), or SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984).  We try to strive for something a bit different and today’s flick definitely fits that bill.

True story: I spent most of the 1980s living in Germany thanks to my dad’s occupation.  We living in Berlin for 5 years and Munich for 3 years; both times we lived, as they said, “in the economy,” which meant our house was off base and among the Germans.  It was cool, but I’ll never forget when our German neighbors across the street told me about Saint Nikolaus.  See, I grew up on tales of jolly old Santa Claus, whose biggest offense against bad kids was leaving them a lump of coal.  St. Nikolaus was another deal.  As told to me by the German kids, you left one shoe out by your bedroom door on December 6th and St. Nikolaus would fill it with goodies if you had been a good boy or girl. But if you had been bad, he wouldn’t leave you coal.  He would burst into your room and throw you into a sack and kidnap you!  Yeah, ‘twas a stressful night.  At the time I didn’t know about the dark Pagan origins of our beloved Santa and never knew that St. Nick could be one brutal mofo.  This tradition continues to this day in Europe and provides the basis for Dick Maas’ 2010 killer Saint Nick flick, SAINT.

The film opens in December 1492 with Saint Niklas (Huub Stapel) and his men riding into a snowy village and taking money and children while leaving a demand for more.  The incensed villagers head to the Saint’s boat at night and burn him and his crew alive. Cut to December 1968 and a small family is enjoying the Sinterklaas activities with carols and television watching.  Young Goert is sent to check on the unruly pigs in the barn and spots a man on a horse on the roof.  He returns to house to find his family – from dad to his younger siblings – gorily slashed to bits. Damn, this is a pretty badass way to open a Christmas horror film.  Dick Maas is baas! We then cut to modern day Netherlands and a group of supposed college kids…ah, goddamn it.

This pack of annoying youngsters is first seen exchanging gifts in their classroom as pranks (apparently it is perfectly okay and normal to give girls dildos as the teacher mentions they broke the previous year’s record). Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber) is unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend Sophie (Escha Tanihatu), who doesn’t know he was sorta, kinda seeing her BFF Lisa (Caro Lenssen).  Damn, can we start the killing already?  On the way home, Sophie tells Laurie Strode…er, Lisa the legend behind St. Niklas attacking kids on a full moon.  Now why a Dutch girl in late teens/early twenties has never heard this story is beyond me.  Meanwhile, running around town is Christmas obsessed Dr. Loomis…er, grown up Christmas obsessed Goert (Bert Luppes).  He is now a cop and keeps wondering why his superiors aren’t acting on his inch-thick “St. Niklas is evil and going to kill us all this year” dossier.  To show you how serious this dude is, his first scene has him shooting a Xmas present left on his desk.  He’s serious.

Of course, Goert is put on administrative leave after that incident and it is bad news because his prediction is dead on.  It is another full moon tonight and that doesn’t bode well for our teens. The first to go are actually a couple of policemen who magically see the Saint’s burnt boat materialize in the harbor. Okay, Maas is letting us know he’s seen THE FOG (1979) as well. Naturally, the Saint and his “Black Peter” helpers first make their way to Sophie’s house and kill her while she is on the phone with Lisa. He then takes his murderous crew out to find Frank and his two pals, who are dressed as Saint Nick and his Black Peter helpers.  Frank is the only one that lives and drives smack into the police, who immediately suspect him of Sophie’s murder.  Meanwhile, the police chief starts getting reports of a creepy Saint figure riding on rooftops and sends his top man to go find Goert.  With Frank in custody, two cops see Saint Nick riding on the rooftops (in some really poorly done CGI work) and he literally falls into their laps when they shoot his horse, it falls through the ceiling into a gay couple’s home, collapses the floor, falls out the window, and smashes onto the squad car.  Again, Frank is the only one who survives and is almost killed by Saint Nick before being saved by Goert with a flamethrower. You see, this evil killer hates fire (understandable).  Naturally, Goert and Frank team up to blow up the Saint’s ship and end this evil once and for all.

Running a scant 85 minutes, SAINT (original title: SINT, US re-titling: SAINT NICK) is ten minutes of awesome followed by seventy-five minutes of tedium.  Director Dick Maas is probably best known to American viewers for his two 80s horror films: THE LIFT (1983) – which he remade in English as DOWN (2001) – and the excellent AMSTERDAMNED (1988). Both films showcased a guy with a real talent for composing great shots and a nice hand at handling action.  SAINT definitely benefits from the former, but falls flat on nearly every level after that.  The biggest mistake is obviously the scripting, which feels that that it can just throw the evil Saint into any scenario – such as the teen slasher framework here – and that is fine. Maas had a great opportunity to put the scary back in Saint Niklas but seems to botch the opportunity (interestingly, the film’s poster actually caused a fuss when it was first released).

What it really needed to do was concentrate on the cop character as he brings the most drama to the situation. Another mistake is the casting of Stapel, a veteran of every Maas production. When I first heard that the scenario would involve a cop chasing a zombiefied Saint Nick, I got jolly visions of Stapel speeding down the canals of Amsterdam, guns a blazing.  Instead, he is the villain, hidden under a ton of make up and not given a single line. Ouch.  As a result, we are stuck with annoying teens on screen for a majority of the running time and I think even the Dutch would be quickly fed up with these punks.  Even odder is the set up – Maas was obviously looking at John Carpenter’s work and you expect Lisa to be the “final girl” of the film.  Yet, oddly, she just disappears halfway through the film and only reappears toward the end.  I’d like to say it was Maas trying to get creative with the genre clichés, but it isn’t.  To be fair, SAINT does have a few things going for it (the unique way he uses his staff to decapitate someone is awesome), but it is too much naughty and not enough nice.  Naturally, this means I have to throw Maas into a sack and beat him with a stick.