Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Double Shot: QUICK (2011) and THE SPY (2013)

I have lamented in the past about the untimely death of the Korean new wave and for the most part, I still find most of their movies slickly executed but utterly derivative. This is funny because the last two Korean movies that I've seen are both slickly executed and derivative, but a whole hell of a lot of fun.

QUICK (2011): A fast living member of a motorcycle gang, Han Gi-Soo (Lee Min-ki), tears through downtown Seoul with his posse, while being chased by his ex-girlfried, Chun-Sim (Kang Ye-won), and a pizza delivery guy, (Kim In-kwon), who is obsessed with Chun-Sim. While racing through the streets with the cops in hot pursuit, Gi-Soo causes a massive orgy of vehicular destruction.

Flash forward and Gi-Soo is now using his suped-up bike and mad racing skillz as a courier. After delivering a package that, unbeknownst to him, blows up an office building, he is given the job of delivering a passenger. This passenger turns out to be his ex-girlfriend Chun-Sim who is now the member of an all girl supergroup (amusingly named "The OK Girls"). As if this wasn't bad enough, after insisting she wear his helmet they are contacted by a stranger who informs Gi-Soo that there is a bomb in the helmet that will detonate if it is removed and if he does not deliver several small packages to their destinations on time. These packages, of course, are bombs that are meant to kill the anonymous caller's enemies. Naturally the cops, lead by Detective Seo (Ko Chang-seok), are hot on his tail because they think he is the mad bomber.

Yes, it is definitely derivative of SPEED (1994) and THE BULLET TRAIN (1975), there is even a direct homage to BULLET TRAIN in the final act, but director Beom-gu Cho brings so much manic energy to the film that it's hard not to get caught up in. Asian films love making their cops complete bumbling fools for comic relief, here the cops are play for a few laughs, but they are not stupid. They organize their resources and set up blockades and actually start unraveling the identity of the bomber.

This is about as close to a Hal Needham film as you are going to get these days. Yeah, I said it. Sure there is some green screen compositing during some of the action sequences, but I think this is a fact of life that we have to live with in this modern age. Plus, the compositing is so well done, that it is unnoticeable in many cases and sometimes you will swear that one thing is fake and other thing is real, only to find out you were wrong on both counts. How will would you know? The film even features outtakes and a behind-the-scenes stunt reel during the credits. It may not sound like much, but for die-hard stunt movie fans, this is like the icing on the cake, the olive in the martini, the money shot in the... err, well you get the idea. You may argue that the movie has more in common with a videogame as all it really consists of is racing from one orchestra of explosions and crashes to another, occasionally with gross lapses in logic and physics, but then again I would totally play that game. This movie wrecks so many cars that if H.B. Halicki were still alive, he would be brushing away a tear.

With a poster that promises explosions, motorcycles and people screaming, I have to admit, the film delivers on all counts... which brings us to the screaming part. If you are expecting a Korean movie that doesn't have pratfalls, screaming and wild gestures, you are going to have a long wait. In spite of the over-the-top antics, there is enough mayhem to feed your inner ADD child to the bursting point.

THE SPY (2013): Nobody does it better than Bond. Or at least that used to be true. Now everyone does Bond better than Bond. The Swedes did it with the straight faced HAMILTON (2011), and now even the Koreans are doing it with this tongue-in-cheek actioner.

Opening with top secret service agent Cheol-soo (Sol Kyung-gu) walking into a meeting with Somali pirates to negotiate the release of Korean hostages, the tension ramps up when, during negotiations, his cell phone keeps vibrating. It's his wife who is furious at him for working late and missing his mother's birthday party. This results in a things breaking down into a massive firefight. The scene plays out better than I made it out, but it gives you an idea of the kind of skewering to expect.

After some terrorists shoot a jet out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile, Cheol-soo is called into action by his section chief (Ko Chang-seok again) while in the middle of trying to give a sperm sample at a fertility clinic. Ok, stick with me here, this plays out a lot better than it sounds due to some great casting.

In one week there will be a six-party meeting in which Korea's leaders will organize a nuclear disarmament and set up the re-unification of the North and South. The man who was assassinated on the jet, was a high-ranking North Korean official who's daughter is a nuclear physicist who is looking to defect. Chul-Soo's mission, which he is forced to accept in spite of the wife's fury, is to go to Thailand and extract the way-too-hot-to-be-a-scientist daughter from the grip of the North Koreans before the terrorists or the CIA get their hands on her. Naturally things do not go according to plan. In addition to the fact that the CIA beats everyone to the punch, Kim's wife, an airline hostess (Moon So-ri), is staying at the same hotel that is overrun with agents and terrorists. Even worse, one of the terrorists, Ryan (Daniel Henney), who we know is evil because he graduated from Stanford (go bears), has the intel on Kim and his wife and puts the moves on her to eventually use as bait for Kim.

If the plot sounds familiar, it should, it is essentially a reworking of TRUE LIES (1994) into a fun, funny and genuinely entertaining film. How is it better, I hear you ask? Well, no James Cameron, no Tom Arnold, and no cringing it-could-be-your-mom stripping scenes. Better still it really fills the need for a lightning-fast paced, action filled James Bond outing, the likes of which we just do not see any more. This is everything JOHNNY ENGLISH (2003) and GET SMART (2008) should have been, without the added mugging and buffoonery in both films.

The casting is dead-on, the score is perfect and we have plenty of gadgets that are likely based on real life items. There is also a nice attention to detail with great production design that really brings home the Bond. Additionally, the script deftly parodies the formula, with bits such as the old lady who appears to be selling yogurt drinks, but who is in fact a spy who delivers secret messages. It is pretty damn funny, but as they say, it's all in the delivery.

There is some CG compositing going on in some of the scenes, but there is plenty of genuine action to keep your attention. First-time director Lee Seung-joon-I has not only a great sense of spectacle that Bond should have, but he knows how to construct the elaborate action sequences that we expect of the genre. One in particular is a lengthy scene taking place in a fine dining restaurant that is secretly the CIA headquarters. Beginning as a clandestine sting operation, the Seoul agents quickly discover that every secret agency in Asia is also represented and things quickly devolve into a beautifully composed frenzy of brawling and fire-fights.

While the some of the comedy comes from Kim trying to alternately keep his cover and protect his wife who chews his a new ass any chance she gets (she is Korean, after all), like Kim, it is kept on a leash and never overshadows the action which includes subtle in-jokes for fans of the genre. Highly entertaining from beginning to end.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Listomania: August's Non-Kamen Rider Viewings

Looking over my August viewing list, you’d think I was a Japan-o-phile.  Nearly half of my viewings were from my latest addiction, Kamen Rider, and the source who got me hooked is that nefarious (movie)drug dealer, Mr. Sueyres.  Thankfully, I was able to pull myself away from the Land of the Rising Sun on a few occasions and get in a couple of non-tokusatsu flicks here and there.

ARIZONA ROAD (1991):  Larry Ludman…Arizona…Antonio Sabato, Jr.?  Sold!  If two of those three things make you start salivating, I’m guessing you are a fan of the THUNDER WARRIOR series.  An Italian bent on FIRST BLOOD, that trilogy featured Mark Gregory as the Native American kid Thunder, who is constantly being put upon by the local law enforcement (essayed by Bo Svenson, Raimund Harmstof, John Philip Law, and Werner Pochath over three films).  Under the Ludman pseudonym, director Fabrizio De Angelis captured the U.S. Southwest in his own unique way and I was hoping for more of that with ARIZONA ROAD.  Sadly, that was not the case.

Truck driver Emiliano (Sabato, Jr.) is a good guy and we know this because in the first five minutes he saves Aurora (Teresa Leopardi, billed as Therry Turner), a nun being sold into white slavery to small town big shot McDonaldson (Lou Castel).  Okay, things are a bit different in Arizona.  A few years later, Emiliano returns to the area in his own plane to meet up with his old timer buddy Ben Morris (Donald Hodson).  Now why his only friend is a kooky drunk gold miner is beyond me.  To show that Emiliano is still a good guy, we see him get in an unsanctioned boxing match in a bar (which is showing a THUNDER WARRIOR flick on TV) and take a dive so some kids can think their dad is a badass.  Awwwww.  Also working at the bar is Aurora and this pisses Emiliano off as he doesn’t like women who are hussies!  Seriously, half the film is him thwarting her advances. Naturally, word gets around town that Emiliano is back and McDonaldson gets the sheriff he paid for make this kid’s life hell.  And it is bad timing because Morris just found a shitload of gold in his mine and made Emiliano the sole owner.

Damn, I went into this hoping for some THUNDER WARRIOR-esque stuff and instead I got…what I got was...I don't know.  ARIZONA ROAD is kind of like FIRST BLOOD mixed with ROADHOUSE if you have zero action.  No joke, after the first car chase where Emiliano rescues Aurora, nothing happens for an hour. When Sabato, Jr. finally gets his revenge plan against the town big shot in action by breaking out of jail he heads straight for...a lawyer to talk it out.  What the hell?  You keep expecting action to start and, when it finally does, the film is over.  It was shot in the same town as the THUNDER WARRIOR films, but it shows how far the Italian industry had fallen from early '80s to early '90s.  I guess the film is notable for being one of Sabato, Jr.’s first films (he made his debut in De Angelis’ KARATE ROCK the year before), but it is a far cry from the De Angelis-produced ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983) that co-starred Antonio Sabato, Sr. alongside future THUNDER WARRIOR Mark Gregory.  Fans of David Warbeck hoping that reliable thespian will bring something to the proceedings will be disappointed as he is only in this for five minutes.  To the film’s credit, they do capture some beautiful scenery in the Arizona desert, but no one comes to a Ludman/De Angelis flick hoping for pretty postcard images.  We want action and funny dubbing, dammit!  I will admit that this scene did make me laugh though:

C.H.U.D. (1984): I actually had a friend once ask me what C.H.U.D. meant.  I puffed out my chest and said, "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers."  He countered with, "But what is the real meaning in the film?"  I didn't know and promptly hung my horror geek head in shame. Turns out the official meaning is "Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal," the name stenciled on the side of the toxic waste containers. Remember that kids, as you don't want to find yourself cornered by C.H.U.D. trivia and look like a fool.

C.H.U.D. actually celebrated its thirtieth birthday on August 31, 2014.  The film wasn't a huge success by any means when it opened in August 1984 (it debuted in ominous 13th place) but still got New World just over $4 million with its quick few weeks run at the box office.  I honored this anniversary by dusting off my Anchor Bay DVD and giving it a revisit.  Afterward, I couldn’t help feeling that old person adage of, “They don't make 'em like this any more.”  And, honestly, it’s true.  It tells the story of a NYC photographer (John Heard), a NYC cop (Christopher Curry), and a NYC bum (Daniel Stern) teaming up to uncover a NYC conspiracy of radioactive mutants under NYC.  That’s a lot of NYC.  With its slimy latex monsters, serious "real" actors, and fantastic underground locations, C.H.U.D. is something to behold and still is as awesome today as when I first saw it on VHS.  One of the great things on the DVD is an audio commentary featuring the three aforementioned actors alongside director Douglas Cheek and screenwriter Shepard Abbott.  All five guys have a grand time on this commentary, which was recorded about 20 years after they made the film.  The nice thing here is they don’t talk down the film (well, Stern does goof on some of the make ups) and point out that even though it was a B-movie, they still gave their all.  With anything and everything horror from the ‘80s being remade, I’m shocked this hasn’t hit the reboot block yet.

THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014): More slam bang action for the middle age set!  THE EXPENDABLES 3 opens with Barney Ross (Stallone) and buddies Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) breaking out a prisoner from some death train on its way to some fictional Eastern European country gulag.  Their prize is Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), one of the original members of The Expendables.  When asked what he did to get locked up and tied down like Hannibal Lecter, Snipes responds, “Tax evasion.”  Wah, wah, waaaaaaaaaah!  Hooking up with Caesar (Terry Crews), the team has little downtime as they jump (literally) right into their next mission, something involving a shipment of weapons to some bad guy.  Turns out the supplier is one Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) and this is bad news because he is also a former original member of The Expendables…who was presumed dead because Barney killed him.  Dun, dun, duuuuuuuuuun!  To show he holds a grudge, the escaping Stonebanks shoots Cesar a few times.  Somehow this makes Barney feel this work is too dangerous for old guys (or he is tired of paying their insurance premiums) so he lets his old team go when Max Drummer (Harrison Ford), his new CIA contact, gives him the okay to snag Stonebanks.  With the help of Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Barney picks a new team of young ‘uns – including an energetic Antonio Banderas, boxer Victor Ortiz and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey – to be his new recruits.  I bet you can come up with what happens next faster than Stallone can write a cheesy character name.  Yes, the new team gets captured and it is up to the old guys to save the day.  Will they?

I saw someone online ask, “Who is the target audience for these films?” and, sadly, I knew the answer.  The third entry in Sylvester Stallone’s Jurassic action-hero series isn’t as good as the second one (they should have brought Jean Claude Van Damme back as an evil twin, dammit!), but it is still better than the first flick. Well, unless you are a Jet Li fan as he is only in the film for five minutes.  Yes, seriously.  Stallone made a lot of noise about selecting Aussie Patrick Hughes to helm this entry and I’m not really sure why.  Hughes presents some of the action well, but a lot of it is the same shaky cam nonsense that plagues modern action cinema.  I thought that is what these EXPENDABLE films were battling back against.  Young know, giving us “old school” action versus CGI madness.  If Stallone really wanted to make a badass action flick, Isaac Florentine would have been warming that director’s chair.  Then again, Florentine might make the actors actually do some of the heavy lifting and we can’t have that.  A lot was made about he new additions to this entry and it is a case of good (Banderas brings some welcome energy to his role; Robert Davi pops up), bad (Snipes is just picking up a check; Li and Crews are underused), and ugly (Ronda Rousey’s “acting”).  The biggest shock for me is this is the first time I’ve recognized Harrison Ford being a man of his age.  Just a few years younger than my dad, the 72-year-old Ford looks frail, leading my buddy Sherm to say, “No wonder he broke his leg on the new STAR WARS.”  It is a stunning realization (especially after how well they covered up his age in the last Indiana Jones flick) and provokes a sentiment that could probably be applied to this series.  It was a fun ride, but it is time to retire into the explosion filled sunset.

Friday, August 29, 2014

World of Witchcraft: VIY 3D (2014)

Believe it or not, this new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s story VIY has been on our radar for almost 9 years.  The project germinated in 2004 and was originally announced by Russian Film Group (RFG) in the fall of 2005 with the goal of getting the film out in 2009 in order to cash in on the 200th anniversary of author Gogol's birth. Ha! Optimists.

Producer Alexey Petrukhin and director Oleg Stepchenko wowed investors with a four minute short they shot detailing the priest Khoma's terrifying night alone in the church with Aleksey Petrukhin essaying the role of the priest (this footage is included in the final film). There was only one small problem.  They hadn’t even written the script yet.

According to a behind-the-scenes documentary, screenwriting took place for several months in 2006 with filming scheduled to take place in the sections between autumn 2006 and spring 2007. It was to be a Russia/Ukraine/Czech Republic/U.K. co-production on a budget of $21 million dollars. “How on Earth could they make an effects heavy film with such a pittance?” screams all of Hollywood. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you aren't holding meetings at Spago's every day.

The filmmakers began shooting with the film’s main role – that of cartographer Jonathan Green – uncast; a smart, but incredibly risky move. Promising a “major international star” the hopefuls listed included Vincent Cassel, Ralph Fiennes, Sean Bean, Jason Flemyng, Andy Garcia (!), and Jason Statham. Seriously, try to imagine Jason Statham in a powdered wig and tights. It's an image that will haunt your nightmares. The role eventually went to Flemyng in 2008. Trailers, featuring only the footage shot of the Russian actors, went out in 2008 with the very specific release date of March 12, 2009 listed, three weeks before Gogol’s birthday party. They never showed.

Later, in November 2009, the filmmakers released more clips of the film and promised VIY in February 2010. They also teased a sequel, VIY 2: CURSED PLACE, to appear shortly thereafter. Ha! Still optimists. Naturally, the new release date disappeared quicker than vodka at a Russian wedding. Insanely, in 2011, the filmmakers decided the film needed massive reshoots and they added a framing story featuring Charles Dance. In April 2012, the new filming was reported in the Russian media as finished and a January 2013 release date was predicted. Can you guess what happened? Yup, they missed it. Long story short, post-production ran over and the film penciled in a new release date in January 2014. Yes, a year later and five years after their initial planned date. I'm sure the filmmakers looked at Aleksei German's 13-years-in-the-making HARD TO BE A GOD (2013) and went, "Hey, we worked nearly double time!"

It was all apparently worth the wait as Universal picked up the film for Russian distribution at Cannes in May 2013 and the new VIY broke all of the Russian box office records when it finally debuted. For a film with such a chaotic production history, it is amazing that this actually got to projectors. Furthermore, it is an absolute miracle that it is a coherent and entertaining film.

An English cartographer, Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng), leaves his pregnant betrothed and her irate father (Charles Dance) to create a map of the Carpathians. Riding in his mechanical, driver-less carriage, he runs across some monks who have a horrible tale to tell. During a bout of heavy drinking of the local unfiltered moonshine, they tell him of a witch who resides in a nearby village. The two were accompanying a third. The third was a young priest (Petrukhin) who was tasked to stand vigil over the corpse of a beautiful girl in a church, high on a hill over looking the village. They say that his simple vigil turned into a hellish nightmare when the corpse of the beautiful girl turned out to be a witch. Barely able to escape with his life, the priest had never been seen again.

Naturally Green is intrigued and decides he should go to the village to make a map of it. On the way his carriage is beset by phantom wolves which he tries to fend off with a firearm, but the horses are so spooked that he couldn't turn back if he wanted to. He ends up crashing through the village gates, his carriage in flames, landing face down in the mud. The village has been beset by visions of an evil, seven-horned creature and the church has been declared cursed. The local Rasputin-esque priest Paisiy (Andrey Smolyakov), looking for a scapegoat, fingers Green as the Ambassador of Hell. Fortunately the village chief is up on his old "Kamen Rider" episodes and understands that this is a ridiculous accusation.

As it turns out there is indeed the body of a beautiful woman in their cursed church. The girl is the daughter of the village leader Sotnik (Yuriy Tsurilo) who secretly pays Green to make a map of the village by going to the church so he can see over the land. This must be done in secret as access is forbidden by the church. It is actually a ploy to get Green to investigate the church, as Sotnik is suspicious of the "curse" and simply wants to bury his daughter on the one year anniversary of her death.

Born in what is now known as the Ukraine, but at the time was simply part of the Russian Empire, Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 story has been adapted into feature films at least four times prior to this one. Recently we've had the Yugoslavian adaptation, A HOLY PLACE (1990); the Russian adaptation, VEDMA THE POWER OF FEAR (1996); the Korean production EVIL SPIRIT (2008); and previously the Russian classic VIY (1967), upon which this version is based. While A HOLY PLACE and VIY are more or less direct adaptations of the original story, this 2014 version, like VEDMA, has been heavily elaborated on. The only connection with the original story or the 1967 film upon which the script is supposed to be based, is a re-imagining of that film’s climactic sequence. Oddly Stepchenko almost completely recreates the sequence from the sets, costumes, right down to the look of the actors, though he spruces it up with modern CGI. Here the sequence is used as part of the set-up for the coming events that have been hewed from whole cloth by Stepchenko and his co-writer Aleksandr Karpov.

Though it is far and away more lavish looking than something with such a disaster prone history would imply, it is easy to see where the reshoots came into play. Literally and metaphorically. In the first half of the film there are some stunning sequences that were shot in native 3D that contrast sharply with the latter half of the 127 minute film which has been post-converted. The subplot with Charles Dance is clearly tacked on (presumably to add marquee value), and by the end it is clear that many other scenes were awkwardly added. The original press releases stated that this was to be not so much a remake as a re-adaptation of Gogol's original manuscript, though clearly inspiration was taken from the 1967 classic. After the production had wrapped we suddenly saw a whole lot Jason Flemyng falling in mud, water, flour and primordial ooze. While I have to say that Flemyng is not the most versatile actor he acquits himself well here, as he really is simply playing straight man to the village politics and witchcraft.

In spite of lavish production design, excellent cinematography and some high-quality 3D sequences, this version if VIY stumbles over its own shoe-laces with a drawn-out and poorly conceived M. Night Shyamalan inspired story in the second half of the film. This is a crying shame as there are two absolutely stunning horror sequences in the first half, one of which is unlike anything that audiences have seen in movies before. Echoing creatures from Lovecraftian nightmares, Green watches in horror as the villagers in the local tavern transform into indescribably hellish creatures. This sequence blends the use of practical make-up effects with CG in a way that most fans of fantastic cinema only dream of. It is a taste of what THE THING (2011) could have and should have been. If the filmmakers only had the wisdom to scale back their ambitions and simply do the remake that they originally intended with minor elaborations, it may have been something of a modern classic. As it stands, it is longer than it really needs to be and the resolution is unsatisfying.

Flush with the success of the first film at the Russian box office, the filmmakers have recommitted to making their sequel, now titled VIY 2: PUTESHESTVIE V KITAY. My Russian is a little rusty, but I'm pretty sure that translates to VIY 2: IT'LL ONLY TAKE US 5 YEARS THIS TIME. Actually, the title translates to VIY 2: JOURNEY TO CHINA.  I look forward to its eventual release in 2031.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


WARNING: This review contains spoilers.  If you have not seen the film, I’d suggest not reading it.  If you like well written reviews, I also suggest not reading it.

Originally announced by Code Red for release in 2008 (!), the cult classic BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (1982) has finally hit DVD this year and this special edition is sure to be a treat for any fans of the film.  With a storyline more befitting nowadays of a Lifetime movie, BUTCHER is a film ahead of its time in many ways.  It is also the precursor to the popular late ‘80s/early ‘90s "________ from hell" subgenre (this being the "Aunt from Hell" entry). While the film itself could be considered a by-the-numbers thriller with some horror elements, it is still worth viewing for the absolutely amazing performance by Susan Tyrrell.

The movie opens with three-year-old Billy Lynch being left in the care of his Aunt Cheryl (Tyrrell) while his parents go away for a vacation.  En route to their destination, the brakes fail on their car on a winding roadway in the mountains, resulting in a spectacular car crash (the makers of FINAL DESTINATION 2 [2003] definitely saw this wreck choreographed by veteran stunt coordinator Paul Baxley, father of future stuntman/director Craig Baxley).  Fourteen years later, the seventeen-year-old Billy (Jimmy McNichol) is leading a normal life, having been raised by his Aunt in his parents’ old house.  Weeks from his birthday and graduation, he seems to have it all as he is dating Julia (Julia Duffy) and might be able to get a full athletic scholarship to college for basketball.

His seemingly ideal life is shattered when he comes home one day and finds his Aunt standing over the dead body of a TV repairman.  She insists he tried to rape her (audiences know otherwise since we see her trying to force herself upon him, screaming “I need a man!”) and poor Jimmy gets caught holding the knife after he pulls it out and some of Cheryl’s friends show up for his birthday party.  Enter Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), a world class bigot who doesn’t believe Cheryl’s story.  He comes up with an even more outlandish theory – since the victim was gay and a partner of Billy’s basketball coach (Steve Eastin), Billy must be gay too and killed the repairman in some convoluted love triangle that only an inept detective could envision.  Unfortunately, Billy must deal with the cop’s incessant hounding while slowly coming to the realization that his Aunt might have a few screws loose.

Far from being a sleazy horror cash-in by some young filmmaker, BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER was made by Hollywood pros with some really shocking backgrounds of their own.  Director William Asher actually helmed hundreds of episodes of innocuous TV shows such as I LOVE LUCY, BEWITCHED, and GIDGET; he was also the man responsible for the Frankie Avalon BEACH movies (!) in the 1960s.  To say BUTCHER is unlike anything on his filmography (he made it between stints directing episodes of THE BAD NEWS BEARS and PRIVATE BENJAMIN TV series incarnations) is an understatement.  I can’t remember the episode of LUCY that showcased an over-the-top violent finale featuring multiple stabbings, a garroting, a shooting, gutting by fire poker and a pickled severed head!  Yet his steady hand brings a great seriousness and even some jet black comedy to the proceedings.  The screenplay by Steve Briemer, Boon Collins and Alan Jay Glueckman is painfully similar to the earlier THE ATTIC (1979), going so far as to have the lead lunatic keeping a dead beau's corpse.  Where it stands out are several allusions to incest and the subplot involving the homophobic cop played by Svenson, which allowed for quite possibly one of horrordom’s first positive depiction of an openly gay character in the basketball coach. The cast is fine with lead McNichol, brother of Kristy, providing the right amount of innocence as Billy and Julia Duffy, as Billy's put upon girlfriend Julia, taking her fair share of hard licks, including a violent scuffle with Tyrrell in a swamp (no stunt doubles here). Sharp-eyed viewers will spot a young Bill Paxton as a high school basketball thug.

If the film belongs to anyone, it is acting dynamo Susan Tyrrell.  She begins the film stable enough with a 1950s look, doting over her teenage nephew and trying to convince him to stay with her. When it appears that Billy may end up getting a scholarship to the University of Colorado, the character of Cheryl becomes increasingly unbalanced. By the end of the film, she is completely nuts and it is hard to even believe that Tyrrell, grunting and cursing with uncombed, shorn hair, is the same actress seen 90 minutes earlier. It is truly one of the most terrifying performances, delivered with such passion that I actually feared for the actors on set.  If you need any indication of her power as a thespian, watch the milk scene where she switches from doting caregiver to vicious torturer (“Drink it!”) in a nanosecond.  She is so damn crazy that I swear I used to date her.  In the annals of cinematic psycho ladies, Tyrrell leaps into the top three craziest female performances of all-time, right next to luminaries such as Bette Davis (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) and Shelley Winters (WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?).

In fact, the filmmakers should have called this film WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH AUNT CHERYL or something. Having dealt with a glut of titles (including MOMMA’S BOY, THRILLED TO DEATH and eventual US title NIGHT WARNING), the film never got a chance to connect fully with theatrical audiences back in the day.  Thankfully a cult following emerged via TV and video and the film is fondly remembered today. This makes Code Red’s special edition a welcome gift for any fan.  The film is given a HD transfer from the original camera negatives and it is easily the best the film has ever looked.  Extras include two audio commentaries (one with Jimmy McNichol, the other with producer Steven Briemer and co-writer Glueckman) and over 45 minutes of interviews with cast and crew including McNichol, Eastin, Tyrrell, Briemer (who laments over the distributor renaming the film NIGHT WARNING), and FX guy Alan Alpone.  It seems everyone disliked Svenson, with some being diplomatic while other laying it out (Alpone says ol’ Bo got punched in the face after sexually harassing a crew member).  As with the film, Tyrrell once again dominates the proceedings.  She is shown in a ten minute clip reacting to portions of the film, which she says she has never seen.  She is initially very dismissive of the film (“Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture,” she jokes) but seems rather caught up in it (and her performance) during the crazed finale.  I have to agree with Casey Scott when he lamented on Facebook that he’d pay to see this entire on camera capturing of Su-Su.  As it stands, it is a nice reminder of one of the great crazy ladies, who sadly passed away in 2012.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fangs for Nothing: RIGOR MORTIS (2013)

After the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, the world expected rioting in the streets, martial law and red tanks rolling over every civil liberty in sight. Actors and artists fled to the US as fast as their visas would carry them. People who were celebrated filmmakers in Hong Kong like Ronny Yu and John Woo brought their illustrious careers to the US and promptly were absorbed by the Hollywood Collective, draining their talent away like a bad night in Transylvania. The forecast was bleak.

As it turned out China’s love of the yuan superseded their love of oppression and not much changed in Hong Kong. Maybe a few more palms had to be greased, but it was pretty much business as usual. The only thing is that in spite of the movie industry staying “free” (ie still run by the triad), for some reason the movies no longer had the spark of life that had made them so appealing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Because of this mundane slew of generic product, several fair-weather film fans (such as myself) abandoned the Hong Kong film in search of greener pastures. I think the final nail in the coffin for me was Tsui Hark’s soulless, sappy remake of his own classic ZU WARRIORS (1983/2001). The removal of action and crazy practical make up effects was substituted with a saccharine love story that never got any deeper than Ekin Chang striking poses and flying around some primitive CG sky-scapes. This painful experience led me to swear off HK movies, in particular those of Tsui Hark. Yet somehow, 13 years later, I’ve been drawn back in. Not exactly jumping in with both feet, but definitely jumping in.

After seeing  no less than three recent Tsui Hark movies that I actually enjoyed, in addition to the excellent grumpy old martial arts men pic GALLANTS (2010), I felt confident enough to move on to the big buzz horror film RIGOR MORTIS (2013) from neophyte producer-director Juno Mak.

A has-been actor (Chin Siu-ho playing Chin Siu-ho) who has lost his family and whose career has taken a nose-dive from the glory days of HK cinema, finds himself destitute and alone. Forced by necessity to take up residence in a public housing apartment complex, Chin decides that the only thing to do is to take his own life. Before succeeding in hanging himself, his neighbor and cook at the building’s dilapidated dining center, Yao (Anthony Chan, permanently dressed in bathrobe, boxers and wifebeater) comes to the rescue. His rescue comes exactly as the evil ghosts of a pair of twin sisters enter his body. Fortunately the local priest of black magic, Gao (Fat Chung), also steps in to remove the evil spirits and lock them up in an armoire. Of course this isn't going to hold them long.

According to the aging residents, a man was tutoring a pair of twins in that very apartment when he brutally rapes one, causing the other to stab him to death with a pair of scissors. Both sisters commit suicide, and naturally they still haunt the building. Most modern horror films would be content to stop there, but this is just the beginning. The ghostly horrors lead to the death of old man Tung (Richard Ng). Distraught by his death and having nightmares that Tung will return, Auntie Mui (Nina Paw) stitches him up and entrusts Gao to enact the rituals that will prevent this. Of course, things quickly get ugly with some character twists that are unexpected to say the least.

Giving  a great cast of veteran actors eccentric roles to sink their teeth in to, Juno Mak creates a dead-serious homage to MR. VAMPIRE (1983), ditching the slapstick comedy in favor of heavy gothic atmosphere. The apartment building is as grey and bleak as the sky with sets that look like they have genuinely been lived in for decades. Walls are smudged and dirty and clutter is everywhere. The residents have accepted their lot, eating glutinous rice every day in order to stave off the spirits, evil and otherwise. In a great moment in the beginning of the film Yao insists on taking a bowl of rice to a neighbor. When he is informed that she has been dead for years, he exclaims “she still has to eat!” After setting down the rice bowl in front of her door, he exhales smoke from his cigarette and you can see the faint shape of a woman. It’s a very effective scene and makes it clear that the superstitions of undeath, that the aging community accepts as a way of life, are real. In another scene Yau waxes philosophical about the ghosts in his apartment: “I have stayed here for decades, but they have been here for more than a century. I’ll probably be staying here when I die too. It makes sense to develop a good relationship beforehand.” Hard to argue that point.

Brother Yao, as it turns out, hails from a long line of vampire hunters. For centuries his family has fought the undead, but these days there isn’t much call for that sort of thing, as he says “What do vampire hunters do when there are no more vampires? They cook.” This is the closest that this film comes to comedy, a little dry humor in an otherwise utterly serious film with pitch-perfect performances. Much like 2010s GALLANTS took great pride in bringing aging stars back to life, so here does Mak. Yet instead of having them play comedy, he gives them meaty roles to sink their teeth into (sorry, had to go there). The scene where Auntie Mui is carrying on a conversation with the deceased Uncle Tung before breaking down into tears is surprisingly moving in this day and age of incredibly superficial melodrama.

In addition to the positive buzz, this film has also gotten a lot of flak from the message board types who claim that the film is “slow and boring”. I guess you could say that. The film is not about speed. It deliberately builds up characters and allows the atmosphere to ooze so thick it makes pea soup green with envy. Another criticism was “not scary”. This true too, but then again, I’m not 12. The big, in-your-face horror moments are mostly saved for the last act, but that’s not what this film is about. It’s not about having things jump up in your face and roar every 10 minutes. If you are looking for a movie in which a bunch of youngsters have a car break down and decide to throw a party in a haunted apartment complex where they will tediously scream, run, make pop-culture references and get picked off one by one, this will definitely not be your cup of verbena.

The film boasts an incredible attention to detail, stylish cinematography, and it is unusual for a horror film these days to approach its subject matter without condescension or pretentiousness. Though all is not grimly perfect however. Screenwriters Philip Yung and Leung Lai-yin work some fairly well-worn themes that are saved by superb visuals and great performances, but worse than that, they opt for an ending that will probably frustrate most viewers. That said, this is a film that really caught me off guard with its old fashioned approach to horror and is definitely one of the best things I’ve seen out of Hong Kong in a long time.