Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

December to Dismember: ICED (1988)

Any ‘80s slasher film aficionado is eventually going to hit rock bottom. Once you’ve seen all the FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN sequels, PROM NIGHT (1980), HELL NIGHT (1981), MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) and the like you will end up with the random ones you somehow never caught. Sometimes it can be great (ALONE IN THE DARK [1982]), sometimes it can be downright bizarre (HOME SWEET HOME [1981]) and sometimes is can be the soul sapping sights of films like SCREAM (1981), SATAN’S BLADE (1984) or NAIL GUN MASSACRE (1985). Films so bad that the only slashing you want to see is your own wrists to end the tragedy. Skating just barely into the latter category is ICED (1988), the only 80s slasher set in the ultra-fascinating world of ski bums. Yay?

The film opens with a bunch of friends on New Year’s Eve egging on Cory (Doug Stevenson) to challenge Jeff (Dan Smith) to a skiing competition. After all, Jeff claims to have ridden the Alps and such hallowed claims must be taken with all seriousness in this shred or be shredded world. Also, both men have their eyes on Trina (Debra DeLiso), a ski bunny of the highest order. Cory wins (after Jeff tried to trip him up, of course) and Jeff consoles himself in the bar complaining to an unseen friend that the crew “question my integrity as a skier.” The horror! Maybe they should question your sanity because Jeff bursts into Jeff and Trina’s room in an alcohol-fueled rage when he hears grunts and groans. Turns out they were just playfully arm wrestling (really!). This sends Jeff over the edge literally as he suits up and skis the hills to his death.

Four years later all of the principal players are invited to spend a free weekend at the new ski resort Snow Peak. Making the journey along with the now married Cory and Trina are couples John (John C. Cook) and Diane (Elizabeth Gorcey), Eddie (Michael Picardi) and Janette (Lisa Loring) and single dude Carl (Ron Cologie). We know Carl is trouble because he is 1) single 2) has a tiny ponytail and 3) he is named Carl. Yup turns out he is the dirtbag coke head of the group. Everyone else is upstanding, as shown by this dialogue that establishes John as a caring pediatrician.

Diane: “He has a three year old with a severe case of diarrhea.” 
John: “It gets to me. It really does. Skiing is my medicine.” 

The invites to the snowy getaway came from Alex Bourne (John Alan Joseph, who also wrote the script). He is running the business with his dad and would totally love to get the feedback from these bros and gals. Okay, stop right there! Freeze! Hands in the air, Mr. Joseph. Are you really giving viewers a scenario where everyone being stalked was shown onscreen in the opening and you are only adding one new character? Gee, I wonder who that mystery person Jeff was talking to earlier was. SPOILER: Yep, ol’ Alex was “bourne” (haha) to get revenge for his pal that died on the slopes four years ago. Goddamn, Joseph, you weren’t even trying. Then again he wrote a dinner scene where one person describes b-movies as “flicks where the only time you watch the screen is if there is someone naked or someone getting killed or both.” I’m watching a dinner scene, goddammit! Anyway, the folks slowly get offed (and I mean slooooowly) before we get the final girl stumbling around (she gets points for doing most of the final chase in the snow in her underwear).

Filmed in the wilds of snowy Utah, ICED should have been a better damn movie. After all, the winter wonderland has proven to be a fantastic setting for other killers in GHOSTKEEPER (1981) and SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (1984). But, as mentioned above, Joseph’s script is severely lacking. They mystery is nonexistent and chances are you will guess the killer wayyyyy before any of the dolts in here. Instead you get lots of meandering dialogue about people wondering what other people are doing. On the plus side this film does feature the first death by icicle I can think of, several years before DIE HARD 2 (1990) and CLIFFHANGER (1993). In fact, I’d wager that the whole genesis of this film probably came from a weekend of skiing that Joseph and director Jeff Kwitny had where they saw a big icicle and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if in a movie someone was killed by that?” Other than that the film’s only real point of interest is some of the nudity. DeLiso goes all in during the prologue’s surprisingly risque makeout session and Loring - who was the original Wednesday Addams on THE ADDAMS FAMILY in the 1960s - provides a nude death scene later in the film where her nude frozen body is found dead in the hottub. Here is a framegrab of it to save you 86 minutes. You owe me $5.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Satanic Panic: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

Sorry for the lack of reviews on my end as of late, but I’ve just not been feeling motivated to writing up anything. It seems it has to be something really special to get me to put fingertips-to-keyboard (like my last review for FURIOUS [1984]). Well, I finally stumbled upon something to wipe that gloom away in EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990), the insane second film from low budget auteur Steve Barkett.

Barkett might not be a household name in the real world, but in cult film circles he is known for his over-the-top self financed star vehicle THE AFTERMATH (1982). A post-apocalypse flick of the highest order, it starred Barkett as an astronaut who returns to earth after a nuclear holocaust and then wages war with a gang led by Sid Haig. What is not to love there? I can’t remember exactly when I first saw THE AFTERMATH, but I definitely remember it was in the context of Tom telling me, “Dude, you have to see this!” It is first and foremost an ode Oklahoma native Barkett made to himself, but it is also a entertaining-as-hell flick filled with tons of action and special effects. Is it a masterpiece? No. But it is damn sure entertaining. For years we’ve always wanted to see his sophomore effort, but it was really hard to find and possibly never released. So imagine my surprise when I found out that VCI Entertainment released EMPIRE OF THE DARK on DVD-R this past spring.

The story opens with police officer Richard Flynn (Barkett) getting a call from his old flame, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), where she tells him she needs to talk about her latest beau. Turns out she has the age old “I accidentally left you for a Satan worshipper” relationship regrets. Flynn heads to the warehouse where she is being held and is attacked by some monsters in hooded robes (shades of PHANTASM [1979]) before discovering an opening to hell. Inside there Angela and her baby are being lined up for sacrifice by her new man, Brian, and the cult leader, Arkham (Richard Harrison). And when I say lined up, I really mean it as Arkham lifts the knife high and sloooooowly lowers it, only to lift it up again to repeat it in the world’s slowest sacrifice. I guess he is a proponent of the “measure twice, cut once” carpentry rule. Anyway, Flynn gets there with only one bullet left in his gun so he has to decide who to save. He shoots Brian in order to save the baby and Angela gets stabbed so Flynn beats Arkham to death. In her dying breath, Angela asks Flynn to save her baby and he does as the confines of hell collapse around him.

Fast forward twenty years and things have changed quite a bit. Flynn is no longer on the police force (he now works as a bounty hunter), he trains sword fighting for some reason, and, more importantly, he has grown a mustache. Naturally, this makes him irresistible to the ladies as Barkett has himself the object of two ladies’ affections (reporter Stacey Brent and a sword trainer) in back-to-back scenes. Meanwhile, Flynn’s old partner, Eddie Green (Jay Richardson), gets a visit from a young guy named Terry Nash (Christopher Barkett). Terry wants to find Flynn because of some strange things afront. There have been two attempts on his life and Terry recently took a photograph of Arkham and Brian alive and well. Green agrees to introduce them and they find Flynn at a local grocery store (literally the line is “Oh, look, there’s his car.”). Good timing as Flynn just tracked a criminal wanted by the FBI into this store, so Green and Nash get to see Flynn’s full badass-ness on display. Imagine the grocery store shootout from Stallone’s COBRA (1986) done by your local theatre troupe.

Meanwhile, our fearless reporter Stacey Brent (Patricia Schiotis) has been tracking down this cult for...jeez, I don’t really know why. Oh yeah, there has been a series of murders every full moon that the press has dubbed the “Demon Slasher.” We get to see one attack on necking couple, which offers this amazing dialogue exchange.

Girl (hears sound): “What was that?”
Guy: “It’s just my shorts expanding.” 

Stacy visits old man Guy Zupan (DAY OF THE DEAD’s Joe Pilato, made up to look old by frosting his hair white) - whose daughter was killed by the cult - and psychic Madame Oleska (Dawn Wildsmith, the former Mrs. Fred Olen Ray). The group is apparently called The Perennials (not to be confused with Millennials) and they are immortal “soldiers of Satan” that have a direct bloodline to ol’ Beelzebub.  Flynn meanwhile (we’ve got a lot of “meanwhile”s in this flick) thinks all this “Arkham is back from the dead” business is hogwash. Because that is, you know, crazy. You’d think a dude who went to hell and back might be a little more open minded. Of course, he does finally go all in when he finds out that Terry is the baby he saved twenty years ago (apparently after getting out of hell he dropped it off at a convent was all like, “Hey, your problem now.”). Not only that, but he learns that Terry is also his son. This results in a hilarious scene where a nun says, “Doesn’t he look familiar” and it slowly dawns on Flynn. I mean slowly. With the realization that hell is about to be opened, Flynn, Nash, and Green do what must be done - they get some sword training in so they can head back into hell and stop this cult before they take over the world.

Like THE AFTERMATH, this flick is one big Steve Barkett vanity piece. Again he assumes the roles of actor-writer-producer-editor-director. And again he also casts his son Chris (having grown up quite a bit from THE AFTERMATH) in the piece. It is hilarious how much they look alike and I about died when they had separate scenes where they answered the phone in bed looking like this:

And, of course, you know when Barkett is looking for someone to play a handsome stud that all the women fall for, he is going to cast his favorite actor - Steve Barkett (sporting a toupee that oddly recreates his thinning hairline from eight years previous). But, damn it, I’m glad he cast himself in this role as it makes it all the more entertaining. I can’t tell you the number of times he did a wide-eyed stare (see various pics). And he is up for the challenge - running through the wilds of Hat Creek, California kicking demons in the face. The last half hour is non-stop action in hell as Barkett punches, shoots and slices every little demon minion he can get his hands on. Sure, Barkett isn’t going to win any acting awards for sure or be mistaken for Clint Eastwood, but goddamn it, he is entertaining as hell.

Speaking of awards, it might shock you the number of folks who worked on this (and THE AFTERMATH) that had some very incredible credits. Musician John W. Morgan delivers another score like THE AFTERMATH that sounds like it belongs in a 1930s serial; he went on to work on stuff like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005). The orchestra was conducted by William T. Stromberg, son of William R. Stromberg (THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER [1977]), who has also had a long career. Effects legend Jim Danforth - twice nominated for his work on 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964) and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) - does some sword fighting in here. Bret Mixon, twin brother of FX artist Bart Mixon, does some of the cool rotoscoping animation. And, finally, the film is photographed by the aforementioned William R. Stromberg and and his other son, Robert Stromberg. They use a lot of miniatures, matte painting, some stop motion and forced perspective shots to create hell and the demon. Robert Stromberg went on to win multiple Emmys (for STAR TREK, JOHN ADAMS, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and Oscars (for AVATAR [2009] and ALICE IN WONDERLAND [2010]) for his visual effects work. I’m not sure why but the fact that one guy worked on EMPIRE OF THE DARK and AVATAR fills me with so much joy. It is fitting that this was finished around 1990 as this film is kind of the last gasp of this kind of DIY independent effects filmmaking (that sort of started with EQUINOX [1970]) and if you dig this kind of stuff, you’ll enjoy the hell out of it. A blast from start to finish, EMPIRE OF THE DARK is already on my list of best films I’ve seen this year. Of course, it isn’t as good as TERROR SQUAD (1988). Nothing is as good as TERROR SQUAD.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Defective Detectives: G-MEN FROM HELL (2000)

With a name like Coppola, you'd expect the nephew of that wine-maker guy to go all high profile and work in the majors like his brother, err, Nicolas Cage. I mean, if you don't have nepotism in Hollywood, what do you have? Nope, Christopher Coppola has managed to nurse along a 27 year career doing his own little thing - and shooting some TV shows. His own little thing started with DRACULA'S WIDOW (1988), a horror comedy that was neither scary or funny, but was just odd enough to make it strangely enjoyable. He also worked for Charles Band during the Moonbeam phase directing the weird little sci-fi western CLOCKMAKER (1998), written by the great Benjamin Carr. Again, something of a misfire, but a strangely enjoyable one.

In the year 2000 (I always wanted to say that), Coppola released an adaptation of "Grafik Muzik", a satire of superhero comics by Eisner Award winner Mike Allred, who went on to work on high profile Marvel titles and recently created Vertigo Comics' "iZombie" which was the basis for the TV series of the same name.

Set in a retro-noir modern day, a pair of corrupt federal agents are shot down in the street and sent to a kisch-cool hell where the Big D (Robert Goulet) spends his time tormenting souls and lying on a couch, spilling his problems to Sigmund Freud: "I keep feeling everybody hates me." Our G-Men, Dean Crept (William Forsythe) and Mike Mattress (Tate Donovan) decide to grab the Devil's special crystal allowing them to go back to the land of the living to do some good deeds in the hopes that it will get them into heaven. As Crept tells Mattress "Good deeds Matt, good deeds. There'll be plenty of time for broads when we're in solid with the Big Guy."

Their plan to do these good deeds is to set up a detective agency and do... uhhh, good deeds. To get the money to set up this business of doing good deeds, they decide to put the squeeze one of their former stoolies, Buster (Bobcat Goldthwait). Buster suspects foul things are afoot as Dean and Mike do not appear to be dead like they are supposed to be. Unfortunately for him, before he can draw his gun, Mike blows a hole in his head, and the pair help themselves to his clothes, money and his '65 Caddie. He was a crook, therefore, it was a good deed, right?

Their first case is from a doe-eyed, platinum blond, Gloria Lake (Vanessa Angel), who wants the guys to snoop around her wealthy husband Greydon Lake (Barry Newman), who she suspects is cheating on her. Greydon is involved with a scientist, Dr. Boiffard (David Huddleston) who is in turn assisted by Martin and Pete (Charles Fleischer) a man and his seemingly interdependently minded hand-puppet, in experiments to transplant the essence of a person into another body. Got all that? Good, because that ain't the half of it.

There are also two cops looking into Buster's murder, Lt. Langdon (Gary Busey) who wears a black trenchcoat and pink lip-gloss and Dalton (Zach Galligan), a straight from the academy nerd. At one point Dalton tells Langdon that he respects his choice in personal life as a homosexual to which Langdon screams in his face "I am a sadistic, leathermaster homosexual and I will tease your sensibilities." Granted not a particularly funny line on paper, but when it is being spit out through clenched teeth by a deranged Gary Busey, it turns into comedy gold. This pretty much describes the rest of the movie. On paper, it doesn't sound so great, but with an great cast who are all in, it is actually pretty damn cool.

As if that weren't enough, we also have the obligatory sexpot secretary, Marete Morrisey (Kari Wuhrer); Weenie Man (Paul Rodriguez), a minion of the Devil, who is (ahem) hell-bent on catching the G-Men and returning them, and the crystal, to the boss; a clearly unbalanced individual who likes to call himself Cheetah Man (Gregory Sporleder) and runs around the rooftops sticking his nose into the case; oh, and Buster makes a bizarre return after his essence is implanted into a pink robot, which he is not entirely happy about.

Coppola does a fantastic job of making the movie look like a comic book with garish colors and oblique angles on what is clearly a limited budget. Some of the cast, such as Angel and Rodriguez, chew the scenery to the point where they must have had to rebuild the sets after every take. Also, Coppola's love of cheap wigs is more than well represented here. Why does Bobcat, in his brief screen-time, need a tacky toup is a real head-scratcher. It would have been funny to see him in his robot form continue to wear the hair-piece, but instead he wears a knit black beanie in order to disguise himself as a human. But those are minor quibbles.

With all of this insanity bouncing around in a 98 minute movie, you'd think it would be just one big clusterfuck, which it kind of is, but for some reason it works surprisingly well, warts and all. It's a comic book satire with a heavy film noir influence with camera work that makes ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990) seems sedate. It also sports some great snappy dialogue like when Matt looks at Mrs. Lake and says "If I was the marrying kind, I'd cheat on my wife with her." It may not make all of Allred's fans happy, but this is probably Coppola's crowning achievement, in spite of the fact that, as someone on the IMDb pointed out, he was the director of "the GRANDFATHER saga". No, really. Someone said that.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Newsploitation: Brutal Bronson Batters Box Office Bloody

Kind of hard to believe that October came and went that fast. Many thanks to VJ honcho Tom for keeping the blog alive with his muchos excelentes críticas. Of course now it is November and time to focus on the turkeys. That word, however, would only be used by the uneducated to celebrate today’s box office anniversary. Yes, DEATH WISH 3 turns 30 years old today as it delivered justice beginning on November 1, 1985.

Based off the novel by Brian Garfield, the original DEATH WISH (1974) was a film that came out at just the right time in the nation. The story of architect-turned-vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) hit home with a lot of ‘70s cinemagoers who were being assaulted with daily news reports about how violent the times were. No surprise, it was a big box office hit when it came out in July 1974, taking the top spot for a month and ended up one of the 20 highest grossers that year. It was also the first time a Bronson solo vehicle had debuted at number one. The belated sequel, DEATH WISH II (1982), arrived at a much different time eight years later. It didn’t fare as well, but it did well enough for new producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to warrant a third entry.

The third film was announced as early as March 1982, just a month after the sequel was in theaters. The film was officially on the slate when Bronson signed a three-picture deal with Cannon in November 1983 (another project mentioned in this blurb was a proposed remake of Bronson’s RIDER ON THE RAIN [1970]). In May 1984 it was announced that Michael Winner would again direct the sequel with a script by Don Jakoby, who had recently done Cannon’s LIFEFORCE (1985). Filming began in England in April 1985 with a fall October 25 release date planned. Wait...England? So Bronson was going to bring his brand of vigilantism to the land of bobbies? Nope. Michael Winner decided to film his New York set sequel in England with a few days shooting in NYC. Genius? Just maybe. The film is so over-the-top that the locations actually add a surreal quality to the film’s madness.

And madness it was. DEATH WISH 3 (no more roman numerals) was awarded an X-rating for excessive violence in early September 1985. Pretty insane for an action film at the time, especially with RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II dominating the box office that summer. Even more amazing, Cannon appealed the rating and, announced on September 12, actually won. And by “won” I assume that means they slipped the M.P.A.A. ratings boards some donations. “Hey, Menahem, what is series of check to Jack Valenti doing on the books?” The insane DEATH WISH 3 wound up delayed by one week and hit over 1400 theaters nationwide on November 1, 1985. Once again, crowds seemed to want to see some street cleaning killing and it debut in the top spot with $5,319,116, beating other new releases such as TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE. It stayed in the number one spot for the next weekend as well, before ending with a haul of $16,119,878. This sequel is significant as it would be the last Bronson flick to debut in the top spot at the U.S. box office. While he would keep making theatrical releases (including two more DEATH WISH sequels), none would get as close to this one in terms of financial gain and incredible violence. So bust out your copy of DEATH WISH 3 and give it another view. Do it for The Giggler.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Newsploitation: The Rats are Coming! Stephen King Adaptations are Here!

Everybody has at least one. That film that you just know is not very good but you enjoy to death. Well, here at Video Junkie that list goes on for days and days. But one flick I totally dig that got a critical drubbing from the genre press back in the day is the 1990 adaptation of GRAVEYARD SHIFT, which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

Stephen King’s “Graveyard Shift” short story first appeared in a men’s magazine in the early 1970s before being added to his collection “Night Shift.” Apparently King got the idea while working in an industrial laundry plant (he also got the idea for “The Mangler” then) when he let his imagination go wild during the drudgery. The story is pretty simple, telling of a guy who wanders into town and gets a job at a textile mill, where he joins a clean up crew that soon encounters some monstrous rats. Pretty thin for a movie idea but remember this was the ‘80s when every damn Stephen King story was being optioned into a movie. Hell, he could probably get $100,000 just for his grocery list at the time. Damn, I’d totally watch Stephen King’s BROCCOLI AND KALE.

GRAVEYARD SHIFT started bouncing around as a film adaptation in the late ‘80s. By this time over a dozen King adaptations had hit screens and Paramount just had a huge hit with PET SEMATARY (1989), which was the biggest King grosser ever. (Interestingly a Canadian vampire flick also called GRAVEYARD SHIFT shot before this film.) SEMATARY producer Ralph S. Singleton decided he was going to jump into the director’s chair with GRAVEYARD SHIFT. The script was tackled by newcomer John Esposito and, according to Variety, producer Larry Sugar acquired the worldwide rights to the film in February 1990. The production had a massively quick turnaround as they began filming in Bangor, Maine in June 1990 with the theatrical release via Paramount already scheduled for five months later in October. Singleton probably thought this was a breeze after being the Unit Production Manager on the big budget rushed production ANOTHER 48 HRS. (1990). The cast included David Andrews as the lead, a deliciously over-the-top Stephen Macht as his boss, and a supporting role from Brad Dourif as a rat catcher. The production completed filming in early August, offering just three months for post-production.

The flick made its penciled in debut date of October 26, 1990 and as the only horror flick the weekend before Halloween, it debuted in the top spot at the box office with just over $5 million. Yes, kiddies, films used to debut at number one with such a measly sum. It stuck around for a few weeks and totaled with $11,582,891. Proof positive that anything with Stephen King’s name on it would do decent numbers at the box office (the adaptation of MISERY would come out a month later and do even better; topping even PET SEMATARY as the biggest King box office film at the time). Is GRAVEYARD SHIFT a horror classic? Aw, hell nah. But it is totally something that I dig watching every ten years or so. Singleton was one and done as a director after this, but did get another King entry on his filmography as producer on PET SEMATARY II (1992). That we won’t be celebrating any anniversaries for.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Halloween Havoc: DEMON HUNTER (1983), ALL OF THEM WITCHES (1996) & KM 31 (2006)


In a rural village Turrubiates (Rigoberto Carmona) kills the local witch-doctor Tobias (Jose Tablas) with a 2x4 after his baby is stillborn. Rumors start spreading around the village that Tobias, being a practitioner of magic, is not going to stay dead and that he will be coming after Turrubiates for revenge. After Turrubiates tries to kill his corpse with a silver crucifix dagger, Tobias' corpse kills him and now he is pissed off at the rest of the village for turning a blind eye to the fact that Turrubiates beat an old man to death with a board. Tobias transforms himself into a wolfman - sorry, a nahual and proceeds to paint the village red. Unfortunately, mostly all we see is people screaming with blood on their faces. Even worse, we only really get a good look at the wolfman in the last 10 minutes of the film. Not that it's a total deal-breaker for the movie, but the movie really could use some monster action interspersed throughout.

A nahual (not to be confused with the Aztec language nahuatl), in case you aren't up on your native American folklore, is a man who is able to transform into a jaguar or puma, or in this case a wolf/man hybrid ala Universal's THE WOLF MAN (1941).  This sort of hybrid classic horror mixed with Mesoamerican mythology may not be anywhere near perfectly presented here, but it is a really cool concept, in spite of the film's many flaws. Did I mention it has flaws? The first hour of the film is pretty much action free, though we do get some interesting characters such as the fire and brimstone, asshole priest that turns out to be a hero by melting down the church's silver chalice into bullets, and a few atmospheric moments, once we get into the final act. If they had just spaced out some appearances of the nahaul, before the final act, the film would have been more than a minor classic.

Brought to us by long-time low-rent writer-director Gilberto de Anda, this is one of those titles that you could find in almost literally every Mexican video store back in the late '80s / early '90s. I may be viewing it with rose tinted glasses, but in spite of the fact that we don't even get an old school stop-motion, progressive transformation sequence, it still has some charm and the final wolfman costume is actually surprisingly good for such a low budget film.

Even Mexican exploitation super-star Valentín Trujillo wants a piece of the nahual.


In recent years (by which I mean the '90s and '00s because I'm old), Spanish cinema suddenly re-commandeered the horror-thriller crown that it wore so well in the '70s. Soon we had the likes of Jaume Balaguero and Juanma Bajo Ulloa creating films that were not only gripping with fear and dripping with dread, but also beautifully photographed. Like so many other countries that have a had brief runs of groundbreaking films (I'm looking at you Korea), soon things slipped from cutting edge to commercial and the bubble burst. As far as I can tell, Mexico has not had a bubble, per se, but a well paced evolution of cinema.
A young woman, Dolores (Susana Zabaleta) suffers a mental breakdown after her friend is murdered at her door. Her rather unsympathetic husband, Andres (Alejandro Tommasi), feels that the best course of action is for her to stay locked in their apartment 24/7 except for visits to her blandly disconnected shrink (Ricardo Blume). An envelope full of dirt, cryptic messages, scraps of notes hidden in books; a progression of stranger and stranger events that has Dolores realizing that it's not just her sanity that is in danger.

Director Daniel Gruener and writer Gabriel González Meléndez's psychological horror film, originally rather blandly titled SUPERNATURAL and coupled with an uninspired '90s poster, is definitely doing the art-house horror thing. Filled with surreal touches and beautifully composed shots, the film eschews the visceral aspect of the story and focuses on the bizarre origami plot and the mounting horror of the lead character who begins the film thinking she has seen the worst. I can't give out spoilers, because if this sounds like your kind of movie, it is best watched cold. The movie tips the hat to Dario Argento in several spots and makes a reference, if you haven't already caught it, to ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), but doesn't actually lift anything from any of those films, which makes it a nice change of pace from the allegedly "homage" filled genre films we've been getting 20 years later.

The film features all of the engrossing art direction and finely honed performances of the Spanish horror-thrillers of the era, but with less of an emphasis on perverse cruelty that the Spanish are so good at. Better still Zabaleta's acting carries the film from it's Bunel-ish opening to it's EC comics-ish twist ending.

KM 31 (2006)

Just in case you think that the praise is getting a bit too effusive in my mess o' Mexican movies, I bring you this overbearing, cookie cutter horror film made right squarely in the middle of the mess of Hollywood remakes of Japanese ghost movies. KM 31 (which stands for "Kilometer 31", or "Mile Marker 31" in American talk), nails down every single, gruelingly annoying cliche, twice removed from the films that made waves across oceans in the late '90s.

After her sister is in a horrible accident at KM 31 a plucky 20-something, Catalina (Iliana Fox), starts hearing her sister's voice in her head, in spite of the fact that the sister, Agata (also Iliana Fox), is in a coma and missing her legs. Compelled to go to the site of the accident with her almost-boyfriend Nuno (Adrià Collado) and Agata's boyfriend Omar (Raúl Méndez), they start experiencing the usual checklist of horror trappings that are still scaring impressionable teens here in 2015.

Shakey Cam? Check.
Washed out colors? Check.
Lots of weepy, emotional scenes? Check
Creepy children with black eyes? Check.
A character who shockingly turns out to be a ghost? Check.
A creepy old lady who knows all the answers? Check.
Screaming CGI ghosts with rotting faces? Check.
A gruff, but well meaning cop who is apparently so not busy with police work that he dedicates all of his time to investigating the numerous deaths at KM 31 and totally believes in ghosts? Why yes, of course. Check.

Young, hip director Rigoberto Castañeda, when not posing for photo-shoots, has made a small, spotty career out of delivering derivative, banal drivel wrapped up in a slick and glossy looking package. His break-out movie is the US produced thriller BLACKOUT (2008), which is probably the most derivative and banal titles you could possibly use post turn of the century. His latest film after working in Mexican TV dramas is, wait for it, a sequel to KM 31, titled KM 31: NO RETURN (2015), which pretty much describes my feelings for KM 31. I won't be going back.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Halloween Havoc: OCCULT DIMENSIONS (1988) aka DON'T PANIC

The late '80s was a lot of things, but no matter who you were, you knew who Freddy Krueger was, which meant that if you were in the film business, you wanted to cash in on the world-wide success  of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise. Even if you were in Mexico.

Ruben Galindo Jr, (aka Ruben Galindo Ubierna) son of famed, prolific filmmaker Ruben Galindo (aka Ruben Galindo Aguilar), was born in 1952 in Mexico City, but at a young age was enrolled in a Canadian boarding school in Victoria. After moving back to Mexico, Galindo Jr. did some of his collegiate general ed before moving to California and graduating UCLA with a film and television degree. He then returned to Mexico, yet again, and began making genre oriented films on 16mm. Galindo Jr.'s second film on 35mm was the hugely successful (by Mexican standards) CEMETERY OF TERROR (1985). This was actually a break-out film for Mexican genre pieces as it received distribution the likes of which hadn't been seen since the days of K. Gordon Murray in the '60. There was a major difference however, Murray's imports were reworked for American kiddie matinee screenings, CEMETERY OF TERROR was straight-up teen horror fare with zombies and bloodletting in the vein of the Italian horror films of the era. It would only make sense then, that Galindo Jr.'s follow up would be the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) inspired OCCULT DIMENSIONS.


Poodle mulleted rich kid, Michael Smith (Jon Michael Bischof, who also provided the score) has been transplanted from Beverly Hills to Mexico by his snobby parents who promptly got a divorce after relocating. Michael's mom (Helena Rojo) has become an alcoholic to the point of leaving a bottle of silver tequila on the stair banister for those times when actually walking to the liquor cabinet is just too much of an effort. Sure, we've all been there. Stairs can be such a bitch. Speaking of bitches, Michael is having a drunken birthday party and decides everyone needs to go home. Everyone does except for a handful of his closest friends who decide to pop out from behind furniture and insist that they have a "game" of ouija. Michael, in a whiny way that will start to wear thin really quickly, doesn't want to play as he has had a bad experience before. His friends are pretty much total assholes, particularly Tony (Juan Ignacio Aranda), who contacts a spirit named Virgil. When Tony starts speaking as Virgil, Michael then flips out, as he is prone to do, and tells everyone that it is the devil! Tony, who is a total prick, laughs it off and dumps a bottle of tequila on the board before walking out. Damn these kids are spoiled brats! When I went to high-school no one would dream of wasting a drop of the precious fluid known as "alcohol". Not even for our dead homies.

After an obligatory romantic interlude with the new girl at school, Alex (Gabriela Hassel, who went on to appear in 1989s VACATION OF TERROR), Michael starts having weird visions of his classmates being killed by a burn-victim wielding what appears to be a sacrificial dagger, or a prop used by an '80s metal band, I'm not sure. When he has these visions of these stabbings, his eyes turn red and he has trouble seeing, leading to a lot of pantomimed stumbling about... during which Michael freaks out. I told you, Michael's emotional state is like that of a five year old. I guess it is only appropriate that he spends half of the movie in some awesome dinosaur pajamas, reflecting his child-like state of mind. Galindo was doing some thinking here.

While his mom freaks out in an over-the-top latin way, suddenly the news starts reporting these deaths that he has been having visions of. The homicide detective on the case Lt. Velazco (the ubiquitous Jorge Luke) seems a little lackadaisical about the whole thing, but maybe later in the movie he will start taking things seriously right? I mean, it's only been two murders with the same M.O. It's not like in the US where we have to have a dozen dead before anyone decides to not give a shit.

Michael's next freak out is Christine (Mindie McCullum, better known after a lot of unnecessary plastic surgery as Scottie Steiner's WCW valet Midajah). Michael suddenly decides instead of letting his friends get killed, that - and this is a stroke of genius - he will warn them! Of course we all know how this is going to go. Running out of his house (yes, still wearing his dinosaur PJs), Michael heads over to Christine's place only to run into her blow-dried jock brother Juan (future soap star Roberto Palazuelos), who understandably wants to kick his ass. He then runs over to the hospital where Christine works, but apparently nobody is allowed into the hospital. Maybe it's just because they can't take him seriously in those pajamas. Of course, due to all of the interference from hospital security, he is too late and can't save Christine. Still, it was a good plan, so maybe next time, he'll be able to save someone! Or not. The bodies pile up, but after a VIDEODROME (1983) inspired moment in which a face pushes out of the TV and tells Michael and Juan that it is Virgil who is doing the killing, the boys team up and, more importantly, Michael puts on some real clothes.

I'm probably going to sound like an apologist here, but while I've seen a lot of people saying that it is a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET rip-off, it is definitely riding Freddy's coattails, but it really isn't fair to dismiss it as plagiarism. At the same time it is not wholly original as it borrows from Dario Argento as well as NIGHTMARE and the aforementioned VIDEODROME. In one scene our deteriorating villain (no backstory is given for his condition), shoves the dagger under someone's jaw allowing the audience to see the blade twist inside of his mouth. This is an obvious and direct lift from Argento's OPERA (1987). I think it is safe to say that Galindo is a fan of the Italian stuff as this feels like it would be right at home in the Filmirage line-up of the same era.

While the budgetary short-comings are a given, Galindo works in some good low-rent latex effects and some impressive camera set-ups. He also borrows Craven's use of horror movie film clips playing on the TV (technically not Craven's invention), though here instead of Galindo throwing a tip of the hat to a fellow filmmaker, he mostly uses clips of his own CEMETERY OF TERROR. Quite frankly, if I was the guy who had made CEMETERY OF TERROR, I would have clips of it in every movie I made afterwards, too.

The only real thing that strains the entertainment factor is Galindo regular Jon Michael Bischof. Bischof is such a wimpy man-child that, coupled with the pajamas (what was Galindo thinking?), he quickly goes from amusing to irritating. But then again, there are plenty of other things to keep your attention. Plus, I learned that Mexican schools are really strict. Michael has to bribe a security guard with a men's magazine to allow him to enter the campus late. Apparently not showing up for class on time is punishable by expulsion! Obviously they couldn't do that here in the US, because A: The schools would be empty, and B: Someone would get shot.

My favorite moment is the very end (minor spoiler) when the killer gives up his dying breath, Michael is laying in a broken heap on the floor, and Alex is sobbing over him, Lt. Velazco who you would expect to finally show some interest in the case, looks rather bored and simply turns around and walks off! I guess it's not his job to clean up the mess, right? I can't tell whether Luke is phoning in the role, to previously unknown degrees, or whether he is supposed to be such a hard-bitten cop that a possessed, evil killer with psychic powers doesn't even phase him.

This is definitely one of Galindo's easier films to track down as it was successfully marketed around the globe. It appears to have been shot almost entirely in English, presumably to make an inroad into a what was then a very lucrative home video market, but for unknown reasons, the Spanish dubbed version is the most commonly available print these days. Ironically, while quite successful in foreign markets, Gallindo's hybrid of US and Italian horror was not really popular with Mexicans which is why his directorial efforts of horror films only number a mere handful.