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, October 31, 2016

Halloween Havoc: AMITYVILLE DOLLHOUSE (1996)

It may not have reached the dizzying heights of insanity that followed in the wake of THE EXORCIST (1973), but THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) had a major impact on public consciousness and pop culture. In 1974 a drug user and nephew of a Mafia capo, Ronald DeFeo Jr., allegedly took a lever-action rife and shot and killed his entire family of six in their sleep. The murders were the talk of the nation, not just because of the nature of the crime, but there were numerous elements of the case that didn't add up. DeFeo changed his story several times, with many inaccuracies every time, and investigators couldn't understand how one man could shoot six people in a large house without waking any of them up. When he went to trial DeFeo tried to plead insanity but failed to convince a court that he was anything other than an anti-social drug addict and is currently still serving time in Green Haven prison, which according to Google is open 24 hours a day!

In 1977, Jay Anson, a writer of hundreds of television behind-the-scenes featurettes promoting feature films, wrote a fictionalized story based on George and Kathleen Lutz's questionable account of their alleged supernatural experiences. After the family moved into the infamous 112 Ocean Avenue house one month after DeFeo was convicted, according to the Lutz's, they and their three children were terrorized by an unseen demonic presence, forcing them to leave the home 28 days later. During that time, the Lutz's had paranormal and spiritual experts visit the house to verify the evil. One such person was in fact a priest who claimed that the strange things that happened in the story were true. The book was an instant best seller and has sold over 10 million copies. The facts behind the case, the nature of the stories and the people involved were a source of conflicting information and controversy, not to mention tangled legal suits to and from the Lutz's and those calling it a hoax. Forty years later, we still don't know exactly what happened during either case, but that hasn't stopped people from continuing to speculate or to use it as a spawning ground for a number of other books and movies.

The film version of the Lutz story, or at least the account of their experiences by way of the fictional book, released in 1979 to massive success. How much success? Aside from being in every periodical and in the conversations of most of the country, the film that cost $4.7 million, returned nearly double its budget on its opening weekend. That alone is what Hollywood execs fantasize about in private moments, but even better it went on to gross $87 million. To put it in perspective, in today's dollars that would be like a film budgeted at $16 million grossing $300 million. Staggering numbers, particularly considering that big studio films that gross that kind of money these days are made for around $100 million. A Hollywood exec would happily eat his own grandmother for those kind of numbers.

In 1982 the highly controversial AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION was released to a rather financially lackluster reception. Based on the book MURDER IN AMITYVILLE by parapsychologist Hans Holzer, it told what purported to be a factual account of the DeFeo killings complete with physical and mental abuse, rape and incest. Whether you are a fan of the film or not, it provided the tipping point that sent the film series into a spiral of exaggerated sensationalism. Personally I don't think that's a bad thing at all. The second sequel, AMITYVILLE 3-D (1983), chucked all of the attempts at realism out the window and just went for straight-up bubblegum horror lovingly presented in the best medium that bubblegum horror ever knew, 3D. I saw it in the theater when it came out and have a very soft spot for it. Some philistine wrote a review of it here. This was the last AMITYVILLE film to be released theatrically.

AMITYVILLE: THE EVIL ESCAPES (1989) was based on the novel by John G. Jones, author of numerous Amityville fiction and "non-fiction" books. Made for NBC TV, it was the first film to use Jones' popular (at least to him) concept that the evil could manifest itself in bits of furniture. For some reason Patty Duke stars as a single mother who is given a lamp from the DeFeo house as a gift. Things don't go so well and it's a pretty rough slog to the end. Contrary to the video poster art, the 112 Ocean Ave house is nowhere to be found in the movie. Part 5 was the direct to video effort THE AMITYVILLE CURSE (1990) which, while based on Hans Holzer's prequel novel of the same name, tells the utterly fictional tale of the cause of the house's curse. Strangely, it has these events, although alleged to be happening to the people who owned the house before the DeFeo's, taking place in a completely different house! I guess they figured that no one would notice, much like Universal thinking that John Williams' hugely successful theme for JAWS wouldn't be missed by anyone.

AMITYVILLE: IT'S ABOUT TIME (1992), directed by TICKS (1993) maestro Tony Randel, from yet another John G. Jones novel, completely gave up the pretension of being a proper AMITYVILLE sequel and went back to Jones' beloved furniture theme. This one featured a clock from the DeFeo home being sold off to some unsuspecting couple who discovers that the clock is cursed and can actually turn their living room into a medieval dungeon. Actually, I know people who would pay good money for that.

Is there anything scarier than an evil clock? How about... an evil mirror! AMITYVILLE: A NEW GENERATION (1993) purports that the evil has now found a home in a dressing mirror. Why a mirror? Because it reflected the image of one of the DeFeo murders. No, seriously, that's what it is. Directed by John Murlowski, who went on to pretty much end Terry "Hulk" Hogan's leading man movie career with SANTA WITH MUSCLES (1996), this is arguably the low point of the series. While the charms of these sequels are admittedly dubious, this is a grind to get through and halted the series for three years. The series picked up again, this time with quite possibly the most ridiculous contrivance of any horror sequel ever, AMITYVILLE: DOLLHOUSE.

Divorced and now Brady Bunched dad, Bill Martin (Robin Thomas), decides to build a new house for his newly extended family of five on the scorched earth of a home that had been burned to the ground by one of the previous residents after killing his family. Things have been reinvented so many times during this series that, well, why not? It's not like there is any consistency with the original story anyway. Testimonies and details changed many times over the years, but the one thing that was factual is that there was a house on 112 Ocean Avenue that the DeFeo's and the Lutz's both lived in. But whatever, might as well throw that one out too. Untouched by the fire is a small, dilapidated, padlocked shed that Bill decided to keep but never even bothered to look into until after he moves his brood into the new house. Sort of a vermin infested housewarming surprise, as it were. As it turns out the shed is filled with some pretty weird junk, including large insects that have been framed for display and a old Dutch colonial dollhouse that looks just like... Yep, apparently due to the economy, the Evil was downsized out of the 112 Ocean house and has had to make due with a replica doll house. I'm kind of feeling a little sorry for it actually. "GET OUT! Oh, wait, you can't get in because I'm so small. Dammit!"

Shortly after this discovery, strange things start happening in the new house. While Bill is demoing the gas fireplace (that was apparently the only thing left from the old house after the fire) for his new wife Claire (Starr Andreeff), the flames shoot up into the chimney. The couple laugh about it, but they wouldn't have been if they knew what happened after they left the room - the flames go out by themselves! I know, scary right? We even get a suspense sequence in which Bill thinks that there is a home invader in the house because he sees his own shoes sticking out from behind a wall. Uhhh, yeah. At this point you will probably start rethinking your choices of evening entertainment, but trust me, it gets, let's say "better".

For her birthday, Bill has bought his 10 year old daughter Jessie (Rachel Duncan) a new bicycle and wouldn't you know it, the dollhouse, who you know is up to no good when its bedroom lights start glowing, makes the truck in the garage run over it. Naturally Bill is at a loss to replace it and decides to dust off the dollhouse and make that her present. Jessie being the most saccharinely precocious child in movie history, is delighted.

Clearly when you are a great force of evil, humiliated by being trapped in a dollhouse, you are going to need to get creative. So as soon as the dollhouse is in Jessie's possession shit starts to go down. Duchebag oldest son, Todd (Allen Cutler), accidentally kills dweeby stepbrother Jimmy's (Jarrett Lennon) pet mouse after it crawls under the dollhouse bed and suddenly turns into a giant rodent under Jessie's real bed. Jimmy is so upset by this and the fact that he has a step-family at all, that he has a nightmare that his dead father has returned from the dead and wants Jimmy to... kill Bill (alright, alright, I apologize).

Todd's girlfriend Dana (Lisa Robin Kelly) thinks, like all girls do, that the filthy old shed that packed with dirt, rust and bugs would be a great place to get stuffed and mounted. Apparently the dollhouse finds illicit sex offensive, which is odd since the church has had a firm, upstanding opinion that sex is bad, umkay, so one would think that a demonic entity would be all for some rough shag. Apparently, the coupling is so offensive that the dollhouse causes a minor earthquake in the shed which leads to a framed bug returning to life and burrowing into Todd's ear. It ain't much, but it is one of the most sphincter-clenching sequences as you are likely to witness in the entire series. See, I told you it got better. In this one scene alone we get boobs, rubber insects and aural penetration. Yeah, it doesn't take much for an Amityville sequel to make me happy.

As the family falls apart faster than Chris Christie's presidential campaign we find out that Jimmy's nightmares of his undead, homicidal old man are not in fact nightmares as his father keeps reappearing in progressive states of decomposition. We also get a hippy/biker aunt and uncle who run an occult bookstore and are sure that they can come up with something to stop the evil. Or create more of it as they find out that one of the dolls in the dollhouse is nothing more than a facade for a nasty giant wasp. What wasps have to do with the price of beer in Bakersfield is unknown, but hey, it sure looks cool.

One of my favorite bits is when Todd is about to get some action with Dana and goes to get "some drinks" while she warms herself by the (evil) fireplace. Considering the fact that Todd is a hormonally charged teenager and his girlfriend is ready and willing, you'd think he'd run into the kitchen pour a couple glasses of whatever floor polish he could get his hands on and be in his skivvies by the time he made it back to the couch. For some reason, Todd decides this is the perfect time to get his mixology on and decides to make a couple of elaborate frozen margaritas complete with salt-rimmed cocktail glasses. All the while the fireplace is lurking, just waiting to make its move! No spoilers, but lets just say, if Todd was a normal teenage guy, his girlfriend would have been safe. He only has himself to blame.

Written by first timer Joshua Michael Stern, who has gone on to a spotty, eclectic career that has lead up to him writing the new Epix series GRAVES (2016), a comedy about an ex-president and his ambitious wife that clearly is aiming for a "ripped from the headlines" political satire, that is not being well received. Perhaps, he should have just gone for another Ammity sequel. After producing all of the Amityville sequels starting with THE EVIL ESCAPES, Steve White pulls double duty as director here. White is certainly competent in that department, featuring many nice camera angles and an excellent, if totally gratuitous, one-take tracking shot where the camera rotates in the middle of the dining table as characters come and go. It's hard to describe, but it's actually really impressive. Interestingly it was White's first and last directorial credit, which makes one wonder if there was another director originally slated. In spite of these guys both being first timers, and admittedly not highbrow fare, they manage to pull it off better than many serial offenders that littered the video store shelves at the time.

While the first act is a bit slow, DOLLHOUSE, with it's ridiculous, latex-heavy final hour is easily the best sequel since AMITYVILLE 3-D. It may not be saying much, but look what happened in recent years. Someone got the bright idea to start up a new series of films with a 2005 remake of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR starring Ryan "Fart Joke" Reynolds in the lead. That's just wrong. Like worse than ketchup on a hot dog wrong. What about the unofficial sequels that followed, you ask? There aren't any. Nope. Never happened and you can't tell me otherwise.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Halloween Havoc: THE PUMPKIN KARVER (2006)

Jeez, has it really been 6 months since my last blog post (“Yes, it has,” says Tom)? Life, as they say, has a way of getting in the way. Well, my apologies but I know I wasn’t sorely missed. This will all be rectified with a glorious Halloween themed write up with a what will surely be a top notch film called...THE PUMPKIN KARVER? Goddammit, Wilson, will you ever learn?

The film opens with siblings Jonathan (Michael Zara) and Lynn (Amy Weber) preparing for a night of fun on Halloween. For Lynn this involves going to a party with her boyfriend and for Jonathan it involves carving up some pumpkins. This kid is wild, I tell ya. Said boyfriend Alec (David J. Wright) arrives in a costume that involves him putting stick-on devil horns on his head. Alec, however, is also a wild man and this is showcased by him showing Lynn he is sneaking a beer into the party. Yup, just one beer and it is imported. WILD MAN! Alec is a bit of a bully though as he sprays the pumpkin carving Jonathan with his beer, stabs the pumpkin with a knife and then burps in Jonathan’s face. Have you ever seen such cruelty?

Alec splits while Lynn goes to get ready for the party (bonus info: her costume is a slutty Native American). While alone in her room, a creeper in a pumpkin headed costume sneaks in and begins to attack her. At first she thinks it is wild man Alec doing a prank, but then things turn violent. Hearing the screams, Jonathan runs to her aid and goes O.J. Simpson on the intruder’s ass. Bad news because it turns out it really was Alec and now he is lying dead in a pool of his own blood. Hey, burping has consequences.

Cut to a year later and the kids (along with their single mom, who is never shown) are living in a new town called Carver. Apparently this small town (population 666 says the town sign...oh boy) is known for its pumpkin patches. Yes, what better way to help Jonathan to get over his trauma then moving to a place where he is surrounded by reminders of his accidental killing? Lynn, who is apparently taking the death of her boyfriend better than Jonathan, says to Jonathan of his guilt: “You have to let go or you’re going to drive yourself crazy.” Her idea to rectify things is to attend a Halloween party out in the boonies where there will be a pumpkin carving contest. Actually, she believes in sexual healing and has lined up for Jonathan to meet up with Tammy (Minka Kelly). Yes, nothing will make you forget your mental problems than hanging out with a girl. Especially a girl with a jealous ex-boyfriend named Lance (David Austin). On the way to the party they meet Old Man Wickett (Terrence Evans), the landowner where the party will be held and requisite doom ‘n gloom crazy guy. He is apparently cranky because there are no good pumpkin carvers around (later in the film he disrupts the pumpkin carving contest and exclaims, “Ah, crap! Ain’t none of ya damn carvers.”) Naturally once at the party things start going down - Jonathan starts having visions of the ol’ pumpkin head costume and random party goers start getting carved up.

Argh! Why did I do this to myself? I guess once you’ve exploited all the good Halloween themed movies (HALLOWEEN, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, FLESHEATER, ERNEST SCARED STUPID) that you have to start scraping the bottom. And honestly, it is hard to come up with anything positive to say about THE PUMPKIN KARVER. Well, it was shot on film so it has that going for it. It also has...uh...let me see...color! Yep, got that color everywhere. And it has...uh...hmmm...sound. Yep, you can hear stuff. Unfortunately, this isn’t a film coming out in the 1920s. Director and co-writer Robert Mann fills the film with such boring characters spouting boring dialogue that the ones that are supposed to be comedy relief (two stoners named Bonedaddy and Spinner) make you want to kill yourself. Take for example the scene where our Beavis and Butthead wannabes moon Jonathan and Tammy and her reaction is the poorly delivered line, “They’re so weird, but I love it.”

It is a shame because the crew went out of their way to make the farm where the Halloween party takes place look spooky. And there is a nice twist at the end that deserves a better execution. Of course, director Mann is the kind of filmmaker who has a ten paragraph long IMDb bio that you know before you reach the end was written by Robert Mann (spoiler: it was). It is a film so mundane and by-the-numbers that the band featured in it (The Dust Poets) take a stage name (Divine Chaos). Yep, they didn’t push to plug their band in the one line of dialogue where they say, “We’re Divine Chaos!” Perhaps the most interesting thing is that co-star Minka Kelly went on to snag the major network show FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS the same year this came out. With her carved face adorning the cover (looking like a Juggalo on a three day Faygo bender) I’m willing to bet that much like The Dust Poets, she wishes she had taken a pseudonym and could carve this off her IMDb page.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Halloween Havoc: OUT OF THE BODY (1988)

So great was the impact of THE EXORCIST (1973) on global consciousness that it has been an inspiration to a huge number of films over the decades since it was released. Whether these post-EXORCIST film are blunt-force "rip-offs" (such as 1974s SEYTAN) or just something that wouldn't have played out the way it did without THE EXORCIST's existence, there are plenty of interesting outings that followed in its wake.

Our cousins from Down Under have never been much for straight up horror movies, aside from the past decade in which they have turned out a lot of American style gore flicks. They may sell well, but it is a true waste of Aussie talent. They have, however, always had an excellent handle on suspense and thrillers with horror undertones. Films such as the gripping LADY STAY DEAD (1981) and the strange 1987 film CASSANDRA, are thrillers working on jangling your nerves, but also adopting American slasher themes and sometimes Italian giallo motifs as well.

The EXORCIST influence was felt strongly in 1978 with Richard Franklin's PATRICK (1978). The first theatrical project written by the late, masterful ex-pat screenwriter Everett De Roche. De Roche who went on to write Aussie classics such as THE LONG WEEKEND (1978) and ROAD GAMES (1981), created a thriller with horror overtones about a comatose young man in a private hospital who seems to be able to channel his inner rage into the confines of the hospital, executing those who irritate him. The elements of a bed ridden individual with supernatural power used for evil, are not ripped off from THE EXORCIST, but are definitely influenced by it. PATRICK saw global popularity due to the universal appeal of the subject matter. It doesn't matter if you are Catholic, Muslim, Agnostic or Atheist, the subject of a seemingly vulnerable individual channeling evil power crosses any social, political or religious boundaries. Just like how even Jewish people can enjoy DRACULA. Sure, the villainous bloodsucker can't be warded off with a Star of David, but it doesn't really matter, it's intrinsically about the triumph of good over evil.

In 1989 Brian Trenchard-Smith released one of his few horror movies, OUT OF THE BODY, that felt the ripple of the EXORCISTs mighty splash. Essentially it is a thriller, but it is as much of a horror film as you are going to get out of pre-'90s Aussie cinema.

Late at night a successful businesswoman is suddenly snatched into the air, has her eyes ripped out and is hung up on a fire escape after trying to get in her car. When a policeman and his K9 companion investigate the blaring car alarm, his dog suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. Apparently this is yet another grisly murder in a string of inexplicable killings. At the same time, a college professor and struggling musician, David Gaze (Mark Hembrow) finds that his vivid and twisted nightmares are actually visions of the murders being committed. So disturbed is he by this, he tries to contact people who he thinks are going to be victims who naturally write him off as missing a few shrimp on his barbie.

Of course the police find his claims not only crazy, but seemingly an incitement of the his own guilt. Fortunately for him he has the world's most understanding girlfriend, Neva St. Clair (Tessa Humphries, daughter of Barry McKenzie creator, Barry Humphries), who reckons that astral projection is a complete reasonable explanation and is not in the least bit creeped out by the fact that the man she's sleeping with knows more about the murders than the police do. Clearly I need to move to Australia. I can't find a girl that will put up with my taste in movies, much less a possible involvement in a murder investigation.

While David is having his presumed mental break, noted feminist author, and implied angry lesbian, Stephanie Parker (Sally Hudson), is interviewing a series of successful female business women for her next book. Her favorite topic is how much men suck at, well, everything, but her bedroom eyes aren't being taken seriously by her interviewees who either are completely blind or just don't care. One by one, each of these women are successively attacked by a malevolent force that tears out their eyes. Could she be the killer? Magic eight ball says: No spoilers dammit!

Written by playwright and TV series writer Kenneth G. Ross, who wrote the original play that the 1980 film BREAKER MORANT was based on, this was his one and only feature film production. How's that for a resume? The script is enigmatic, even by Australian standards, but Trenchard-Smith's camera set-ups and lighting are stylishly executed making even a few simple conversation scenes interesting. Synth composer Peter Westheimer's minimalist score adds a lot to the giallo-esque flavor.

To be fair not all of the EXORCIST influences are well conceived. We have shots of the obligatory demon fetishes, a possession scene at the end of the film, but there are also a couple of scenes of furniture flying around on wires that feels like we've taken a way-back ride to a William Castle film. Not that it's a bad thing in a Castle movie, it just undercuts the horror in an otherwise solid modern film (yes, I just called the '80s "modern").

While the gore isn't as explicit as some might expect from the man who brought us TURKEY SHOOT (1982) and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 (1994), there are enough nasty moments to park it firmly on the horror shelf. At times Trenchard-Smith evokes an almost Italian approach, with moody lighting and the stylish attack sequences which are shown from the killer's point of view. The fact that it has adult characters (David is divorced from his first wife who happens to be his boss) is also a plus. If it were made today, it would be teenagers in a school, not adults running a school. It is far more effective to see people in positions of responsibility become suspects of a string of brutal crimes rather than some zit-popping slacker. And no, I've never yelled at anyone to get off my lawn. The fact that I don't have one makes no difference.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Halloween Havoc: MOLD! (2013) / THE MILDEW FROM THE PLANET XONADER (2015)

Because of our long-standing tradition of talking about low-rent amateur efforts, we have talked up Italian production company Necrostorm quite a bit. Following the release of the mind-liquefying post-nuke splatter epic ADAM CHAPLIN (2010), co-written, directed and produced by brothers Emanuele and Giulio De Santi, Emanuele ended up going his own way. This left Giulio, to began producing his own string of low-budget gorefests in the vein of the '80s German no-budget gore-met Andreas Schnaas. Like Schnaas, Giulio's solo efforts, such as TAETER CITY (2012) and HOTEL INFERNO (2013) have hit or miss aspects to them, but unlike Schnaas, manage some solid concepts and a plethora of innovative hybrid CGI/practical make-up effects. So innovative that other production companies have begun to borrow some of Necrostorm's ideas. See HARDCORE HENRY (2016) if you have any doubts.

After some success with their in house films, Necrostorm has decided to purchase other amateur efforts, re-editing and re-scoring them and most importantly adding additional effects. Unfortunately we were not able to get any information from Necrostorm about this other than their marketing hype. I'm guessing this is the old-school way to re-issue a movie that has run it's financial course, using a minimal investment and an entirely new promotional campaign. Al Adamson would be proud. MILDEW started life as an Arizona based, shot on digital movie in 2009, titled MOLD! After a lengthy production and a lengthier post, it was eventually released under that title in 2013. So far the only feature directed by Neil Meschino, MOLD! is a fun film with a couple of good make-up gags. According to Meschino, Necrostorm contacted him "out of the blue" at a point where the sales for MOLD! were starting to drop off. Meschino sold them the film and that was the last he heard of it.

Set for absolutely no apparent reason in 1984, a secret research facility has been working on a ecological warfare project for the US Army. The project is essentially a green mold that is an airborne agent that infects people on contact and causes them to melt into splattery goo ala STREET TRASH (1987), or turn into deranged zombies. What could possibly go wrong?

The corporate "head" Edison Carter (David Pringle in a direct reference to MAX HEADROOM) has organised a meeting between the project lead Dr. Kane (Rick Haymes), his scientists Roger (Lawrence George), Julia (Ardis Campbell), an Army colonel (Edward X. Young), who is known only as "Colonel"and Congressman Blankenship (James Murphy). Also included is Dave (Chris Gentile), a pompous jackass who believes that because electromagnetic waves are emitted by all creatures, his superior intellect should allow him to use his mind to move objects... like pencils. That's right,  he is the laziest pencil-pusher ever.

The meeting which seems to take place in what appears to be a maintenance room with nothing but a white buffet table sporting some Ritz crackers and what appears to be a bottle of Martinelli's, gets off to a rough start as apparently there is some debate about the hazards of a live demonstration. As it turns out the coked-up Congressman's hazmat suit had a hole in it and during a trip to the men's room discovers that a green fungus has begun to grow on his, err, congressional caucus. Don't you hate it when that happens?

Within minutes the congressman is overrun with green fuzz and a contamination lockdown goes into effect. The scientists must then try to figure out how to make sure they stay uninfected, trapped in the meeting room with the congressman's rapidly decaying body and figure out a means of escape. Of course the Colonel is mainly interested in yelling and finger-pointing, as you would expect. Meanwhile an assault team in protective gear are running around the complex gunning down anyone trying to escape the facility. As it turns out, Edison Carter (who shows up as a disembodied head on monitors) has decided that the best way to make sure this mold is as effective as he wants it to be is to use everyone in the facility as guinea pigs. Fuzzy, homicidal guinea pigs.

The film is more fun that you'd think at first glance. It is definitely a shot-on-weekends with a digital camera kind of thing and it takes place in a couple of rooms and a hallway, but for some reason it manages to surpass these drawbacks and deliver an entertaining 89 minutes. The cast is not going to win any awards, but are all competent actors, playing the scenes with straight conviction. The movie takes its premise seriously enough and avoids the lazy, winky, "we are making a stupid movie" pitfall that is pretty much de rigueur for a modern DTV genre movie.

While the movie is fun and surprisingly well shot, it's pretty light on the make-up effects, which is probably why Necrostorm picked it up. That, and I'm guessing it was cheap. The mid-movie set-piece, which should have been a big effects moment where one of the scientists' stomach swells up and explodes, takes place out of sight of the camera in MOLD! This is where Necrostorm wisely steps in. For that particular sequence De Santi used his mad digital/practical effects skills to show the scientists' torso blowing open in graphically gory detail. This sequence constructed almost entirely out of whole cloth, is practically seamless. You'd never know it wasn't part of the original film. Additionally some of the contaminated people now sprout hair out of their faces and run amok looking like a reject from a Samhain cover band. Why does it have different effects on different people? Like many things in Necrostorm's movies, your guess is as good as mine.

An early scene in MOLD! has a lab worker is freaked out by a mouse and droping a canister of the mold causing his to become contaminated. The scene is moved to the midpoint of MILDEW, and has quite a bit of new footage inserted showing the mice to mutate into flesh-rending mutants. When the mice go rabid and start tearing the lab tech up, his skull actually explodes out of his head, pushed out by one of the burrowing rodents. Some of this extra footage leads to some moments of bizarre incoherency, such as a bit near the end when one of the scientists is attacked by a zombie soldier, has his neck twisted and falls on his back. The zombie drags him (conveniently) back to the meeting room where he bangs on the door and Dave says "I think he severed my spinal cord". This is improbable at best, but in the MILDEW version, the source of his injury comes from one of the hair-faced mutants literally ripping his entire spine out of his back! Must have had something to do with the psychic powers.

Necrostorm also added an opening sequence and subplot that explains that the green fungus is something that was recovered from an alien space pod that crashed onto Earth. Additionally there is a black suited operative who seems to be working for a competing company to steal the mold with the help of his foul-mouthed wristband. Unfortunately this subplot (mostly shot in a single room isolated from the rest of them movie), is Necrostorm's biggest misstep. It confuses the otherwise simple plot and tries to inject a bit of juvenile humor to a mostly straightfaced production.

There is also some extensive re-editing, with some scenes altered to change the context. The shot of the congressman's senior member growing green funk is deleted, changing the scene to imply that it is the congressman's cocaine that is tainted (no pun intended). There is also an additional bit at the end of the film where some digital effects are used to show that Dave really did have pencil-wielding psychic powers after all. Something MOLD! showed to be a prank that he affected with a canister of compressed air.

Additionally, Nekrostorm darkened the image and toned down the color. While I'm really tired of seeing tinted or color-leeched movies, it is pretty inoffensive here. One of the best things that De Santi has added, that boosts his version, is adding in some new music by their in-house composer Razzaw. The original score is fine, but this added music echoes '80s synth, such as PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) and THEY LIVE (1988). It is really quite good and substantially adds to the fun. I'd accuse Necrostorm of ripping off Carpenter, except for the fact that they do give him a credit at the end of the film. Nice to see that done in this era of ruthlessly uncredited "homages".

So in the end MILDEW is an interesting and fun version of MOLD! that makes a few missteps, but mostly adds to the charm of Meschino's original. It will be interesting to see what else Necrostorm acquires, but until then we will be waiting for HOTEL INFERNO II, which De Santi is claiming will rival professional studio films. It's a bold claim that will be hard to live up to, but regardless Necrostorm is rapidly growing into a solid player in the world of DTV horror films.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Halloween Havoc: SEYTAN (1974)

Over the last several decades the foreign knock-offs of Hollywood films have been almost an industry unto itself. In the late '70s and '80s we got a deluge of films that were inspired by Hollywood hits, but many were only that: "inspired by". Lucio Fulci's celebrated gorefest ZOMBI 2 (aka ZOMBIE, 1979) was intended by the producers to be a loose sequel to George Romero's undead classic DAWN OF THE DEAD (aka ZOMBI, 1978). Of course, as we all know, the only thing the producers really cared about was being able to advertise it as a sequel and left Fulci to do whatever the hell he wanted. It was great for the producers who cashed in on the title, it was great for Fulci who got to make a throwback to old school zombie movies (albeit with a staggering amount of gore for the time) and it was great for us, the anti-social deviants, who got to see something gruesomely spectacular that set trends in cinema that continue to this day. The trend of rip-offs have become even bigger in scope with major Hollywood studios using a film's built-in name recognition to sell a new film. Of course, now we euphemistically call them "reboots".

THE EXORCIST (1973) was one of the biggest, earliest Hollywood hits that inspired imitations around the globe. In spite of the fact that William Freidkin and William Peter Blatty's vision was not intended as a horror film, it was so intense that not only did it make a lasting impression on viewers, it became widely circulated in the press that the movie could literally cause mental illness in normally stable individuals. Several psychiatrists wrote papers on, not only the presumed effect of seeing the movie, but published actual case notes regarding the treatment of individuals who have been driven to varying degrees of madness by the film. One such paper established that the media coverage on television alone was enough to cause a 24 year-old father to be unable to sleep, develop a suspicion of strangers, experience sympathetic neck stiffness (from Regan's head-turn) and experienced undue stress that his 5 year-old daughter might actually be possessed. Having seen some pretty disturbing behavior out of children in public places these days, I wouldn't completely rule out that out. This was, or rather still is, referred to as "Cinematic Neurosis," which what I intend to name my first child. More discussion of this phenomenon can be found in this vintage 20 minute made-for-television documentary.

It is this sort of quasi-quackery along with claims that it was based on the documented 1949 case of Robbie Mannheim ("Roland Doe"), that illustrates just what kind of cultural impression the movie had in 1973. The monument of the impact was partially due to the fact that a mere five years earlier in 1968, the extremely conservative Hays Code was dismantled in favor of a similar version of the current rating system that we have today. The ratings system gave a lot more leeway in terms of sex, violence and "adult themes". While there were plenty of horror movies in the '60s, a majority of them were either aimed at children, or were micro-budget affairs that were carried around the country in the back of the filmmaker's car. THE EXORCIST was a big budgeted film (for the time), weighing in at $65 million in today's dollars. This was a sharp contrast to a majority of horror films that were being made for thousands of dollars. The film was a deadly serious speculation on the dark side of religion in a time where people were starting to move away from the church. With beautiful cinematography, a hauntingly memorable score, an excellent cast and Dick Smith's groundbreaking effects, it became the highest grossing film of all time, and still one of the highest horror films, until it was dethroned by JAWS two short years later. It is also the first horror film nominated for an Oscar (10 nods in all), with Blatty taking one home. Barring ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), it was arguably the advent of the big studio exploitation pictures that have evolved to completely dominate American theatrical releases. It was an event that will never again be repeated in cinema. Naturally, since it was such a big pie, everyone wanted a slice. Preferably with extra cheese.

For some reason the Italians saw this film as a springboard to sexually sleazy films frequently featured a demon possessing a nubile girl who would develop a bad attitude and an extreme aversion to clothing, such as Franco Lo Cascio and Angelo Pannacciò's CRIES AND SHADOWS (aka EXORCIST III, 1975). Italy also used concepts from THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) as a springboard to utterly strange, almost surreal films like Ovidio G. Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR (1974). Spain was in the game with the fan favorite, Amando de Ossorio's THE POSSESSED (aka DEMON WITCH CHILD, 1975). There are many other interesting ripple effects through global cinema as well, but then there is Turkey.

I'm sure by now we are all familiar with Turkish cinema of the '70s and '80s. Heavily influenced by Hollywood, but unlike the Italians who are obsessed with artistic expression even when making no-budget knock-offs, the Turks are pretty blatant in their liberties. Almost like Hollywood does now, the Turks would shoot a literal remake of the film in question, except with a minuscule budget that often relied on stealing special effects footage and musical scores from other films.

Sometimes these remakes offer up an engaging alternate version, such as the DEATH WISH (1974) remake EXECUTIONER (aka CELLAT, 1975), which still features an architect with some serious family drama, but allows it to play out in a way that doesn't feel like a shot-for-shot remake. On the other end of the spectrum we have SEYTAN. Turkey's quick and dirty EXORCIST clone that makes absolutely no bones about remaking the original almost scene for scene.

An old priest (Agah Hün) in a padre cordobes hat finds what appears to be a high-school talent show project in the middle of an archaeological dig in the desert, though unlike THE EXORCIST, the archaeological dig is basically a couple of guys digging in sand.

In short order we meet Ayten (Meral Taygun), a single mother who lives in an upscale two story house with a conveniently long staircase leading up to it. While she plays a lot of tennis, like all white Americans do, her pre-teen daughter Gul (Canan Perver), who apparently spends most of her time in bed, has been playing with a new game that allows her to communicate with the spirit world. The game is basically a Ouija board that looks handmade, but not in artisanal way. Kevin Tenney would spin in his grave. Well, he would if he were dead, anyway. Of course when mom wants to play the game, nothing happens, which Gul cheerfully explains is because "Captain Lersen" (who?) wouldn't like it.

Hearing weird noises in the attic that sound vaguely like frozen plumbing but are suggested by the cook to be mice, Ayten investigates and conveniently finds a book titled (deep breath) "Seytan: Soul Abduction and Exorcism Ceremony Under the Light of the Modern Opinions about Mental Illness." The book is written by the Father Karras substitute, Tugrul Bilge (Cihan Ünal), a med school drop-out who is writing faith-based supernatural non-fiction about stuff that he doesn't have any belief in. Pity the fool who gets cornered by that guy at a party. Oh and his mother is losing it and is locked in a mental asylum. Not to miss out on any clinical moment Gul is taken to a doctor who says he wants to perform cranial surgery in order to "clean the wound on her brain." Unfortunately for the doctor, the x-rays show nothing wrong. For some reason I feel like I've seen this before.

Sort of like a cover band butchering all the classics, SEYTAN is happy to simply rehash many memorable scenes from the original, some of them verbatim. There is a potential boyfriend, Ekrem (Ekrem Gökkaya), who ends up pretending to be the baby carriage in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), just as the character Burke Dennings did in the original. We have a scene where Regan - err, I mean Gul walks down the stairs during a party and pees green gunk all over her feet. There is a scene where Gul's top is up and we see "help me" written (in Turkish) on her stomach in what appears to be street make-up. Of course there is the head-turning sequence, but since there is no Turkish Dick Smith, it is done simply by having the actress moving her head inside a false body. There is also a police inspector, originally played by Lee J. Cobb, who is convinced that Ekrem's death was not a freak accident, but of course he doesn't have a shred of proof, nor does he really have much to do with the movie other than show up once or twice, smoke some cigarettes, ask a few questions and exit stage left. If you felt like it, you could criticize THE EXORCIST of reducing the part down to an almost inconsequential figure, from the character in Blatty's novel. Even so, it's clearly a part included in SEYTAN in order to ape the original. Even the scene where Ellen Burstyn's character is hysterically trying to get through to her ex-husband in Rome on the phone is recreated, though it could have easily been tossed out or replaced with something else.

SEYTAN is almost a proto Jan Debont exercise, shuffling around a few story elements, but largely keeping the movie a condensed version of the original made on a budget so minuscule that it would cause Al Adamson to throw his hands up in despair. Even the theme is a re-edit of Mike Oldfield's iconic work, though this should surprise absolutely no one. Directed by Metin Erksan, who made films in Turkey in a six decade long career since the mid '50s, apparently felt that artistic expression doesn't put the kebab on the table. This is particularly ironic as Erksan, who passed away in 2012, was also, and I'm not making this up, a formally educated art historian. Yep, the guy who pounded out this ultra-cheap and blatant ripoff not only knew his art, but was once an award-winning director who specialized in character dramas that detailed the hardships of life in Turkey. That must have been one expensive swimming pool.

As mentioned, there are a few places where writer Yilmaz Tumturk, who has apparently only written five films, stumbles off the path into his own special place of virtual parody. One of the best bits where Tumturk attempts to recreate the original, is a scene where a pretentious hypnotist tries to put Gul under in order to find out why she's acting like Donald Trump on a cocaine and mescal bender. After fussing around with a crystal on a chain, he contacts Captain Lersen and is rewarded with a sharp punch in the "tubular bells". Not content with the original's gruesome crucifix scene, here Gul is in bed not with a crucifix - I'm guessing a largely Muslim audience is not going to be able to relate to that - but a letter opener with a demonic face! Violently masturbating with a cross may be incredibly subversive, but the letter opener is a pretty nasty image. In a similar note, when the old man in the hat shows up to exorcise the demon, instead of holy water, he shakes some "zamzam water" on her! The horror. Actually it's just Islam's version of holy water taken from the Zamzam Well in Mecca. Thanks for ruining my fun with facts Google.

Amusingly the IMDb states that SEYTAN is a "version" of William Girdler's EXORCIST knock-off ABBY (1974). Both released in the same year, Girdler's black cast film filches plenty of moments from Friedkin's classic, but manages to make plenty of deviations as well. For one, the main character is an adult female marriage counselor instead of a privileged white child allowing for crazy scenes in places like a disco. Honestly when you think "demonic possession", who doesn't think "disco"? Girdler's film, like many other films that capitalized on the unmitigated success of THE EXORCIST, doesn't feel the need to follow the original step by step and is all the better for it. If SEYTAN had gone to crazy town a bit more often and relied less on coloring between the lines, it could have been a cult classic in the truest sense of the phrase. I feel kind of bad comparing a multi-million dollar, iconic Hollywood film to a poverty-stricken foreign remake, but as it stands, it is a pretty weak facsimile of the original with a few fun moments.