Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why ask why when the ghosts start killing?

Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (2003)
Starring: Noriko Sakai
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Famous horror actress Kyoko Harase (Sakai), her unborn child, a TV news-magazine crew, a couple of high schoolers, and a handful of random bystanders fall victim to the curse of angry, homicidal ghosts.

"Ju-on: The Grudge 2" is one creepy movie. From beginning to end, it's got an unsettling air about it, and the ghost attacks are all nightmarish and flawlessly executed.

What is not so flawlessly executed is the script. It's no problem that the story is told out of sequence, but about 2/3rds of the way through the movie, the timeline completely disintergrates. Until the two high-schoolers are introduced (who I assume must have been around in the first Japanse "The Grudge" to which this film is a sequel), all the pieces fit on a timeline that makes sense--Kyoko and the filmcrew are cursed when they viisit the house for a TV segment, and the ghosts then start picking them off, just as they did in the American versions of the tale. But, the teeny-boppers must have been cursed by the house BEFORE the filmcrew went there... although one of them appears to never have escaped it, yet she's walking around and....

The bit with the school girls makes no sense when viewed on the timeline of the film, or as a seperate event. It further causes the question to arise: How and why Kyoko was targeted by the ghosts in the first place? What exactly was the whole baby and birth thing about, particuarly when viewed in the context of the ending? And why WERE those school girls in the film? Is there a law that every Japanese horror film must include at least one girl in a school uniform?

Either the plot is so tangled that it trips over itself (bad writing) or Simizu is assuming that everyone in the audience has seen the first film in the series and he further intends to explain the tangle in a third movie (bad filmmaking), or I'm not as smart as I like to think I am (not possible). Whatever the reason, this movie is a masterful excersize in makiing the viewers feel freaked out, but a failure as an excersize in story-telling. The posives and negatives here end up placing this film on the very low end of average.

I also think this will be the last entry in "The Grudge" series that I'll be sampling. The best thing about these movies appears to be their marketing campaigns.

(That said... the birth scene and its aftermath is one that will stay with me for awhile....)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Double Feature Spook Spectacular: 'The Grudge' and 'The Grudge 2'

I'm reviewing the first two American installmentss of Takashi Shimizu's "The Grudge" series in this post. Tomorrow, I'll be posting the review of the Japanese "The Grudge 2," which seems to follow on the events described in these movies. I don't know if that's just me trying to impose order on chaos, as I don't have the impression Shimizu gives a rip about story continiuity. (And I'm not likely to seek out the original Japanese "The Grudge." The awfulness of these three films has been quite enough for me.)

The Grudge (2004)
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr and Medaka Ikeno
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

In "The Grudge," Americans living and working in Tokyo fall victim to curses and angry ghosts tied to a house in the city. The most recent victim (Gellar) sets out to discover the cause of the deadly and nightmarish events and hopefully to prevent the fate that is occuring to everyone around her to her.

While "The Grudge" features some interesting visuals surrounding the ghosts in the film, the scares are all of the "gotcha" variety, the script is disjointed and badly done, and the activities of the ghosts and the curse never really make any sense.

It's okay to have a crazy ghost with strange motivations. It's even okay to have a ghost with motivations that SEEM to be understandable but which are ultimately revealed not to be. It's okay to have a ghost that may have been a victim in life but which is also completely and utterly batshit crazy and evil. It's even okay to have all of those.

But what is not okay is to have a ghost (and subsequently a ghost story) that seems to have no rhyme or reason to it. Sure, the characters might die horrible deaths without ever knowing what's going on, but the audience should be left with at least an inkling that there is some underlying cause for the haunting and ghosts actions other than a writer/director being too lazy to think his own story through properly.

"The Grudge" is a ghost movie done in by laziness on the part of the creator, and no amount of CGI effects and cheap scares can make up for that laziness. Unfortunately, things only get worse in the sequel. It's a shame that a good cast (including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sam Raimi and Bill Pullman) are wasted on such a bad movie.

The Grudge 2 (2006)
Starring: Amber Tamblyn, Arielle Kebbel, Matthew Knight, Edison Chen, Sara Roemer, and Teresa Palmer
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

The "most haunted house in all of Japan" continues to curse victims... and now it's gone global.

"The Grudge 2" is like the original. It's got the same good parts, and the same bad parts, only moreso in both cases. The curse and its motivation still makes absolutely no sense, nor does the reasons for why the angry ghost targets who she does. In fact, ambiguity is even worse in the sequel, because it appears that the ghost isn't just tied to the house, but that it will go anywhere and target anyone... even people who have absolutely nothing to do with the house or anyone who has ever been in it. Further, it appears that the ghost isn't just the original ghost, but that all its victims are somehow being it. Or something. Or maybe another restless, tormented spirit was house-sitting while the O.G. (Original Ghost) is globetrotting.

Without spoiling too much, this sequel features not just one tale of mysterious hauntings but three--one with Amber Tamblyn and Edison Chen trying to unravel the curse a few days after the events of the first movie; one with Arielle Kebbel and Teresa Palmer a few years later when some mean school girls use the house for a bit of hazing; and a Chicago apartment building where, a few weeks after the ill-fated hazing in faraway Tokyo, teenaged Sara Roemer and her little brother Matthew Knight notice their neighbors start behaving strangely. The film moves back and forth between them, and toward the end of the film it does so in a fashion that seems truly random, and really confuses the viewers sense of what is happening when. I've seen at least two reviews claim the three stories don't connect, and I can only assume that the critics either didn't see the last few minutes of the movie, they weren't paying close enough attention, or they weren't expressing clearly enough the fact that the three stories don't connect in any way that makes sense.

And that is the problem with "The Grudge 2". Nothing in any of the stories feels properly grounded in even a shred of internal logic. There's no reason for "the curse" to target some of the people it does--like every resident on a floor of a Chicago apartment building. Stuff just happens because it's time for something spooky. There are plenty of spooky developments and even more "gotcha!" scares (although a couple of those were more laugh-inspiring on a "Evil Dead" level than actually scary... and I don't think they were going for comedy).

Oh... and here's an illustration of why your Mom told you to always put on clean underwear in the morning.

You never know when you might get caught in a phone booth with a ghost looking up your skirt.

Saturday Scream Queen: Sarah Michelle Gellar

Born in 1977, Sarah Michelle Gellar is best known for her role as Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the long-running television series (1997-2003) of the same name. She also has a growing resume of film appearances to her name, most of them horror films or thrillers, as well as a few comedies and mainstream dramas.

Gellar is the rarest of child actors who made a successful transition to adulthood and life as a working actor. She did this by taking her craft seriously and by carrying herself like a professional, something she started doing even as a young teen.

In a 2007 interview, Gellar stated, "You don't party when you're on a TV show. You go to bed for 10 hours and you learn your lines. I never smoked and I didn't drink alcohol until I was 21."

She went on to say: "I don't understand the need to give in to excess and lead your life in public. It doesn't make sense to me. I look at all these kids getting fame and attention now and they're just not equipped to deal with success at such a young age."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Wilbur Whateley: Wizard of the Roofies

The Dunwich Horror (1970)
Starring: Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Donna Baccala and Sam Jaffe
Director: Daniel Haller
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A cute college girl (Dee) is fed supernatural Roofies by 1970s cultist and proto-Emo Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell). Before you know it, he's offering her asa one-night stand to the extra-dimensional horrors known as the Great Old Ones. Will her prudish girlfriend (Baccala) and the curmudgeonly Dr. Henry Armitage (Begley) manage to save her before she becomes a cosmic swinger?

"The Dunwich Horror" is a loose--VERY loose--adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft's most famous and most intense works, but, unfortunately, very little of that intensity manages to make it onto the screen.

The film has all the trappings of Lovecraft--the weird Whateley family, the hostile villagers of Dunwich, Miskatonic University, Henry Armitage, strange crystal rocks and even stranger rites and rituals that either summon or ward off invisible horrors and tentacle beasts the likes of which not even the Japanese could imagine! However, the film never comes close to evoking the mood of a Lovecraft story and it barely manages to be scary in a couple of scenes. To make an already borderline dull film even worse director Daniel Haller doesn't seem to know how to end a scenes. There literally isn't a single scene that doesn't go on for anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes too long; it's not that the film feels padded... it just feels like it's incompetently done. (And then there's those horribly long, loud, and garish dream sequences. I'm sure someone thought those were Lovecraftian but I simply found them annoying. Maybe they came across better to movie-goers in 1970, especially those tripping on who-knows-what.)

Except for the languid direction and the painful dream sequence, the film is decent enough. Every performer does a good job with their parts, even if the part merely calls for looking cute as does that played by Sandra Dee, and the cinematography and special effects are also quite well done. The same can be said for the film's score; the main title music seems a bit out of step with the nature of the film, but the variations of the theme featured throughout the film are spot-on. The Whateley House is also a great piece of set design, both inside and out.

"The Dunwich Horror" is one of those films that doesn't have enough good points for me to give it a strong recommendation, nor are there enough bad things about it to make me warn you off it. I was disappointed by it, but if a low-key Lovecraft adaptation that oozes an early 1970s vibe sounds interesting to you, then it might be worth checking out.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The early Hawkman tales are brilliant

Showcase Presents: Hawkman, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, 2007)
Writers: Gardner Fox and Bob Haney
Artists: Joe Kubert, Murphy Anderson, Carmine Infantino, Bob Purcell, and Gil Kane
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

"Showcase Presents: Hawkman" is another mammoth collection of high-quality comics from the early 1960s. This one features the earliest--and very best--adventures of the "re-imagined" Golden Age hero Hawkman.

Written by master-scribe Gardner Fox, who also wrote a number of the original Hawkman tales during the 1940s, this collection of science-fiction tinged superhero adventures introduce the readers to Katar Hol and his wife Shayera who are police officers from the alien world of Thanagar who have come to Earth to study law enforcement techniques of our world. They come to be known as Hawkman and Hawkgirl, because their alien police uniforms and anti-grav technology make them appear like human hawks. The couple pose as the curators of the Midway Museum, and they augment their hi-tech equipment with antique weapons from the museum's collection as needed. They have to deal with alien menaces, Earth-based sorcerers, a few problems generated by artifacts at the museum, and even the bureaucracy of the Thanagarian police force.

The art is primarily by Joe Kubert and Murphy Anderson (with the latter providing inks over Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane on select stories). Kubert illustrates the first 1/4th of the book, and he once again shows himself to be a master of drawing things in flight--there are times when the reader can almost feel the wind rushing past Hawkman and Hawkgirl as they take flight or battle airborne foes. While Anderson can't match Kubert's ability to capture aerial motion, he nonetheless provided some of the very best work of his entire career on these "Hawkman" stories.

In fact, the writing and artwork is for the most part so excellent that the one average comic book story that appears here (a Aquaman/Hawkman/Hawkgirl team-up of all things, by Haney and Purcell) looks positively awful by comparison. In the context of the general level of material from the early 1960s, the Aquaman team-up is okay, but it can't hold up when compared to the rest of this book.

Originally presented in issues of "The Brave & the Bold", "Mystery In Space", "Hawkman" and a stray issue of "The Atom", the stories featured are universally clever, fun, and definately among the very best of the Silver Age. From the interesting relationship between Katar and Shayera (who more than once clash when personal and professional life cross over), to the supporting cast, to the always-interesting foes they confront, to the very interesting team-ups with other superheroes (two with the Atom--another happily married superhero--one with Adam Strange, one girl-magician Zantanna, and the above-mentioned Aquaman crossover), these are stories that are bursting with creative energy, exciting ideas, and that spotlight top talents using their skills to their utmost.

The book isn't flawless, though. I've alredy mentioned the out-of-place Aquaman team-up. There are also the occasional element that feels extremely hokey some 45 years after the tales originally appeared (the worst of these is that Katar Hol's father is the inventor of modern police procedures on Thanagar AND the anti-grav technology that elite officers like Hawkman and Hawkgirl use), but the many fun aspects of the book more than makes up for them.

"Showcase Presents: Hawkman" is an affordable collection of great superhero comics. I think it might even be a book that can appeal to a young girl, of you know one that you'd like to get interested in comics. Despite the title, Hawkgirl is featured almost as frequently as Hawkman.)

The book is even more affordable if you order it from, as it only costs around $13 once their discount is applied.

All-star cast presents 'Death on the Nile'

Death on the Nile (1978)
Starring: Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Olivia Hussey, Simon MacCorkindal, Maggie Smith, Jane Birkin,Angela Lansbury, Jack Warden, Bette Davis, David Niven, and George Kennedy
Director: John Guillermin
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When the very rich and very obnoxious Louise Bourget (Birken) is murdered while on her honeymoon cruise on the River Nile, master detective Hercule Poirot (Ustinov) must pick through a ship full of clues (and suspects, each with solid motives for murdering Louise). But what are the motives for the other murder that soon follows? Is is even connected to the first? Will the great detective finally be stumped?

"Death of the Nile" is one of the very best Agatha Christie adaptations to ever be filmed. It's beautifully filmed, with an all-star cast who are all excellent in the roles--with Ustinov as Poirot and Mia Farrow as a one-time best friend of the victim, now turned stalker of her and her husband (MacCorkindale) giving particularly fine performances.

The film is also noteworthy for its shocking violence. It's not that the movie is gory, but it's the fact that nearly every violent act comes without warning and is bound to make the viewer jump, even if you're intimately familiar with the novel upon which the film is based.

It's a film worth checking out by anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

'Jigsaw' is a puzzle missing pieces of quality

Jigsaw (2002)
Starring: Barret Walz, Arthur Simone, Mia Zifkin, Aimee Bravo, Maren Lindow, James Palmer, Mark Vollmers and David Wesley Cooper
Directors: Don Adams and Harry James Picardi
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A scupture created from a manniquin by five community college students (Bravo, Lindow, Palmer, Simone and Zifkin) and later crucified and burned as a final project devised by their sleazy professor (Walz) is brought to life by the collective darkness of their souls. It then proceeds to kill and dismember anyone it comes in contact with, using its arm-mounted shotgun and roundsaw.

"Jigsaw" is a bit of awfulness that resulted from the collaboration of Charles Band's Full Moon and J.R. Bookwalter's Tempe Entertainment. This film is almost as bad as "The Killer Eye" (which I review here, in a post titled "Bottom of the Band Barrel?"), but is elevated slightly by some realistic characters and well-crafted dialogue (even if it's impact is lessened by the bad delivery on the part of the actors and the even worse editing of the scenes) and a creepy, somewhat unusual monster.

Unfortunately, nothing else here is worthwhile. From beginning to end, the film feels like only a mininal amount of effort went into making it, or that at least very little planning surrounded the production. This sense starts with the opening scene where the five students are assigned their final project by the professor. From comments made, the viewer is to believe that there is a larger class, but it's obvious that no effort was made to get extras to fill the rest of the seats in the room. This sense continues as the story unfolds with no explanation as to why or how the manniquin animates and one of the worst non-ending endings I've come across in my trips through the dredges of cinematic entertainment. All in all, it feels like a poorly planned production based on a half-finished first draft of a script.

And this is a shame, because the monster (named "Jigsaw" by the sleazy professor, because it was made from plastic limbs and a head modified and decorated by his students) is creepy enough to have deserved a better vehicle than what it got. A couple of the kill scenes are nicely done--and more chilling than one might expect because of the creature involved--and the ending had real potential if it had actually been finished instead of just sort of stopping right when it was getting good. But what chills are here are thanks to the creature, not any particular skills on the part of the actors--most of whom don't seem to have much in the way of film careers before or after this production.

"Jigsaw" is a film that everyone can safely skip. (The current DVD release of it comes with a bonus feature that dates from the final year of Band's use of Romanian production facilities, "Totem". It may be a decent film--although the previews don't give me high hopes--and I'll review it in this space eventually.)

For the preview of "Jigsaw", check out the following video. Courtesy of Full Moon and YouTube.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:Post-Racial Sexiness

I'm not entirely clear on why Americans of all colors and creeds continue to keep racism alive. For example, I'm not sure why the likes of Halle Berry is considered more black than white--although since she chooses to make a big deal out of her blackness [as exemplified by her Oscar acceptance speech in 2002], I suppose she's more black than white. The same is doubly true for Mariah Carey, who I didn't know was black until I read some articles that made a big deal out of it.

The same is true of Barack Obama, who is just as white as he is black. Yet, he and his mouthpieces like to play the race card every chance they get.

Oh well. America's obsession with race has given me an excuse to tie Picture Perfect Wednesday to Black History Month AND put up photos of two very attractive women.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Evil Clown knocks them dead in 'Torment'

Torment (2008)
Starring: Suzi Lorraine, Tom Steadman, Ted Alderman and Lucien Eisenach
Director: Steve Sessions
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A young woman (Lorraine) is released from a mental hospital into the care of her alcoholic husband. The two go to an isolated house so she can continue her recovery and they can renew their relationship in a quiet environment. Unfortunately for them, a psycho in a clown costume (Eisenach) is capturing and torturing people in the area.

This movie was hard for me to assign a rating to. While there is much about it that I like, there is much I don't like. It's one of the better psycho clown movies I've seen, but it's got some serious flaws.

Suzi Lorraine gives an interesting performance as Lauren, a former mental patient who spots a psychotic killer as he picks out his next victim, but who is disbelieved due to her history of mental illness. The way the script sets up the chain of events that leads Lauren into the worst possible danger is well executed and her confrontation with the Killer Clown (called Dissecto in the credits but unnamed in the film istself) is very suspenseful. Unfortunately, these strong parts of the movie are undermined and outweighed by the weak parts.

"Torment" feels like its two halfbaked scripts that have been combined into one film. They weren't necessarily BAD scripts... they're just unpolished and they work against each other and ultimately end up undermining what suspense and tension they could have produced if they had been two different movies.

The clunky dialogue at times made up for by some well done lines, and the few overlong and even redundant scenes in the film are likewise counterbalanced by some truly creepy, scary and startling moments. (For example, the repeatative expository scenes and dialogue of the fact that Lauren is fresh out of mental hospital are annoying, but they are more than made up for the scene where Dissecto invades her home, or when she is hiding in his.) As far as this goes, the good counterbalances the bad.

However, the way the film makes it crystal clear from the outset that Lauren isn't hallucinating the spooky clown lurking in the bushes-- the extended scenes of him torturing a pair of missing Mormon missionaries is most definately not something she's imagining--and so there is no real tension produced by the "is she crazy or isn't she" question... although it does make her husband come across like a grade-A asshole. If you're into "torture porn", I suppose you might enjoy those aforementioned scenese of Dissecto performing for and upon his victimes, but I'm too squeamish for that sort of thing--having recently experienced my own encounter with excruciating pain has made that sort of material hard for me to watch--but the sloppy costuming of the "Mormons" can't be anything but a strike against the movie. (It's bad enough one of the "Mormons" had a shaved head, but none of their missionaries would EVER sport a soul patch/jazz dot!)

Bad costuming (and the sloppy direction that allows it to happen aside) it's the absolute certainty the audience has of Dissecto's existence that undermines Lauren's story. It makes us dislike her husband to a disproportionate degree and it makes everything leading up to her encounter with Dissecto feel like it goes on and on, because we know the real action won't start until he dispatches the husband and starts stalking her.

And that's too bad. Suzi Lorraine gives an good performance, but my impatience with wanting the movie to get to where the real action was made it hard to notice. Tom Steadman likewise gave a decent accounting of himself as Lauren's moronic husband... and I think that if he had been given better dialogue to deliver, he might have been even better. (To a large extent, he's The Amazing Redundant Exposition Man, and this reduces his role to something less that what it could have been.)

"Torment" is a movie that has a lot to recommend to fans of thrillers, slasher movies, and "torture porn". Unfortuantely, the thriller elements and "torture porn" elements are at odds with each other and between them they almost manage to make the slasher element moot and make the ending seem false and forced because it doesn't feel like a natural outgrowth of anything. These, plus the stilted and clumsy nature of some of the dialogue and the excessive exposition in certain scenes drag this down to a low end of average, despite its strong points. (Speaking of excessive exposition... one thing the film never even hints at is the Who and the Why of Dissecto. Part of me would like to know more about him, but another part of me likes the "senseless evil" aspect this presents. I think the fact I'm torn is another sign that the script needed more work.)

Despite its flaws, though, "Torment" is worth checking out if you're into killer clowns, or if you enjoy small-scale horror films.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Double Feature: Tales of Jimmy the Tulip

The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Starring: Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis, Amanda Peet, Natasha Henstridge, Roseanna Arquette, Michael Clarke Duncan and Kevin Pollack
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When Oz (Perry), a hapless nice-guy dentist caught in a loveless marriage to an uber-bitch wife (Arquette), befriends his new next door neighbor Jimmy (Willis), his life is transformed overnight. Suddenly, he is surrounded by killers, femme fatales, and revenge-hungry Hungarian gangsters.

"The Whole Nine Yards" is a movie that's part screwball comedy, part romantic comedy, part heist story, part crime drama, and a whole lot of hilarity. It's a movie full of likable characters with a charming air about it that reminded me of a number of comedies or light-hearted mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s (such as "Slightly Honorable", "Half a Sinner", "His Girl Friday", and "Bringing Up Baby", even if the stakes and body count are far higher here than in any of those movies). Matthew Perry's performance in particular reminded me of the hapless,clumsy heroes featured in those sorts of movies. I can't think of anyone who has been able to be goofy and do pratfall after pratfall yet still maintain a sort of dignity like Perry does in this film since Cary Grant.

The fun of this movie is found partly in its twisting and turning story--which sees two major, very well executed major reversals of audience expectations without losing even a tiny of momentum of as it keeps building toward not one but two dramatic and well-done endings--but also in its cast of charming characters presented by perfectly cast actors.

Bruce Willis gives perhaps the most versatile and surprising performance in the entire movie. He plays Jimmy the Tulip, a self-centered, greedy contract killer and Willis projects exactly the sort of menace that you'd expect such a character to exude. At the same time--literally, in more than one scene--he also projects a level of charm and likability that makes you wish he was your next door neighbor. Amanda Peet's character is much the same; she plays the most likable and lovable sociopath I've ever seen in any movie. Their casual, jovial approach to the business of murder is offset by the calm grace of Natasha Henstridge who plays a classic femme fatale. (And, of course, Matthew Perry's Everyman character provies a solid foundation for the other performances, as he stumbles and pratfalls his way through the ever-thickening and deadly plot while giving voice to the sense of horror and outrage the audience should be feeling if they weren't so busy laughing.)

This a very cool comedy that features a stellar cast at their best. I recommend it highly. (And I think I may have to reevaluate my opinion of Matthew Perry. I'd only ever seen him before in the two or three episodes of "Friends" I'd tried to sit through. He's obviously far more talented than anything that was on display there.)

The Whole Ten Yards (2004)
Starring: Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis, Amanda Peet, Kevin Pollack, Natasha Henstridge, and Tasha Smith
Director: Howard Deutch
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Two years after successfully hoodwinking organized crime and authorities to let murderous lovebirds Jimmy and Jill (Willis and Peet), the past comes back to haunt nebbish dentist Oz (Perry) and his gun moll wife (Henstridge) when she is kidnapped by Hungarian gangsters in search of revenge. Oz turns to Jimmy for help, making a bad situation worse and starting a series of events that grow increasingly strange and evermore deadly.

"The Whole Ten Yards" is a clumsily named sequel to one of the best mob comedies ever filmed. It's also so clumsily executed that it will be hard to follow if you haven't seen the film it's a sequel to, "The Whole Nine Yards", because it assumes complete knowledge of the main characters and the events that brought them together in the first place.

Unfortunately, if you saw "The Whole Nine Yards", all you'll take a way from this movie is disappointment. The jokes are mostly lame, the charming sides of Perry, Willis' and Peet's characters that made the first movie so enjoyable is nowhere to be seen here--and even Perry's physical comedy and spittakes seem tired and forced here. Worse, the suspense that mixed easily with the comedy in the original film has been replaced with badly mounted attempts at absurd humor. (Perhaps these differences are the mark of a film helmed by a talented director versus one that isn't?)

Rating a very low 4, "The Whole Ten Yards" is a great disappointment considering the excellence of the film it follows and the great cast that reprised their parts that has nothing of what made the first movie worth watching (including Amanda Peet's naked breasts).

Baron Blood:Stupid Character Syndrome runs rampant

Baron Blood (aka "Chamber of Tortures" and "The Torture Chamber of Baron Blood") (1972)
Starring: Elke Sommer, Antonio Cantafora, Massimo Girotti, Joseph Cotton, and Rada Rassimov
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

While visiting his ancestral home in Austria, a not-very-bright American grad student (Cantafora) restores his sadistic, blood-thirsty 16th century ancestor to life by reading a incantation that promises to do just that. The ressurected "Baron Blood" is now roaming the countryside, claiming victims, and moron-boy must find a way to undo what he did.

"Baron Blood" is an uneven film, both in its photography, pacing and acting. The camera work ranges from amazing to annoyingly bad--how can the same director/cinematographer who made the gorgeous "Diabolik" be the guy who is responsible for overuse of of crash-zooms and focus-pulls that we are subject to here?--the plot moves with a more jerking pace than a car with a failing transmission, and the acting ranges from passable in some scenes, to completely wooden in others, to so over-the-top scene-chewing in yet others that I am sure injuries must have occured from the flying splinters.

Full of stupid characters doing stupid things, being played by actors who aren't giving their best performances, "Baron Blood" is mostly a mediocre attempt at capturing the look and feel of the Hammer gothic horrors from the 1950s and 1960s--something Bava had previously done a better job at in previous films "Black Sunday" and "Kill, Baby... Kill!"--but which is does feature a few dazzling moments of horror and artistry that will make you understand why those who praise Mario Bava are so in love with his work.

There is fantastic sequence where Anna (Elke Sommer), the film's damsel in distress who eventually saves everyone in the end, in a nice little twist to the genre standards, narrowly escapes ambush by the cloaked Baron Blood and is then persued through the eerily deserted streets of the town. The sequence ends with a wimper instead of the bang it could have and should have ended with, but it almmost makes the movie worth wathing by itself. The filming here is as gorgeous as anything Bava ever recorded and the suspense of the chase will have you on the edge of your seat.

The end of the movie, even with the massive plot holes that get opened and let unresolved as we build toward it, is also spectacularly filmed and intense that the viewer will almost forget the mediocrity that went before it. The resolution to the story also has a couple of elements that I never would have imagined, but they are of the "Wow! Cool!" variety rather than of the eye-rolling, out-of-left-field-to-show-how-clever-the-writer-thinks-he-is variety.

"Baron Blood is worth checking out if you've got nothing else that looks interesting, and it would be a perfect headliner for a "Creepy Castle"-themed Bad Movie Night, but you shouldn't go too far out of your way of it under any circumstance.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Man on the run searches for 'The 39 Steps'

The 39 Steps (1935)
Starring: Roger Donat and Madeleine Carroll
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Richard Hannay (Donat) becomes drawn into a spy ring and is innocently accused of murder after a British counterspy is killed in his apartment. He is now on the run, and he must make it to an isolated part of Scotland so he can discover the secret of the 39 Steps, blow open the spy ring, and prove his innocence. There's just one drawback: He's handcuffed to Pamela (Carroll) who wants to see him captured by the police.

"The 39 Steps" is one of Hitchcock's earliest spy thrillers, and it is very, very good. It's got some expertly staged scenes where great tension arises either from the main character knowing he's about to be discovered any moment, if just the other people in the scene notice what he's seen, or from the viewer being in on secrets that none of the characters know. There are also some great moments of expectation reversals and unexpected plot-twists.

This is one of Hitchcock's best movies, and I highly recommend it to any lover of classic films. (I continue to be amazed at how many film buffs haven't actually seen this one!)

Japanese horror you can take or leave

Misa the Dark Angel (1997)
Starring: Hinako Saeki and Ayaka Nanami
Director: Katesuhito Ueno
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

"Misa the Dark Angel" is about a young witch who insiutates herself into a boarding school for girls when she and her crusty mentor decide a magical curse rests over the place. Misa, however, being a lonely teenager with no friends, become enamoured with the 'normal' life led by the students at the school and looses sight of why she is there. And that's when the terror begins.

There is nothing particularly bad about this film. The acting is solid, the camera work, lighting, and sets are all used to full effectiveness to underscore the horror and mystery of the events that unfold, and the cast members die in appropriately ironic ways. (That said, "Misa the Dark Angel" is *not* a teenage slasher flick, even if the above sentence might imply that; it's a far more low-key horror film, with patches of horrific gore. Actually, if there is something wrong with the film, it's that it's almost too low-key. The film is almost entirely event free in the second act.)

On the other hand, there's nothing that really stands out, either. It's a solid effort, nothing more. It's worth seeing if you enjoy Japanese horror flicks, but I don't think it would be worth going out of your way for.

Cinematic Black History Milestone:First Black Samurai

Fighting Mad (aka "Death Force") (1978)
Starring: James Inglehart, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Carmen Argenziano, and Jayne Kennedy
Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Doug (Inglehart) and two other American soldiers (Kennedy and Argenziano) are returning home from Vietnam with a cache of gold earned by working with the black market when his partners-in-crime betray him and throw him into the ocean for dead. Rescued and befriended by a pair of soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army who have been living secretly on an isolated South Sea island, Doug is taught the ways of Samurai. Eventually making his way back to the States, he reunites with his wife (Jayne Kennedy) and sets about taking revenge on the men who betrayed him, by first dismantling the criminal empire they've built and then taking their lives.

"Fighting Mad" has all the making of a REALLY bad movie. When Doug was rescued by a pair of Japanese soldiers who didn't know WW2 was over, I was certain I was in for a stupid movie as well as a bad one. However, as ludicrous as the notion of him just happening to wash up on a desert island with a pair of old Japanese soldiers (one of whom just happens to be an honest-to-gosh samurai), it all worked.

Full of 1970s-ism such as pimps in big hats, Italian gangsters loving restaurants, references to Black Muslims, vengeful martial artists, and corrupt, twisted Vietnam veterans, this film turns out to be a rather engaging revenge flick. The Japanese soldiers turn out to be more charming than laughable, and the training period that Doug goes through is one that starts to feel believable. The same is true of the rise to power of the Vietnam vets turned Los Angeles crimelords in an age when gangsters still had a veneer of businessmen about them. The movie overall is a rather engaging, old-fashioned crime/martial arts fantasy with the villains who are such nasty pieces of work that it's a delight to watch our hero--reformed by the tutalage of an honorable warrior and the love he has for his wife and child--take them apart.

If the editing of the film had been just a tiny bit less abrupt--it seemed like there were only two establishing shots in the whole movie--this could have easily have rated a Seven or perhaps even an Eight on the Tomato-scale. The script was well done, tne acting good, and the action well-staged.

"Fighting Mad" is a movie that anyone who enjoyed "Kill Bill" or movies like it. It's also a movie that carries with it a curiously modern message of racial harmony, something that wasn't exactly common in "drive-in" type movies like this one back then. The man villains are a white and a black man working together with hired muscle that's mostly Italian or Hispanic, while the hero is trained by Japanese on the desert island, teams with a Japanese cabbie Stateside, and is helped along in his quest for revenge by one of the few white cops not bought off by the villains.

(Oh.. if someone out there reading this knows Brian De Palma, point this movie out to him. It's got those corrupt, murderous United States soldiers he's so fond of telling the world about. Maybe "Fighting Mad" will become a favorite and he'll be inspired to make a movie that's entertaining.)

"Fighting Mad" is included in several different low-priced DVD multipacks. It can also occasionally be found under its original title "Death Force."

Sherlock Sunday: Matt Frewer vs. THE Woman

A Royal Scandal (2001)
Starring: Matt Frewer, Kenneth Welsh, Liliana Komorowska, R.H. Thomson and Robin Wilcock
Director: Rodney Gibbons
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Frewer) is retained to recover compromising photos of one of Europe's crown princes (Wilcock). The case is complicated by the fact that the photos are in the possession of Holmes' old love/adversary Irene Adler (Komorowska) and that the British government and Holmes' brother Mycroft (Thomson) want to get their hands on the photos as well.

"A Royal Scandal" is a so-so Holmes tale that merges "The Bruce-Pardington Papers" with a loose adaptation of "A Scandal in Bohemia." It's a made-for-TV movie that wastes no time in getting started and keeps the pace nice and brisk as it unfolds and makes sure that the viewer is never bored--assuming the viewer is in the mood for a Holmesian-style mystery. The way Holmes deals with betrayal and dishonesty by those he cares about (and whom he thought he could rely on) is an interesting aspect of the story. That, along with the Victorian espionage intrigues--echoes of last week's Sherlock Sunday entry, "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes"--is one of the more entertaining aspects of the film, but it isn't enough to make up for the weaknesses.

The film's problems lie primarily with the casting, and, to a lesser degree, with the scripting.

As fun as Matt Frewer usually is to watch in most roles he's played, he makes a weak Sherlock Holmes. He doesn't have the arrogant intensity of Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing's Holmes, he doesn't have the boyish exuberance of Ronald Howard'd Holmes, he doesn't have the emotional intensity of Robert Downey Jr or Christopher Plummer's interpretations, nor even the limpwristed feyness of the one presented by Robert Stephens. He doesn't bring any larger-than-life qualities to the character, something which seems to be a necessity for a successful screen-portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. A giant such as Holmes need to have something to seperate him from the masses of humanity, and Holmes as portrayed by Frewer has nothing.

The script is also something of an issue. Holmes is one step behind his adversaries for the entire story. Although many cinematic tales of Holmes deal with him being bested--especially when Irene Adler is involved--few have him so completely in the dark as he is during this tale. Even after the case has been resolved, it's clear that although Holmes figured out the puzzle and mostly identified all the players correctly, he at no time had the initiative and he was successfully manipulated from beginning to end. All in all, a disappointing adventure both for Holmes and for the viewers.

The rest of cast is as bland as Frewer. Kenneth Welsh's Watson has very little screen time, but what he has is forgettable. Not only does Watson have very little to do in the story, but Welsh is completely unremarkable in the role. Liliana Komorowska makes an attractive Irene Adler and brings enough sexy charisma to the role to make it believable that Holmes might fall in lust with her, but the part itself feels underwritten and empty--and her tendency to carry around an unloaded gun is a very silly habit for a character who deals with lethal criminals and spies on a daily basis.

"A Royal Scandal" is a forgettable entry in the Holmes. The Five I am giving it is about as low a Five as possible without making it a Four. I'm being generous with the film because it did keep me entertained, but only just, and because it's all-around technically competent. But it's a film you can safely skip.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

'Messiah of Evil' is classic in need of rediscovery

Messiah of Evil (aka "Dead People" and "The Second Coming") (1973)
Starring: Marianna Hill, Michael Greer, Joy Bang, and Elisa Cook, Jr.
Director: Willard Hyuck
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Arletta (Hill) arrives in the small coastal town where her father disappeared. She moves into his house while attempting to learn his fate, but finds the locals unwilling to talk to her. She soon meets up with Thom (Greer) who is a collector of modern legends and folk-tales, and of women... and after they learn of the town's gruesome history from a broken-down, crazed drunk (Cook), they discover the town's history is repeating itself: The townsfolk turning into flesh-eating zombies. Will this nightmare-curse claim the visitors as well?

"Messiah of Evil" is a different sort of horror film and a different sort of zombie movie. It's a nightmare-like tale of a small town that's consumed by a curse of a completely unknown (and therefore unstoppable) origin, and as the movie progresses, it becomes more and more dreamlike in its quality. (From the African-American albino and his pick-up truck full of corpses as Arletta is arriving in the doomed town of Point Dune, through Toni (Bang) going to see a movie theater where the marquee reads "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" and is subsequently surrounded by townie zombies that gradually fill the auditorium around her as she is absorbed by the film, to Thom and Aerletta's final desperate escape attempts, the film is full of hazy symbology and a sense of ever-increasing dread.)

The technical aspects of the film are iffy--the lighting and camerawork and editing all seem a bit on the weak side--but there are plenty of inventive visuals that work on many levels, the staging of the scenes, the sets, and, most importantly, the performances of every actor in the film are top-notch. It is the acting that really clinches the dreamy, nightmarish sense that hovers over the entire film. This is horror movie that needs the viewers attention to work, but it also rewards the viewer plenty who gives it.

"Messiah of Evil" is one of those films that for whatever reason has fallen into obscurity and which is one those wonderful surprises that lurk inside those massive DVD movie packs, like "Chilling Classics", which is where I discovered it. It's the sort of movie that makes such sets worth buying, and that makes up for some of the other offerings included. In fact, "Messiah of Evil" would be deserving of an 8-rating, if not for the fact that it takes the dreamlike quality that its creators managed to imbue it with just a little too far. I don't necessarily need a story to be wrapped up nicely at the end, but I don't want to have a sense that the filmmakers didn't really know themselves what the source of the evil in the movie was, or perhaps even how to effectively end their movie. At the end of this one, I felt that a little of both might well have been the case.

However, the not-quite-pulled-off end of this film isn't as damaging to the overall experience as it often is. Everything leading up to it is so well done that this film is one of several good reasons for spending money on, either in its ragged public domain state in any one of several multi-film budget packs, or in the recently released restored version (reportedly created using one of only two still-existing 35mm prints of the film.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Riding the 'Transsiberian' can be deadly

Transsiberian (2008)
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara and Ben Kingsley
Director: Brad Anderson
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An American couple (Harrelson and Mortimer) traveling from Shanghai to Moscow by train are befriended by a pair of shady fellow travelers (Mara and Noriega). They are soon trapped in a web of lies and deceit as the wife tries to cover up a murder and her guiless husband befriends a Russian police detective (Kingsley) with secrets of his own.

"Transsiberian" is a well-written, character-driven thriller that when it's at its best will remind you of Alfred Hitchcock greats like "Blackmail" and "The Lady Vanishes". It's a morally complex thriller that will keep you guessing as to what's coming next and that takes full advantage of both the cramped quarters of the Trans-Siberian Express, the forgotten, crumbling Russian towns it stops at, and of the icy expanse of Siberia in winter, a place that seems more confining than the train cars because, despite the vast empty spaces, there is nowhere to escape to.

Unfortunately, when it's at its worst, it will bore you or have you shaking your head at the nonsense you're expected to buy into.

Basically, the film is a little too slow in getting started. It's great that director/co-writer Brad Anderson takes some time to establish the people on the train and the atmosphere of Siberia, but he does it over and over and over to the point where it starts feeling like he's attempting to pad the film's running time. And, as it builds to its conclusion and every character's true nature is revealed, the film swerves into action movie territory of a like that would have been more at home in a Paramount-released "Bulldog Drummond"-type adventure (just to stay with my comparing of this movie to than the Hitchcockian drama that we have here). The ultimate defeat of the bad guys is also a little deus ex machina in nature, but it was set up earlier in the film so it could have been worse.

The material sandwiched between the slow beginning and over-the-top ending is, however, very good. The actors all do excellent jobs at bringing the characters to three-dimensional life, something which the script supports them in by giving each character their own voice and unique nature. Woody Harrelson is better in this film than I think I've ever seen him. Also, I've not seen sequences featuring a character who killed in self-defense and who is now trying to escape the crime since Hitchcock's "Blackmail", and a lot of that can be credited to Emily Mortimer's performance as Jessie.

If you're a fan of Hitchcock-type thrillers, you should check it out. Just be patient with the beginning.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Playtime has begun for 'Demonic Toys'

Demonic Toys (aka "Dangerous Toys") (1991)
Starring: Tracy Scoggins, Bentley Mitchum, Daniel Cerny, Michael Russo, Peter Schrum, Ellen Dunning, William Thorne, Robert Stoeckle, and Jeff Weston
Director: Peter Manoogian
Producer: Charles Band
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Police Detective Judith Gray (Scroggins) pursues gunmen who have just murdered her partner and father of her unborn child (Weston) into a warehouse full of toys. When a demon (Cerny, voiced by Stoeckle) that has lain dormant for decades under the building's foundation senses her, it decides her baby will be its physical form and it animates toys in warehouse to capture her and kill everyone else inside. Will Judith, together with a teen runaway (Dunning), a hapless fast-food delivery boy (Mitchum), a lazy security guard (Schrum), and a mad-dog killer (Russo) be able to fend off the demon and his cute-but-deadly minions, or will she become the unwilling mother of Hell on Earth?

"Demonic Toys" is another highly entertaining movie from Full Moon's Golden Age of the early 1990s. It offers a perfect blend of horror and comedy, and it's a far creepier movie than the demon-possessed toys that are its main selling point led me to believe.

In fact, while much of the film is definitely played tongue-in-cheek, the concept of a demon seizing a woman so it can possess her unborn child is one that creeps me out just thinking about it. The concept is made even creepier in execution here, as the demon generally presents himself as a little boy (played on screen by child actor Daniel Cerny, but voiced with great effectiveness by Robert Stoeckle). Seeing a child talk about spiritual rape and murder is very, very disturbing.

The whole "demon replacing the sould of an unborn child" plot of the film actually adds some (perhaps inadvertently) depth and controversy to the film. Judith is barely one month pregnant, yet the film makes it clear that her fetus is most definitely aready a baby, complete with a soul that is looking forward to being born and experiencing life on Earth. Fanatical pro-abortioners should stay away from this flick, but those right-wing pro-lifers in the audience should check it out (at least those of you who don't mind foul language used with great comedic effect).

The acting in the film is good all around, with the aforementioned Robert Stoeckle providing a great demon voice, and Bentley Mitchum coming across as a young version of Bruce Campbell's Ash from "Evil Dead 2" as he battles the killer toys. Leading lady Tracy Scroggins has a tendency to chew up the scenery, but in a movie featuring demon-possessed killer toys a touch of overacting isn't that big a deal.

Other noteworthy players in the film are the toys of the title. They are more funny than scary, but that's intentional on the part of the filmmakers. In fact, the knife-weilding, foul-mouthed Baby Oopsie-Daisy (and its uncredited voice actor) has some of the film's funniest moments and best lines. The puppetry and stop-motion animation used to bring the toys to life are very well-done, particularly in the case of Baby Oopsie-Daisy, the killer teddy bear, and the toy soldier who joins the fray late in the film. However, as funny as the toys are, they inflict some very gruesome deaths on some of the characters, and thus give rise to some displays of gore effects that are as impressive as the craftsmanship involved in animating the toys.

This is a fun romp of a movie. If you're looking for some comedy-tinged horror that might even inspire a thought or two as the mayhem unfolds, "Demonic Toys" might just be the film for you.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Like-kind

This image was borrowed from Click on the link to check out thousands of similar amusingly captioned photos.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Uzumaki: Making spirals objects of horror

Uzumaki, Vols 1-3 (English Edition Published by Viz, Inc.)
Story and Art: Junji Ito
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Horror comics are virtually impossible to do well. Most are either silly monster stories or are simply tales with twist endings ala "Tales from the Crypt" or the original "House of Mystery." Few are ever actually SCARY the way a well-made horror film or a well-crafted horror novel or short story is.

This three-volume graphic novel series is an exception to that general rule. In "Uzumaki," creator Junji Ito has taken what seems on the face of it to be goofy--a town cursed by evil spirals that are driving the population insane--and turned it into a vehicle for comic books that deliver genuine chills.

An example of the masterful execution of this book is when the narrator and her boyfriend are sitting in a doctor's office with the boyfriend's mother, who has become obsessed with removing all spirals from her body--fingerprints are spirals, so they must be removed; her hair curls, so it must be removed--and they spot an anatomy chart that shows a person's inner ear... and the spiral it contains. The reader actually shares the shock and horror of the characters as they try to make sure the insane woman doesn't see the chart and then proceed to attempt to tear out her inner ear. It's an exceptionally well-done bit of graphic storytelling.

I highly recommend this book if you're a fan of horror. Heck, I even recommend it if you're the kind of person who claims to hate Japanese comics. Ito's style shows only a few of the "stereotypical" manga elements and actually put me in mind of a number of Italian and English comic book artists who specialize in romance or sci-fi comics during the Seventies and Eighties.

'House of Wax' has little in common with classics that share the same title

House of Wax (2005)
Starring: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, and Paris Hilton
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A group of teenaged friends get lost and then stranded in an isolated stretch of back country. Seeking help in a nearby town, they come upon a wax museum far more remarkable than it even appears at first... and the fact the whole building that houses it is made of wax is pretty damn remarkable. Naturally, there's a crazed killer or two lurking among the exhibits.

"House of Wax" is scary in the way one of those Halloween haunted houses that spring up in neighborhoods, amusement parks, and empty warehouses this time of year is scary. It's also a film that requires a similar level of suspension of disbelief and willingness to play along. While it does contain some genuinely creepy moments, its very premise is so far fetched and ludicrous that even the most "game" viewer will find himself shaking his head at times. The acting is what you'd expect in a film like this, and the director and casting folks need to be congratulated for putting the best actors in in the movie in the leads.

For slasher-movie fans, there are a couple of nice kills--including that of Paris Hilton's character--but limited gore. For fans of absurd, there's the climactic encounters between siblings--our protagonists good girl Carly (Cuthbert) and her rebel-without-a-cause-but-with-a-criminal-record brother Nick (Murray) versus the crazed twin brothers who are masters of the House of Wax (both played by Holt)--in a most unusual environment, and they build to a thrilling finale to the film. For fans of horror movies in general, there are some good scares and a handful of wild set pieces that make the movie worth your time.

Henpecked Hitman must find spine or die

The Big Hit (1998)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips, and China Chow
Director: Che-Kirk Wong
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Melvin (Wahlberg) is a deadly, highly paid hitman who is so mild-mannered and timid in his personal life that his live-in girlfriend anc co-workers walk all over him, his other girlfriend is bleeding him dry of all his money, and manager of the local video rental store pushes him around. But when he is framed as the front man in the kidnapping of a Japanese industrialist's daughter (Chow), Melvin must stand up for himself or die.

"The Big Hit" is a fun action comedy featuring one of those characters who only exists in fiction: an assassin who's a really nice guy if you can overlook the whole murderer thing. While he may only killed really bad people (and a few who irritated), Melvin is a great guy who anyone would like to have a friend... and who would have been very happy in life if everyone around weren't more realistic characters in the sense that they are mostly exploitive, lazy, criminally minded scumbags.

Lou Diamond Phillips plays the lead scumbag and he does a fantastic job at it. He plays Chico who is the exact opposite of Whalberg's Melvin. Chico is a lazy braggart who takes advantage of Melvin at every opportunity and claims credit for Melvin's hard work in both setting up and executing the hits they perform. As much as we like Melvin, we're disgusted by Phillips and his obnoxious swaggering. As much as we want to see Melvin get relief from his situation, we want to see Chico get burned.

Storywise, this is a predictable movie that's full of stock characters and cartoony action and fight sequences. Melvin is the only character that has even the slightest bit of depth to him and even then he is something of a cliche. The movie delivers enough plot-twists and action sequences to be entertaining, but it is not a classic by an means.

"The Big Hit" is worth watching if you're a big fan of lighthearted crime dramas, but it is fairly mediocre with the exception of the performances given by stars Wahlberg and Phillips.

'Satan's School for Lust' fails to pass grade

Satan's School for Lust (2002)
Starring: Misty Mundae and Darian Caine
Director: Terry West
Rating: Zero of Ten Stars

A young teen (Mundae) is sent by her rich, always-traveling father, to a boarding prep school for girls. Here, she discovers that what the students are being prepped for is a life of demon worship and lesbian bondage games!

I was challenged to watch and review this film. It is a challenge that, I am sad to say, I lost. It was so bad that I couldn't even bear to watch it, but instead made liberal use of the fast-scan button on my remote. I've sat through some pretty bad films, but even I couldn't stand this one. The awfulness of the acting is only exceeding by the rancidness of the dialogue. And then there's the near-incoherent mess that passes for the plot.

"Satan's School for Lust" starts out like a Z-grade, super-low budget slasher flick, but it immediately veers into lame softcore demon-worshiping lesbian bondage porn territory. On level it's comes off as a spoof of any number of horror films from the 1970s, but I wonder if that was on purpose given the general lack of quality present here.

The ONLY interesting thing about the flick is a recurring nightmare that Misty Mundae's character has, an erotic nightmare involving a crucifix and a bucket of blood that indicates that she is the chosen concubine of the demon at the school (Caine). Everything else is too dull to stand. (And here is where I'll have to start doubting my sex-drive, because guys are supposed to love ANY and ALL lesbian action, right?)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sherlock Sunday: 'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes'is the most overrated Holmes film?

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Starring: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page and Christopher Lee
Director: Billy Wilder
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Holmes and Watson (Stephens and Blakely) endeavor to learn the identity of a woman suffering from amnesia (Page) after she is dropped off at their apartments at 221B Baker Street. They soon find themselves drawn into a mystery involving a missing Belgian engineer, Holmes' politically powerful brother Mycroft (Lee) and the Loch Ness Monster.

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" features an ill-implemented attempt at presenting a more vulnerable and human Holmes. During the film's first half hour, Holmes expresses discomfort at the way Watson's writings have turned him into a star and laments that he feels obligated to run around in a deer stalker hat and tweed cloak because that is how artists protrayed him in Strand magazine. Comments made by Watson in this early part of the film also seems to imply that he as exaggerated some of Holmes' exploits and characteristics.

However, as the film unfolds, this approach is dropped and it slips into a story-telling mold that was established with the Basil Rathbone-starring series from Universal Pictures during the 1940s, with Holmes abusing Watson at almost every turn yet still insisting that he's his friend. It's not the clever and unique approach that some reviewers paint it as.

Perhaps this is because they don't get past that first half hour. It was a description of that half hour from a friend whose taste I trust that made me move this film up in my review stack, because her description of Holmes starting a rumor that he and Watson were a committed gay couple sounded intriguing.

Sadly, like the idea of presenting a more human Holmes, the gay rumor angle ends up going nowhere in the picture as a whole. It's little more than an extended bit of sketch comedy within the picture, and as a story element perhaps one of the most aggregious examples of Holmes behaving like a jerk toward Watson for no reason whatsoever other than to let the viewer develope an intense dislike for Holmes and cause one to wonder why on earth Watson continues to consider him a friend.

This would have been a stronger film if that first half hour had been strongly edited, with the entire business involving a Russian ballerina and Holmes pretending that he and Watson were gay lovers had been dropped. It's material that has nothing to do with the rest of the story and it adds nothing positive to the overall portrayal of Holmes or Watson.

This would also have been a stronger film if a more suitable actor had been cast to play Holmes. I never thought I would see a more effeminate version of the character than the one portrayed by Christopher Plummer in "Murder by Degree", but Robert Stephens has proven me wrong. Plummer's Holmes comes across like more macho-than-macho when viewed in light of what Stephens did.

The rest of the cast, however, does a good job--and Stephens isn't bad once one gets used to the simpering, limp-wristeed interpretation of Holmes--although there does seem to be a tendency to overact. Both Page (and the mystery woman) and Blakely ham it up just a bit too much in some scenes. It's expected from Blakely, as his Watson is pure comic relief, but Page should have dialed back on the melodramatic stylings once or twice.

If you enjoy the general tone of the Basil Rathbone Holmes, I think you'll like this one, even if you'll often find yourself wondering how much better the film would have been if Holmes had been better cast. You'll like it even more if you enjoyed the humorous approach found in the Ronald Howard-starring television series. What you won't find, however, is the alleged genius of writer/director Billy Wilder. Overall, this is an average presentation of the Doyle's classic characters with some glimmers of what could have been a great film shining through here and there. If only Wilder had been a little more aggressive with his reinterperation instead of falling back onto familiar and safe territory that had been thoroughly explored during the 1940s and 1950s.

Trivia: Christopher Lee is, so far, the only actor to portray both Sherlock Holmes (in "The Deadly Necklace") and Mycroft Holmes (in "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes").

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What secret hides in 'The Red House'?

The Red House (aka "No Trespassing") (1947)
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Allene Roberts, Lon McCallister, Rory Calhoun, Judith Anderson, and Julie London
Director: Delmer Daves
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The summer teenaged Meg (Roberts) and her friends stand on the verge of adulthood, is the summer they decide to explore the woods on the lands owned by her adopted father (Robinson), over his virulent objections. Soon, secrets that have been buried deep in the forest since Meg was a baby are dragged back into the light, with tragic and deadly consequences.

"The Red House" is a well-paced, expertly acted thriller where country-folk are neither simple nor neighborly.

The cast are all perfect in their roles, with Edward G. Robinson (who transforms from an eccentric, crabby farmer into a menacing, murderous pervert, as his vener is gradually stripped away) and Allene Roberts (who changes from a shy, romantic girl into a young woman willing to risk everything to learn the secrets of her past) give particularly noteworthy performances.

The camera-work and the staging are also very impressive. The way the woods change between day and night are very impressively done, with the menace present when Meg's friend and object of her puppy-love (McCallister) tries to take a shortcut them during a storm, but completely absent during the light of day. The musical score is also extremely well-done and probably somewhat ahead of its time. (My biggest complaint about movies from the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s is that oftentimes the music soundtrack almost seems random in its emotional quality and often not even close to being in sync with what's happening on screen. That can't be said for the music here--it enhances and moves the story along with as much force as the actors and the dialogue they deliver.)

I have nothing but praise for this film, so I think it a sad fact that it is on the verge of becoming "lost." I've seen two different versions of it on DVD--one that so badly hacked up the final scene of the film is missing, and another where the sound is so bad that it was hard to make out what was being said because of static.

If there's a film that deserves to be restored and preserved it's "The Red House." However, since there's no solid commercial hook here, and the film can't be considered "historical", it'll probably never happen.

Despite the poor quality of the sound, "The Red House" is one of the many movies included in the "Dark Crimes 50 Movie Mega-pack" and the even bigger "100 Mysteries" set that made those sets worth the asking price.

Psychic madman stalks innocent family

In Dreams (1999)
Starring: Annette Bening, Aiden Quinn, Paul Guilfoyle, Stephen Rea, Katie Sagona and Robert Downey, Jr.
Director: Neil Jordan
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Claire (Bening) finds herself connected psychically to a madman (Downey) who starts targeting her family for reasons only he understands. Will she able to convince anyone that she isn't crazy before he kills everyone she loves, including Claire herself?

"In Dreams" is an interesting supernatural thriller where the film takes its time revealing whether the main character is psychic, telepathically linked with a serial killer, or just plain crazy. That aspect of the film is very well done. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is dragged down by over-acting and poorly developed story elements.

Take for example the psychiatrist that plays a key role in getting Claire committed to a mental hospital. It's one thing to for him to do so initially, but why does it take him and the orderlies a couple of days to notice the carvings on the wall of Claire's cell, carvings that she could not have made? Well... no reason other than some time needed to pass for plot reasons. And it really is too much of a coincidence that Claire just happened to be placed in the same cell that her "psychic twin" had inhabited a decade or so earlier.

Too much of the movie's story relies on such far-feteched coincidences to be fully effective. If just a little more care and effort had been put into the script and if Annette Bening had dailed back the histronics and melodrama just a tad, this could have been an excellent little chiller. It's still entertaining--Robert Downey, Jr. makes a great madman and his final fate is one that will cause most viewers to chuckle evilly to themselves--but there are too many moments where the attentive viewer will be annoyed by the sloppy story. (Actually, even the ending, which I am fond of, is a bit underdeveloped.)

This flawed film is worth checking out if you notice it showing on TV, but it's not worth going out of your way for. It has some great and creepy moments and it has a neat ending, but those aren't enough to save it.

Saturday Scream Queen: Milla Jovovich

Ukranian-born American actress Milla Jovovich has appeared in films of just about any genre except porn and westerns, but she is best known to movie-goers for her recurring role as Alice in the zombie-filled action movies in the "Resident Evil" series.

Jovovich is a busy actress. She presently has four movies in varying stages of production, inclucing "Resident Evil: Afterlife", and she starred in two films from Universal Pictures last year. Click here to read reviews of those films at the companion blog Universal Horror Archive. (The films weren't very good, but Jovovich was.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Badly plotted movie showcases more about incompetent writers than evil bankers

The International (2009)
Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Brian F. O'Byrne, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Allesandro Fabrizi
Director: Tom Tykwer
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

An Interpol agent on the verge of a breakdown (Owen) and a dedicated New York Asst. District Attorney (Watts) team up to investigate a powerful international bank that will stop at nothing to achieve its business goals.

"The International" is a sluggishly paced thriller with a script that could have done with at least one more revision and an end product that should have gone back to the editor.

The bankers featured in this film must be the same guys who were in charge at Washington Mutual or maybe Freddie Mac in recent years, because they're the sort of idiots who would keep issuing loans to people who would never pay them back. If they didn't seem so incompetent, maybe the conspiracies they are engaged in would seem less far fetched and pointless.

The main plot point around which the film revolves--the bank is going to collapse if they don't make a convoluted arms investment scheme work--would have been solved 20 minutes in, if, as a character says in the third act, "You should have come to me first." Of course, that would have meant this would have been a really short movie without any action scenes... but that would have been preferable to what we end up with here.

As it stands, the bankers here are nefarious for no reason other than to be nefarious, and they are so stupid that it boggles the engaged mind our heroes (or even some bumbling US Senator in search of headlines) can't nail them. Of course, the script is so badly written that many of the setbacks are heroes suffer are just as much due to bad luck as the eeeevil powers of the International.

Almost worse than the bad script is the way the film is padded. It's just a few seconds here and few seconds there, but after a while it becomes annoying and obvious. Time and again, we're given establishing shots to establishing shots. Because the film takes its sweet time getting just about every scene underway--presumably because the director thought this would help build suspense--we're given plenty of time to reflect on the story problems in what we are watching unfold.

Tip to future filmmakers: If you have a bad script for your thriller, speed things up rather than slow them down. The audience won't have time to catch all the stupidity, and, even if they do, they'll be grateful that the film was only 85 minutes long as opposed to 111 minutes.

"The International" is rather like the conspiracy theories it tries to bring to life as it unfolds--you know, the ones about the Gnomes of Zurich running the world through international banks--in that if you apply any thought to them, they collapse under their own illogic.

Don't waste your time and money on this film. It has decent performances from every featured actor and a very cool shoot-out at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but these aren't enough to make it worth two hours of your life. (The four rating I'm giving it is a low four.)