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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Killer Kids

Horror and exploitation filmmakers have always found inspiration in taking something innocent (chidren, animals) and doing something twisted with it. From that nasty Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed (1956) to the freaky Orphan (2009), kids have been terrorizing adults and moviegoers alike for ages. Here's a look at a few of my favorites that haven't been discussed to death.

1. Who Can Kill a Child?

Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's 1976 shocker is surely one of the bleakest films ever made. It's about a young English couple, Tom and Evelyn, who arrive on a secluded island for a vacation, only to be confronted by a mob of murderous kids.

All the adults have been killed, so they have no one to turn to for help. And Evelyn, who is pregnant, succumbs when her unborn baby, under the influence of the other children on the island, attacks her from inside!

The story, written by Juan José Plans and Luis Peñafie, posits that all the violence perpetrated by adults on kids has resulted in these little demons taking murderous matters into their own hands. And, at the end, when the kids prepare to journey to mainland Spain, one girl asks, "Do you think the other children will start playing the way we do?", the boss kid smiles and says, "Oh, yes...there are lots of children in the world. Lots of them." Bwa ha haaaa....

The film opens with a horrifying montage of children maimed, killed or starving as a result of wars throughout history, accompanied by the death toll of each war and how many were young. The film pulls no punches with the violence. For example, one of their victims, an old man, is hung up inside a barn and used as a human piñata. And the filmmakers don't skimp on the irony — the island is actually quite beautiful, and most of the action takes place out in the bright sunlight. It's one of those movies that, once you've seen it, leaves its mark on you.

Seven years earlier, Serrador made another killer kid movie, La Residencia (The House that Screamed), with John Moulder-Brown as the sicko son of Lilli Palmer, the headmistress of a boarding school for troubled girls. Seems Mom won't let him get close to any of them because they're all "trash," so he starts knocking them off one by one and building his own perfect bride from their body parts!

2. It's Alive

When I saw this in the theater during its original 1974 release, I was amazed at how sick it was for its mild PG rating. Frank and Lenore (John Ryan and Sharon Farrell) are delighted to be having a second child years after the birth of their first. But when the baby arrives, it's literally a monster with claws and fangs and an uncontrollable urge to kill. Its first victims are the medical staff in the delivery room who try to kill it before going off on a rampage.

Prescription drugs are blamed for the mutation, and nervous pharmaceutical company executives want the kid destroyed before it can be confirmed and released to the general public. Man, the more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

This is one of maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen's best flicks, and he's made quite a few Village favorites. One unforgettable scene has the kid killing a milkman in the back of his delivery truck. As the guy's legs thrash about in agony, bottles of milk are knocked over and broken, and the bright white liquid, mixed with crimson red, pours out.

Since this is the '70s, you've got horrible furniture and clothing, but it adds to the fun, especially in contemporary viewings. Everyone looks sweaty, too.

Cohen made sequels — It Lives Again (1978), with Ryan having become a crusader for the rights of the mutant babies (!) and Island of the Alive (1987), with Michael Moriarty and Karen Black. The third one is pretty whack — Cohen loads it with social commentary and some comedy that's actually funny. Plus this one's rated R, so the gore ante is upped.

3. Baby Blood

This gritty 1990 French film directed and co-written by Alain Robak is about Yanka (Emmanuelle Escourrou), a pregnant circus performer with a miserable life whose womb is invaded by a parasite that transforms her infant into a bloodthirsty monster. It doesn't do the killing, though — it telepathically orders her to.

She sets off on a cross-country spree punctuated by bloody murders and jet-black humor. The baby chastises Yanka for smoking while pregnant, for example, and its big plans to crush humanity are so absurd that even she starts laughing. And there are throat slittings aplenty, a decapitation and an exploding leopard.

Though Yanka is horrified by what the baby is driving her to do, she also gets off taking revenge on men who stand in for the guys who've abused her all of her life, so it's got kind of an I Spit on Your Grave angle. And the monster is a talkative little bastard — the gray market version I saw years ago him growling orders (in French, of course) to Mom. Evidently the English-language version has Gary Oldman doing the voice of the baby! I'm going to have to check that one out.

4. Bad Ronald

Ah, for the glory days of made-for-television movies that were actually good. This 1974 suspenser stars Scott Jacoby (also in the landmark 1972 TV film That Certain Summer) as a geeky high school kid with an overprotective mother (Kim Hunter). When he accidentally kills the sister of the girl who'd just spurned his advances, he buries the body and runs for Mom. To protect him from the police, they create an elaborate passageway throughout the house where he can live in secret.

Thinking it will only be for a month or so, Mom tells neighbors that Ronald had run away. But something unexpected happens — she goes into the hospital for an emergency gallbladder operation and dies. The house is sold to a new family and Ronald, still hidden away, starts to go bonkers. He retreats into a fantasy world ruled by a happy prince and princess and even takes up painting, but the lack of human companionship begins to wear on him. As he prowls the house at night and peeps through holes he's drilled into various walls, the family is mystified by odd noises they hear and the disappearance of food.

Directed by TV vet Buzz Kulik, the film takes full advantage of the premise of being spied upon in your own house by someone you don't know is there. And, of course, there are the sounds. Along with such classics as Trilogy of Terror (1975), Duel (1972) and The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Bad Ronald is a happy childhood memory from a time when TV movies were events and not just time-fillers.

5. Damien: Omen II

Satan causes a bunch of performers to overact in this follow-up to the 1976 smash hit about the Reagans...er, I mean an American diplomat whose child is switched at birth with the Antichrist. After offing his parents in the first one, Damien goes to live with his well-to-do uncle (William Holden), aunt (Lee Grant) and cousin (Lucas Donat) and attends a snooty military academy. Fortunately there are lots of devil worshipppers around to help Damien come of age, including his commander, Neff (Lance Henriksen). At first horrified at learning what he is, he eventually settles into the role and even has some fun with it.

Take the hockey death scene. The general manager (Lew Ayres) of Thorn Industries, the family business, frustrates the ambitions of his devilish manager (Robert Foxworth) to move into agriculture. He falls through the ice of a frozen lake and everyone frantically races around trying to break through the ice to save him as the undercurrents carry him to and fro. It's a memorably agonizing sequence.

And when a doctor (Meschach Taylor) who analyzes Damien's blood realizes it has the same cell structure as a jackal, he's neatly sliced in half by an elevator cable while on the way to tell someone about it. A journalist (Elizabeth Shepherd) has her eyes pecked out by an annoying raven before being run down by a truck, and poor old Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), a leftover from the first film, drowns in a sea of sand.

Boy, there are some hammy performances in this movie. Holden stays relatively restrained, but Grant, an actress not known for her subtlety, roars through every scene she's in, especially during the climax. Shepherd is all bulging-eyed hysteria, and Donat's death is pretty over-the-top. That said, Jonathan Scott-Taylor is actually pretty good as the 13-year-old Damien, especially when confronting his inner demons. But how come he's so veddy veddy English? If he went to the States when still four or five years old, wouldn't he lose the accent?

I certainly don't consider the first film to be any kind of classic. It's actually pretty slow. Jerry Goldsmith's Academy Award-winning score is terrific, though. He returns for the sequel and reprises his original cues with tinges of jazz and rock, which is appropriate for a film that doesn't pretend to be anything but a rather campy shockfest.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Horror Films on the Horizon

We haven't done a horror movie preview here at WMV for a while, so here's a look at some 2014 releases that look like they could be good. Among the ridiculous sequels and remakes there may just be some pieces of gold among the dross. My picks:

Witching and Bitching

Terrible American title, but this is a horror comedy from Alex de la Iglesia, who impressed early in his career with Accion Mutante and The Day of the Beast, so this has good potential. Criminals on the lam hide out in a small town that seems like any other only to discover that it's full of witches. They've got a young kid with them and that's exactly what the brujas have been looking for to complete their sacrificial rite.

The Hollywood Reporter gave it a good review when it played at the San Sebastian Festival, calling it "a return to what [de la Iglesia] does best — pure mayhem." And it's got the great Carmen Maura, one of Pedro Almodovar's favorite leading ladies, as one of the enchantresses. That alone puts me in line for this one.

Godzilla

Warner Bros. is going to have its work cut out for it reassuring audiences about the quality of this reboot after Roland Emmerich's wretched 1998 version. It's certainly got the cast — Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Juliette Binoche, to name a few.

And the trailer looks really spectacular. It also seems like there's an environmental angle which would not only be true to the original but a nice thing to do in this day and age. They're only giving us glimpses of the monster in the promotional materials, but thankfully he appears to be the Godzilla we know and love and not the damn lizard in Emmerich's film.


Deliver Us from Evil

I'm always up for a demonic possession film, but I really don't know why. Aside from the classic The Exorcist and a couple others, they've all been stinkers. Every Exorcist sequel sucks (although Exorcist II wins points for being screamingly, hilariously bad), and even Academy Award-winners aren't exempt from bad possession films. Witness Anthony Hopkins in 2011's ridiculous The Rite.

But here we go again, In this film, Eric Bana plays a New York cop who discovers that mysterious killings plaguing the city are caused by ol' Scratch himself. It sounds intriguing, and I love New York-based films. It's based on the real life "chilling cases" of Ralph Sarchie. Huh?

 The Green Inferno

I don't know how I feel about this film. First off, it's co-written and directed by Eli Roth. On the other hand, he was one of the first purveyors of torture porn (for better or worse), so his take on the cannibal vomitorium genre will at least deliver the gore goods.

The plot hews true to the genre and it should. It's a remake of a 1988 Italian (of course) film variously called The Green Inferno and Cannibal Holocaust II. A bunch of college students go into the jungle to save a lost tribe's habitat, only to discover that the tribe wants them for dinner. And reviews assure us  that all the outrageousness that we demand in these films is present — spearings, rapes, flesh-eating, genital mutilation — all the things that make life worth living.

Dracula Untold

The Drac is back in a tale that sets out to tell the story of how Vlad Tepes became Dracula. It's got a pretty good cast, including Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Charlie Cox and Shane McGowan. But it's also got a debuting director, Gary Shore, at the helm. So it'll either be a clunker or a surprising breath of fresh air. Let's hope it's the latter.

One thing that troubles me is that it's being referred to as an action-adventure — rather than horror — film. Vampire action movies bore the hell out of me, with the exception of the first Blade. And it's been bouncing around the production slate for seven years with different actors and directors attached. And they're mixing and matching their myths — the witch Baba Yaga (Samantha Barks) also figures in the story somehow, making me wonder if it's going to be a bad monster rally like 2004's Van Helsing.

Life After Beth

Another shot in the dark with a solid cast. Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings) stars as Zach Orfman, who is devastated when his girlfriend dies. But when she comes back, he treats it as a second chance to say and do everything he wished he'd done before.

It's a horror comedy with Anna Kendrick, Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly and Paul Reiser — not exactly your direct-to-video lineup. The Hollywood Reporter liked it. But again it's a first-time director — Jeff Baena, whose other claim to fame is cowriting the godawful I Heart Huckabees. So I consider the jury still out on this one.
 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Nancy Allen: An Appreciation

Miss Collins: "Who?" Chris: "Billy Nolan!"
From the bad girl whose cruel prank prompted a teenage holocaust to the police officer who was a faithful partner to Robocop, Nancy Allen has played memorable characters in a number of films that have earned proper cult status here in Weird Movie Village.

And look at the list of directors she's worked with — De Palma, Spielberg, Zemeckis, Verhoeven, Ashby and Bartel. A formidable line-up to be sure, and some genre classics among the misfires.

Her earliest appearance was as Jack Nicholson's nervous date in The Last Detail (1973), but everyone remembers her first major role as the Wild Cherry Lip Smacker-flavored bitch Chris Hargensen in Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976).

Partnered with John Travolta as douchebag boyfriend Billy Nolan, Chris is the school's mean girl, but she gets her share of abuse, too, which exacerbates her cruelty. Allen's naturalistic acting style complements the character and makes her a recognizable human being. She's catty and mean, but able to turn on an intense sensuality to manipulate others. Nancy also had no problem with nudity, as demonstrated in the opening locker room sequence.

Kissing a Beatles guitar in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"
Next up was the Robert Zemeckis film I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), in which Nancy played one of a group of Jersey girls who go to New York to see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. As Pam Mitchell, she displayed a flair for comedy and an appealingly light touch.

Despite the power of Spielberg behind it, the film was a flop when originally released, but has since gained a following. The following year, she was in another bomb, this time directed by Spielberg himself — 1941.

Nancy married De Palma in 1979 and appeared in his 1980 comedy Home Movies, also starring Kirk Douglas, Keith Gordon and Vincent Gardenia. Made with De Palma's students at Sarah Lawrence College, it's an oddball comedy that's a throwback to his 1960s freewheeling films like Greetings (which starred a young Robert De Niro). It didn't find much of an audience, but I rather enjoy it.

A more fruitful collaboration — and re-teaming with Gordon — was 1980's Dressed to Kill, one of several films that prompted critics to compare De Palma to Hitchcock (and not always flatteringly). Nancy is Liz Blake, a high-priced call girl who witnesses the murder of socialite Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) and helps her teenaged son, Peter (Gordon), catch the killer.

Dressed to Kill is ultra-fetishistic, pretty goofy and loaded with allusions to penises, but some bravura sequences, great art direction and Pino Donaggio's hypnotic score make it all watchable. And Nancy is terrific, although her hooker with a heart of gold seems so damn wholesome and cheery, even when she's talking dirty or describing a sex change operation in graphic detail to the appalled Peter (See? Penis.). But that's what makes her character appealing.

With Travolta in "Blow Out."
De Palma again confounded expectations (and drew more Hitchcock comparisons) with the 1981 mystery Blow Out. Here, Travolta starred as a movie sound recordist who thinks an accident hat took the life of a politician may have actually been a murder.

Nancy plays the prostitute (again!) rescued by Travolta from the car. The film did not fare well, as audiences who were looking for more Carrie or The Fury-style mayhem were disappointed by this rather more intelligent thriller. Nevertheless, it has its adherents, and it was a bold effort by Travolta to ditch his musical comedy persona and be taken more seriously.

In 1983 Nancy co-starred with Paul Le Mat in Strange Invaders, a follow-up to director Michael Laughlin and writer Bill Condon's superlatively weird Strange Behavior (1981). Meant to be a spoof of the 1950s-style sci-fiers, it lacked the offbeat charm of the earlier film. With such a cast — Diana Scarwid, Louise Fletcher, Michael Lerner, Charles Lane, June Lockhart — it's a shame the film's not better. 1984 brought The Philadelphia Experiment, a time travel story in which Nancy co-starred with Michael Paré. This one's a cult fan favorite, and they're quick to point out her performance as the best in the film.

Sadly, her work for Paul Bartel in Not for Publication (1984) was not the finest hour for either of them. She plays a gossip column writer who gets caught up in a political corruption scandal. Bartel was attempting a His Girl Friday type of farce, but he forgot to include the comedy.

Nancy as Officer Lewis.
Finally, in 1987, Nancy took what I believe is the best role of her career — Officer Anne Lewis in Robocop. With her trademark blond curls shorn in favor of a more masculine-looking cut, Lewis is a tough little cop who risks everything to help Murphy.

Everything about this movie is firing on all cylinders. The over-the-top action, the great old-school special effects, the nonstop media assault of Fox-style news, ridiculous commercials and idiotic comedy shows...it's scary how many things in Robocop have come true! And Nancy's Lewis is a fully realized character, whether she's whomping on street thugs or giving a helping hand to her robotized partner.

I just watched my super 8 print of the film, which inspired me to write this post.

Unfortunately, she followed up that triumph with another bomb — Poltergeist III (1988), with Heather O'Rourke's Carol Anne going to live in a Chicago high-rise with her aunt (Nancy) and uncle (Tom Skerritt). Only O'Rourke and little Zelda Rubenstein remained of the original cast, and it was a pretty dull effort overall. O'Rourke's tragic death during post production is sadly the most remembered aspect of the film. That and the fact that characters call out each other's names so frequently that the few people who saw it in the theater see it jeered back at the screen.

1990's Robocop II, directed by Irvin Kershner (who helmed in my opinion the best Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back), was co-written by graphic novelist Frank Miller (Sin City). It's pulpier than the original but still fun — and certainly violent. Nancy and Peter Weller reprised their roles, but Robert Burke took over as Murphy in the third installment of the series, which I haven't seen.

Also in 1990, Nancy had the honor of appearing in the very first Lifetime original movie — Memories of Murder! Critically panned, it nevertheless proved popular enough for a home video release, which hilariously features a picture on the sleeve of a woman bent over provocatively to pick up a gun. And no Nancy! Ah, the good old days of VHS.

Paul Verhoeven, Nancy and Peter Weller at a benefit screening in 2013.
Today, Nancy is executive director of WeSPARK, a cancer support center founded by the late Wendie Jo Sperber, Nancy's friend and I Wanna Hold Your Hand co-star. Last year the organization hosted a Robocop benefit screening in Hollywood, which featured a Q&A with Nancy, Weller and Verhoeven. I'm kicking myself for having missed it! Hope to catch up with her at a collectors' show soon.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Candy-Colored Memories

When I was growing up in South Bend, Indiana, my young world revolved around candy. I constantly thought about candy, dreamed about candy and watched never-ending commercials promoting candy. Candy made every holiday brighter. Well, except the Fourth of July — but then we got fireworks!

We lived in one of those new suburban neighborhoods that were springing up outside of cities all over America. Behind our house were acres and acres of untouched fields and woods, and if you followed a path into the woods, past our hillbilly neighbors who lived in a chicken coop (I'm not kidding), you'd follow it to Coddens Dairy Store, or "the Little Store," as my sisters and I would call it.

The Little Store was on Portage Avenue, across the road from a huge house that served as the district's "old folks'" home, and it was the sort of quick-stop, grab-it-and-go neighborhood places that have long since been supplanted by 7-11s, AM-PMs and gas stations.

At Codden's you could buy milk, bread, snacks and "sundries," whatever the hell those were. But the most important section for me was right up front — a gleaming, huge glass case displaying all manner of delicious candy. Ralphie at his Christmas window had nothing on me as I admired the selection while rubbing the quarter and dime between my thumb and forefinger.

With prices ranging from a penny to the princely sum of fifty cents, there was enough sticky, addictive sweet stuff to keep local dentists busy filling cavities created by eating candy or replacing the fillings that had been yanked out...by eating candy.

It's funny — sometimes people want to re-experience something from their childhood to see if they can recapture those particular memories. I know that's one reason that I'm so obsessed with super 8mm films, but I sure as hell don't want any of the candy that I used to inhale as a kid. It was disgusting. Here, to the best of my memory, are some of the most memorable products I enjoyed when my palate was less refined...

CANDY BUTTONS

Even when I was small, I loathed these. It took so much work to bite these things off of the strip of paper they came on, and when you did succeed, you usually got half candy and half paper. Plus, the candy was just colored sugar anyhow. Not worth the effort.

CANDY NECKLACES

Same as the candy buttons, the necklaces were too much trouble. When you bit the rings of candy off of the elastic necklace while wearing it around your neck, it would snap back, causing bits of sugar to adhere to your skin.

And again, there wasn't much flavor there — just colored sugar. Even if you wanted to just wear the necklace like some sort of psychedelic Puka, your body heat and perspiration would cause the beads to stick to your neck, which wasn't a pleasant sensation at all.

LIK-M-AID

Talk about a trip to the dentist in one convenient pouch. Lik-m-aid was a bag of flavored, sweetened citric acid that came with a candy stick that you would moisten with your saliva, dip into the pouch, and then stick into your mouth again. I can't believe I'm writing this.

Anyhow, the citric acid would abrade the roof of your mouth and the back of your tongue, and the sugar overdose would have your mother sending you to your room without supper for being such a jacked up, obnoxious little asshole.

BUBS DADDY GUM

These huge sticks of bubble gum were commonly available not only at the Little Store but at other kids' hangouts like public pools and Little League ballparks. So infused were they with sugar that their structure wasn't strong enough to blow a bubble, but a giant pile spat out onto the sun-sizzling sidewalk would gunk up your tennies and wouldn't wear off until it was time to go back to school in September.

And the heat of the sun would cause some sort of mutant chemical change. If you had the misfortune of stepping on a pile of watermelon Bubs Daddy, for example, that's what your shoe would smell like for months and months.

CANDY CIGARETTES

These little beauties came in a nifty pack that prepared you for your early teen years when you'd actually start smoking the real things. Hell — they even had red tips so it looked like they were actually alight.

I certainly didn't buy any candy cigarettes myself. They probably came in Halloween bags or were given to me by my parents' thoughtful friends. But — if it can be possible — they were even more awful than candy buttons. They looked and tasted just like lightly sweetened pieces of chalk. I think I even tried to draw on the blackboard at school with one.

NECCO WAFERS

Still available today (as most of these items actually are!), these multi-colored discs are perfect for playing Communion, which we did as kids, but certainly not for eating. Chalky, flavorless and dusted with flour so they wouldn't stick together in the pack, they were just blecchh and I'm sure they still are.

SWEET-TARTS AND SPREE CANDY

More citric acid in tablet form, these products are both still available from the Wonka candy company, but I'm glad I was able to find a picture of the Spree packaging I remember as a kid to prove it really happened.

When they first arrived at the Little Store, Sprees caused quite a sensation. Instead of racially-insensitive cartoons, the packaging featured actual photographs of young adults engaging in active outdoor lifestyles. I even remember thinking "Am I old enough to buy this?," since I was certainly not a young adult and had never skied or surfed...or even seen an ocean.

But a Spree is just a Sweet-Tart in a candy shell — my God! Just an insult of sugar. And both candies were equally adept at peeling the skin off of the roof of your mouth.

FROZEN TUBE POPS

Whatever you know them as — Fla-Vor-Ice, Kool Pops, et al, they're all the same thing. Plastic tubes of sugared, colored water whose ends you'd chew off so you could push the block of ice into your waiting mouth. Again, these seemed to be popular at pools and ballparks, and they were excellent at slicing the sides of your mouth open because the edges of the plastic packaging were so damn sharp.

That made it easy to spot a Kool Pop junkie in your midst, though — they had erratic speech, telltale blue (or red, or orange) lips and tongues and scabs on the corners of their mouth. "I just need another Pop, man! Just one more!"

LUDEN'S CHERRY COUGH DROPS

It may sound strange to today's youth, but when I was in school, candy and gum of any kind were strictly forbidden. But at the school store, where they sold pencils and paper and other supplies, they carried Luden's cherry cough drops, which were actually damn good emergency candy.

There was no medicine whatsoever in these beauties — just delicious cherry flavor. And since you bought them at school, you could enjoy them right out in class! A dream come true for any sixth grader.

But you had to watch out for the ones in the orange packaging — those were the disgusting mentholated cough drops — the kind your Mom forced you to suck on when you were actually sick.

What are your favorite or awful childhood candy memories? Comment here!


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