Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Son of Weird Movies

It's been quite a while since I did a post about the kind of movies that inspired this blog, so here's a choice selection of mind-melting celluloid...

1. Isle of the Damned (2008). Parody is tough, especially when it's feature-length, but director Mark Colegrove and writer Mark Leake do an admirable job spoofing the Italian cannibal vomitoriums of the 1980s in this extremely low-budget but inspired sendup.

Of course, it has the classic cannibal movie plot—an American detective travels to the remote jungle with his impressionable young son to search for the lost treasure of Marco Polo, and they encounter flesh-eating cannibals along the way.

The cast is game, and everyone speaks in wildly out-of-synch English-language dubbing. There are hilarious inserts of unrelated wildlife footage and recreations of all the atrocities the discriminating viewer demands in this genre: consumption of flesh (and other things), castration, a body impaled on a pike, twisted sex...

The filmmakers made a smart decision in pulling no punches. The revolting scenes are delightfully full-blooded, and their cheapness only adds to the sleazy fun. The creators and actors all hide behind hilarious Italian pseudonyms during the opening credits and the Eurotrash drop-needle music by Paul Joyce is spot-on. And it was even banned in 482 countries (there are actually only 196).

Of course, it's set up as a "found footage" movie like 1980's Cannibal Holocaust (whose full-body piking is reenacted here), and the obviously fake wigs and facial hair are a scream. Most importantly, it does a pretty dang good job of keeping the laughs coming for 85 minutes. A must-see for lovers of the genre.

2. The Manson Family (2003). I've been a fan of cinematic madman Jim VanBebber since my mind was blown by 1994's My Sweet Satan (click at your own risk). I'd been reading about his Manson movie for years, so I was stoked to see that Dark Sky Films had finally released it on DVD.

This is VanBebber's epic (taking 15 long years to complete), chronicling the years Charlie assembled his family and turned them on to murder. Packed with sex and blood, it's an extreme indictment of how Manson turned the "summer of love" into the "summer of shit." Cutting frenetically between contemporary interviews with the Family (in 1996) and scratchy, super 8mm-looking footage from the late 1960s, its techniques compare favorably to the films of Kenneth Anger. VanBebber himself plays Bobby Beausoleil in the film, literally baring everything for the camera.

It's gut-wrenching and polarizing, to be sure. Even Roger Ebert gave it his hesitant admiration. It's available in a DVD box set with other VanBebber films from Dark Sky Films and comes with a lot of great extras, including his short films and music videos.

3. Andy Warhol's Bad (1977). When I ran the film program in college, I booked a number of cult hits to attract the hip university crowd, including Argento's Suspiria, Ralph Bakshi's Wizards and this slice of strangeness from the Warhol factory. Much more polished than Paul Morrissey's earlier films, Bad was directed by former editor Jed Johnson and boasts a professional cast that includes Carroll Baker, Perry King, Susan Tyrrell and Suspiria's own Stefania Casini.

Baker plays Hazel Aiken, a woman with two home businesses—electrolysis and murder-for-hire. Beginning her career as a "Hollywood blond," she worked in big studio productions, but she moved to Europe in the mid-sixties and started making sordid potboilers for Italian directors.

was her first American film in years, and she's hilarious as a combination of June Cleaver and Al Capone. The way she orders everyone in her life around with a pronounced lack of enthusiasm is a scream. Tyrrell plays her frumpy daughter-in-law, Mary, perpetually lugging an incredibly ugly baby around. Tyrrell is really a very striking woman—I met her when she was doing her "My Rotten Life" stage show in L.A.—so it's hilarious to see her looking so awful.

Hazel's gang of assassins is an all-woman crew, but when L.T. (King) comes to her in search of work, she reluctantly takes him on, but he's hesitant to complete his first assignment—killing an autistic child.

Bad plays like a John Waters film but without Waters' sunny disposition. Most all of these characters are cynical and hardened by life. Tyrrell's Mary is probably the most innocent one in the bunch, but she's also a self-pitying simpleton. It's a very cynical portrait of urban life, but the dark humor still comes through thanks to some intentionally ridiculous deaths and jet-black dialogue, mostly delivered by Baker.

The scene the film is most famous for occurs when a young mother, trying to talk on the telephone while her baby screams in its crib, picks it up and hurls it out the window and it smashes on the street below, splashing passersby with blood. A mother hurrying by with her child says, "That's what I'm going to do to you if you don't shut up!"

Director Johnson was first hired to sweep the floors at Warhol's Factory, but soon moved in with the artist and became his lover. Bad was the only film he directed. He died in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.

4. Motorama (1991). It's a rare occurrence when a film is made with an intentional camp/cult aspect built in that actually works (John Waters excepted, of course), but Motorama succeeds. It's strange, hilarious and packed with guest appearances by a cavalcade of cult stars.

Gus (Jordan Christopher Michael) is a 10-year-old who is sick of his parents' abuse, so he steals his father's cherry-red Mustang and traverses the country playing a gas station card game called Motorama, trying to collect the pieces needed to spell out the name and win $500 million. On the way, he meets an assortment of strange people who for some reason treat him as if he's an adult and treat him accordingly. He's forcibly tattooed and one of his eyes is poked out, but nothing can stop him in his quest to collect all of the Motorama cards.

Michael plays Gus with a wise-beyond-his-years assurance, which might account for his treatment as an adult by those he meets, although he has to remind one of them, "I'm ten fucking years old!

This quirky film is virtually a Psychotronic encyclopedia of cult cameos—Susan Tyrrell, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, Meat Loaf, Mary (Eating Raoul) Woronov, Jack (Eraserhead) Nance, Garrett Morris, Corman fave Dick Miller...the list is pretty substantial. Drew Barrymore shows up as the "fantasy girl," and the now-female Alexis Arquette worked as a storyboard artist!

Screenwriter Joseph Minion is no stranger to strange—he wrote the Nicholas Cage starrer Vampire's Kiss and Martin Scorsese's urban nightmare After Hours. Motorama is lighter and brighter...a 90-minute cinematic joyride.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Movie Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

The film's title refers to a conversation that tragically never takes place in this psychological drama from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay. Based on Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel, it's the story of a new mother's unhappiness with—and growing fear of—her firstborn son.

Anyone who's read the publicity knows that Kevin is a sociopath who goes on a murderous rampage at his high school, but the film is less about the plot than addressing this question: is evil a result of nature or bad parenting?

Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, an adventurer and author who gives up her freewheeling lifestyle for her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) and reluctantly becomes a mother. The child, Kevin, spends the first few months of his life screaming constantly, driving Eva so crazy that she takes his stroller to a construction site so that the sound of the jackhammers will drown out his cries for a brief, blissful moment. Franklin dismisses Eva's complaints; when he takes Kevin in his arms, the boy is quiet. Eva's distress turns into hostility, and and at one point she tells him, "You make Mommy wish she was in France!"

Franklin wants Kevin to have a yard to play in, so he moves them from Manhattan to a huge house in the suburbs, further increasing Eva's feelings of isolation and resentment of her son. As he grows, it becomes clear that he detests her as much as she does him. He refuses to speak, play or even be potty-trained. She takes him to a pediatrician to find out if he's autistic, but the doctor doesn't find anything wrong with him. Her attempts to break through are met with steely-eyed silence and, when he gets older, hostile retorts, giving Eva feelings of guilt and anger in equal measure.

Kevin is a master manipulator, making the days hell for his mother but turning on the charm at night when Franklin returns home. He also obtains Eva's conspiratorial silence when, after she angrily throws him against the wall and breaks his arm, he tells his father that he did it himself. Thereafter, whenever she wants to expose Kevin's misdeeds, the boy merely rubs the scar on his arm and stares at her wordlessly.

The balance of power seems to tilt when Eva gives birth to a little girl they name Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), who is everything Kevin isn't—blond, playful and possessed of a naturally sunny disposition.

But it doesn't last. For Kevin, Celia is just another person in the household he can be cruel to. He demeans her and plays cruel pranks. When Celia loses her left eye in a household "accident," Franklin blames Eva for leaving out the bottle of drain cleaner that caused it.

Franklin is also inadvertently responsible for arming Kevin with his means of destruction—noting his son's talent for archery, he buys him a top-of-the-line bow and arrow set for Christmas.

The events leading up to Kevin's ultimate act of violence are laid out by Ramsay at first in a jumbled, dreamlike manner, the pieces gradually falling into place as the story reaches its climax.

There are some wonderful scenes: the film opens with images of writhing bodies, drenched in what looks like blood. At first it seems like a horrible massacre, but when we see an ecstatic Eva rolling in the red liquid, we realize that she's participating in a folk ritual (specifically Spain's La Tomatina tomato-throwing festival).

There's another brilliant, surreal sequence in which an unnerved Eva, driving home at night, is confronted by a variety of ghostly spectres lurching out of the darkness, and it finally dawns on her that it's Halloween. When she reaches her house, the trick-or-treaters surround it like the ghouls in The Last Man On Earth, pounding on the doors and throwing rotten vegetables through the windows. With literally nothing to give, she turns off the lights and slides to the floor, waiting for the onslaught to end.

While the film occasionally lurches a bit too far toward the melodramatic, Ramsay keeps it mostly under tight control, with Swinton's performance serving as the anchor.

Swinton is nothing short of amazing as Eva. She's actually playing two characters in this film: the shell-shocked mother and the post-massacre pariah who is reduced to taking a menial job and hiding from her neighbors.

All the boys playing the various ages of Kevin deliver remarkable, cold-eyed performances, with Ezra Miller as the teenaged version particularly chilling. When Eva asks him why he does such horrible things, he answers, "There's no point...that's the point."

Reilly is good as her well-meaning but ineffectual husband, but he's practically a send-up of the 1950s sitcom father: he goes to an unknown (but obviously well-paying) job during the day, expecting to come home to a happy and well-adjusted family at night.

Gerasimovich brings an affecting realism to her role. In an extraordinarily touching scene, when Eva is carefully applying medicine to Celia's destroyed eye socket, the pain of the ordeal is made evident with a shot of the child's tiny hand clutching a bedsheet, but when it's over, she says, "Thank you, Mommy."

It'll be interesting to see if Swinton is nominated for an Oscar for this one. She certainly deserves to be, but dark, grim films like this are not usually something the Academy rewards.

As for the source of Kevin's evil? It's difficult to point to anything in particular...and that's the point.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Retro Review: Horror Express

Last night I watched my super 8 print of Eugenio Martin's Horror Express, a Spanish-British co-production from 1972 that's so insanely outrageous it always makes for a fun view.

When I was a kid, Niles Film Products offered a full-length print of it for $295. I wanted it so bad, but it could just as well have been $20,000—I couldn't afford it. After years of awful public domain VHS and DVD copies, I finally won a print on eBay about three years ago. I think I paid $75...not too bad. And it looks a lot better than those crappy tapes.

When your movie co-stars the wonderful Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, you've got a major headstart in my book. Throw in a brain-sucking, red-eyed prehistoric alien, stick 'em all on a train barreling through the frozen tundra, add a great Euro score and you're doing even better.

Lee plays Professor Saxton, an anthropologist who unearths the fossilized remains of a primitive apeman he thinks could be the missing link in a Manchurian cave and boxes them up for a train trip to Moscow. At the station, he runs into his old adversary, Dr. Wells (Cushing), and they become reluctant travel companions. A thief attempts to break into the crate containing the fossil, and his lifeless body is found by a worker, eyes completely white.

Next thing you know, a crazy, Rasputin-y monk is praying over the body and blathering about something unholy in the crate. He attempts to draw a cross on it with a piece of chalk, but no image appears, proving its evilness. Saxton shrugs it off as a parlor trick and the crate is loaded into the train. When Wells asks Saxton what's inside the crate, he merely replies, "Fossils."

His curiosity piqued, Wells pays a baggage handler to sneak into the luggage compartment and take a look inside. He pries off a board and realizes he'll need a light to see inside. While he's gone, a moldy arm emerges from the crate and starts to pick the lock.

The workman returns just in time to try to prevent the creature's escape, but when he looks into its eyes, they glow red, and his own start to bleed and become all boiled-eggy.

His body is soon discovered, but the missing link is missing, and Saxton fesses up about his cargo. The railroad's detective, Inspector Mirov (Alberto De Mendoza), orders his men to search for the creature but warns them to keep quiet so as not to alarm the other passengers.

Of course, one of Mirov's officers is killed in short order, so he asks Wells to perform an autopsy. An examination of the brain reveals it to be "as smooth as a baby's behind," as Wells' assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart) says. His memory's been drained away by the creature. Soon there are more white-eyed victims, and even when the monster is killed, it can't be stopped—it simply jumps into another convenient body—just like The Thing!

Oh, yes. Kojak himself, Telly Savalas, shows up as the leader of a regiment of cossacks, only to be snuffed shortly thereafter. The creature makes its way into the body of the monk, who helpfully explains that he's an alien being who was left behind when his group went back to their home planet eons ago. He's also able to bring his victims back to life, effectively creating a zombie army.

Now, even before the monk becomes possessed by the creature, he worships it and volunteers to become its slave. What's the deal with religious fanaticism and insanity? Oh...I guess I answered my own question. And when the creature is body-hopping, Mirov confronts the two scientists, demanding to know which one of them is the monster, to which Wells deadpans, "Monster? We're British, you know."

It's well-known that Lee and Cushing were great pals, despite playing adversaries for decades onscreen. Their favorite thing to do when they worked together was dialogue from Warner Brothers cartoons. Can you picture the elegant Christopher Lee doing a Sylvester the Cat impersonation? You can tell the two of them had a great time making Horror Express. Cushing had recently lost his beloved wife to emphysema, and although he was reluctant to take the job at first, I'm sure he was happy to be working with his old friend again.

Since Horror Express fell into public domain fairly early, some write it off as being subpar junk. Nothing could be further from the truth. Martin handles the wacky material with flair, the special effects are quite good for the day, and it's anything but a cheapie. The settings are quite ample—maybe too much so in certain circumstances. For example, a couple on the train enjoys a sleeping car that comes with a huge parlor, complete with a piano for the wife to play! But it's all part of the fun. With tongue buried firmly in cheek, this film is an entertaining 90-minute thrill ride.

Now available on Blu-Ray from Severin Films, it features a new interview with Martin, something I'd certainly like to see. The pictures on this post are captures from the new disc and it looks impressive. But if you can't wait, you can watch it online right now.

Speaking of Cushing and Lee, I also have a new super 8mm print of the 1958 Dracula (Horror of Dracula in America), from the recently departed but forever lamented Derann Film Services, which closed its doors in September 2011. Not only is the quality and color of this print stunning, it's always a surprise to see what bright blue eyes Cushing had.

Just for old time's sake, now let's watch the killing of the baggage handler—in super 8!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Horror Movie Preview 2012

It looks like 2012 is going to be another boom year for horror movie remakes and sequels. 3D is going to be a big factor—and frankly more than a few of them seem like potential stinkers. But there are some intriguing projects coming out. Here's a brief overview.

Vincent D'Onofrio (Law and Order: Criminal Intent) stepped behind the camera for Don't Go in the Woods, a film about a rock band that heads into the sticks to write new music and, as IMDB says, finds itself "in the middle of a nightmare beyond comprehension." It's a cliched-sounding plot, but D'Onofrio is agreeably quirky and could possibly do a good spin on the retro story. He directed and co-wrote the screenplay for this horror musical backed by DeNiro's Tribeca Film.

The curiosity factor on this one is actually relatively high—there's just enough strangeness involved. Check out this NYT article for more proof. Made in 2010, it's finally getting a limited release this month.

Another release with an old-school title is Cabin in the Woods with Chris Hemsworth (before Thor) and Bradley Whitford. It's the old "kids stranded in a remote location where bad things happen to them" trope, and even though Joss Whedon is co-writer, it's been sitting around since 2009. And if the comments on IMDB can be believed, the ending is really stoopid, which may have something to do with its release lag—although the filmmakers insist that upconversion to 3D and distributor MGM's financial woes are to blame.

The third dimension is the order of the day for remakes of two authentic '70s classics: Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (now known as Leatherface 3D). Patrick Lussier is directing Halloween, which piques my curiosity a bit. He did the fun 3D remake of My Bloody Valentine in 2009 (and Todd Farmer, that film's scripter, is also on board), so he knows his way around the process. Rob Zombie is not involved this time. I'm tired of his grungy '70s vibe. It works with some films like The Devil's Rejects, but his sleazy "reimagining" of Halloween was just silly.

Texas Chain Saw is another matter. It has been sequelized and reinvented in every possible way. Hell, even the original director, Tobe Hooper, made a terrible sequel (Part II). Marcus Nispel's 2003 remake was actually pretty good, so unless these filmmakers have something interesting to say, 3D isn't going to be enough to bring in the punters.

The TV soap series Dark Shadows was a big deal back in the 60s and proved to be a sustainable cash cow for one of the earliest independent home video companies—MPI—that's still going strong today.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are collaborating on the new film adaptation, with a high-powered cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller and Chloe Grace Moretz, who played a vampire herself in Matt Reeves' 2010 Let Me In.

Burton's significant other, Helena Bonham Carter, plays Dr. Julia Hoffman, a role originated by the hilariously hammy Grayson Hall and reprised by Barbara Steele in the short-lived '90s series. Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas, will also be on board, as well as other original cast members David Selby and Kathryn Lee Scott.

I don't think Burton is going to take the straight horror approach with this one. He even said "It's a funny tone, and that's part of what the vibe of the show is, and there's something about it that we want to get." The photo above sure looks like it's going for Burton-style weirdness. And thankfully he insists that it won't be in 3D.

Ridley Scott is going back to outer space for Prometheus, his first sci-fi film since Blade Runner, and fans are anxious to see if he can outdo 1979's Alien. It has an impressive cast, including Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson and Michael Fassbender, but the trailer spells out the film's title exactly as Alien's was spelt out in its opening credits.

And one of the screenwriters is the co-creator of the Lost TV series, so I wonder if it's going to be an Alien wannabe or indigestible claptrap.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, a 3D comedy thriller directed by Norwegian Tommy Wirkola, his first since Dead Snow, a film with a great premise (Nazi zombies) that just didn't follow through. Here, the now-grown-up siblings have become full-on bounty hunters intent on eliminating all witches from the world. Again, great premise...but how good will it be?

Yet another 3D oddity is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based on the popular 2010 novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, whose earlier book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, started the mashup craze. It looks like this one will be of the dark-humored variety, especially with Tim Burton on board as co-producer. Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are in the cast, as well as comedian Benjamin Walker as Lincoln. Here, our beloved president vows to rid the world of vampires after his own mother is killed by one of the bloodsuckers. Oh...and slaveowners are the vampires' human assistants.

Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal helms The Possession, starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Losers) and Kyra Sedgwick. It's the story of an ornate box, purchased at a yard sale, that makes life hell for an unsuspecting family. Once known as Dibbuk Box, named for the malevolent spirit of Jewish folklore which inhabits it, the film now has a more family-friendly title. I liked Bornedal's Nightwatch very much (both the Danish and English-language versions), so I'm interested in this one.

Since the Saw series came to an end, it looks like the Paranormal Activity franchise has snatched up the Halloween releasing slot, and what a shame that is. I've said in these pages many times how ridiculously unscarily little-girl-screamily dumb these movies are, and I'm confident Part 4 will be more of the same. Many "found footage" movies can be good—I liked Quarantine and Cloverfield—but this series is just lame. And speaking of Saw, last year's mashup of both franchises, Insipid...whoops, I mean Insidious...was just ridiculous.

Speaking of franchises that have certainly passed their sell-by date, Scary Movie 5 is also being released in 2012, for those who care. I think Anna Faris is a terrific comedy actor, but she needs to move on. She probably got a nice check, though. I can't blame her.

Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio and James Ransone star in Sinister, another "found footage" film that sounds like it could go either way. Hawke's most recent genre entry was the enjoyable Daybreakers, but that doesn't necessarily mean this one will be good. Nevertheless, my curiosity is semi-piqued.

But we can't let the year go by without zombies. The high-profile entry is the Brad Pitt-starrer World War Z, which is set to be the biggest-budget living-dead movie of all time, but the more conservative Warm Bodies also sounds intriguing. Based on Isaac Marion's novel of the same name, it's the romantic (?) tale of a zombie who falls for the girlfriend of one of his victims. Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class) stars as said zombie, and John Malkovich and Rob Corddry are also along for the ride. Handled correctly, it could be bizarrely moving, like the ultra-low budget I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain, from 1999.

In summary: I'll be there for The Possession and Abraham Lincoln. I also like the idea of Warm Bodies and World War Z. D'Onofrio's film looks like it'll be easy to catch (either On Demand or in Los Angeles limited release), but who knows? And if everyone gets carried away about Prometheus, I may be persuaded. I'm definitely passing on Paranormal, Scary Movie and the two '70s 3D reboots. Well, maybe I'll check out Halloween.

And Dark Shadows? To quote Mr. Moviefone: "I'm in!"


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