Archive for the DVD Review Category

The Distracted Critic visits MADISON COUNTY (2011)

Posted in 2013, DVD Review, Horror, Indie Horror, Paul McMahon Columns, Psycho killer, Serial Killer flicks, Slasher Movies, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , on February 15, 2013 by knifefighter

MADISON COUNTY (2011)
Review by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

Madison-County

Oh, how I miss video stores. I miss popping in with an evening to kill and browsing the shelves of cover art, trying to determine from an artist’s rendering whether a film would be worth a rental or not. When the “box art” for MADISON COUNTY(2011) appeared on my Netflix Instant Watch menu, I immediately knew it was something I would’ve snagged off the VHS shelf back in the day.

The movie was written and directed by 22-year old Eric England, who starts out the film with a bold choice for an opening—a bloodied, scantily clad blonde in the bed of a blue pickup truck, her face distorted with terror. It reminds you instantly of the ending of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), giving you the subconscious impression that all the terror of that classic film has come before this. The driver of the truck brakes, and immediately the blonde climbs out and tries to escape. She calls for help to someone off-camera while the driver comes up behind her, knocks her out with a shovel, and throws her in the cab of the truck. As he drives off, the camera pans to a run-down house a few feet off the road, where a grinning old man sits on his rocker, enjoying the show as all this goes down.

Now we meet James and Will, excited about embarking on a trip once they pick up “the girls.” They’re off to Madison County to interview the author of a book about Damien Ewells, a serial killer who murdered 33 people. James has been corresponding with the author and is planning his school thesis on the case. Will is going along to take pictures. Presumably, “the girls” are going so “the boys” don’t get lonely. They arrive at Brooke’s house, and since Will is her boyfriend, he knocks. Brooke’s brother Kyle answers the door, glaring. He’s a coiled spring who we realize is ready to rip Will limb from limb. Brooke and Jenna finally come out of the house, and while they greet James and Will, Kyle climbs into James’s truck. Apparently, he’s decided he’s going with.

“Are you freakin’ kidding?” Will asks Brooke. “He hates me!”

Once within Madison County, they stop at a diner with gas pumps out front. The diner is jammed with creepy-looking townsfolk who stare at the newcomers. It’s a real TWILIGHT ZONE moment, as we realize that James’s car was the only one outside, so how did all these people get here? James manages to get directions to author David Randall’s place. After ignoring the POSTED: KEEP OUT sign and climbing over a gate at the end of the drive, they find the author’s home deserted. Confused, they try to decide what to do next. Kyle drives back to the diner, alone, to get further advice. James and Jenna stay at the house to wait while Will and Brooke set off down the path to check out the barn on the property.

With our heroes thus split up, it’s time to introduce Big Pig Head, so he can start shedding blood.

In this corner... weighing 190 pounds... Big Pig Head!

In this corner… weighing 190 pounds… Big Pig Head!

The actors do exactly as well as expected for a movie like this, with no one really standing out above the rest. They’re all relative newcomers, though Ace Marrero, who plays Kyle, has a role in England’s movie ROADSIDE (2012) while Matt Mercer, who plays Will, is appearing in England’s upcoming CONTRACTED (2013). Colley Bailey, who plays James, appeared in last year’s DONNER PASS. The girls, Joanna Sotomura as Brooke and Natalie Scheetz as Jenna are making their first feature film appearance.

Eric England’s direction is pretty advanced for a young person making his first feature film. He’s creative and chooses interesting shots, at one point framing the car in a bright red dust mote, sort of like a bull’s eye. At another point, Kyle is glaring at Will and a flash of light looks like a knife in Kyle’s hand. Possibly most interesting of all is how, except for one brief scene, he films the entire movie in broad daylight. Artistically, Eric might be a director to keep an eye on, especially with the two more films already on the way, ROADSIDE and CONTRACTED. As far as his writing, though, MADISON COUNTY ends up losing points.

Director Eric England is a newcomer to watch. Writer Eric England... he can only get better from here.

Director Eric England is a newcomer to watch. Writer Eric England… he can only get better from here.

There are at least three moments in the film where minor characters assure James, and therefore us, that “he’ll understand before it’s all over.” This is a point that’s made and re-made throughout the first three quarters of the movie, usually after a weird swerve in the plot that leaves us scratching our heads. When it’s all said and done, though, there are no answers to be found. There is no final revelation that makes the movie come together in a flash of understanding. The credits roll abruptly and leave us wondering what in the hell was going on, which really drained my enjoyment of the film.

It’s not that I don’t like movies that leave us with unanswered questions. I recently reviewed LOVELY MOLLY, which left more than a few. In that film, though, Eduardo Sanchez never promised that we would understand everything. In MADISON COUNTY, England goes out of his way to foreshadow that answers will be coming, but then he ignores these promises and leaves us feeling cheated. I’m going to chalk it up to a rookie mistake and hunt down ROADSIDE as soon as I can, to see if this was a fluke. In the end, though, I find it difficult to recommend MADISON COUNTY overall.

I give MADISON COUNTY one and a half stars, with no timeouts.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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ALTERED (2006)

Posted in 2012, Aliens, DVD Review, Outer Space, Paranormal, Paul McMahon Columns, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , on May 2, 2012 by knifefighter

ALTERED (2006)
DVD Review by Paul McMahon– The Distracted Critic

It’s the same old story. Boy and his friends are abducted by aliens, Boy and his friends are returned with one of them dead, Boy and friends are ridiculed, suspected and shunned by society, Boy’s friends turn up on his doorstep in the middle of the night with an alien bound in small grade galvanized chain and duct tape, looking to exact some hillbilly revenge.

The concept catches your attention because there’s a lot there that—if done well—could make the film stand out and be mentioned in conversations that include films like ALIEN (1979) and JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (1982). At the same time, there’s just as much there that—if done poorly—could make the film stand out and be mentioned in conversations that include rubber-suited camp-fests like ROBOT MONSTER (1953) and IT CONQUORED THE WORLD (1956).  Since the original concept for the film was a horror-comedy called “Probed,” you’d expect it to fall into the latter category.

Duke, Cody and Otis are the friends who infiltrate the woods as the film opens, heavily armed with rifles, pistols and a spear gun. They crash through the underbrush and “whisper” to each other louder than leaf blowers. It’s enough to make you smell the beer on their breath and the sweat in their clothes.  These clowns couldn’t succeed in bagging a sloth, even if it were deaf and half dead already. And yet….

They chain it, bag it and bring it to their friend Wyatt’s garage, where they duct tape it to a table. We find out that the aliens kept Wyatt and Cody’s brother Timmy five days longer than the rest of them, and when they were finally returned, Timmy was dead. Wyatt prevents them from killing the alien they’ve captured, though, saying that if they do, “…the rest of them are gonna come and put us down.” There is some intense dialogue as Wyatt tries to make them bring it back to the forest, tries to convince them to leave his home, tries to keep them quiet so they won’t wake his girlfriend, Hope, and tries to persuade Cody (who’s hell-bent on avenging his brother) that killing the creature would mean the end of the human race.

Wyatt (in the blue tee shirt) contemplates the gift alien Otis, Cody and Duke have wrapped up and brought him.

ALTERED was directed by Eduardo Sanchez of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) fame. He has constructed a clever and intense story with some memorable horror scenes. The screenplay was written by Jamie Nash, who, with Sanchez, wrote the upcoming ghost movie, LOVELY MOLLY. That ALTERED isn’t more well-known is disappointing, but understandable. Its release date (2006) coincided with a time when seemingly everyone was bashing BLAIR WITCH for one thing or another. But with ALTERED, gone is the shaky cam, gone is the faux documentary style, gone is the ad-libbed dialogue that takes forever to make its point. ALTERED is straight up and unflinching and showcases a director who knows how to construct a memorable and compelling film.

The cast isn’t very well known, except for James Gammon (THE NEW DAUGHTER, 2009) in a small role as the town sheriff. Paul McCarthy-Boyington (Cody), Brad William Henke (Duke) and Adam Kaufman (Wyatt), are character actors you’ve seen guest-starring on shows like CSI:MIAMI, WITHOUT A TRACE, DEXTER and LOST, among others. Otis is played by Michael C. Williams, who looks nothing like he did in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. He’s almost unrecognizable in this role and his crappy goatee couldn’t account for all that. He does an impressive job inhabiting this character.

The mechanics of the film are top-notch. The alien looks menacing, kind of a hybrid of ALIEN and PREDATOR, and it’s quite a stretch of time before we get a really good look at it, adding to the suspense. There’s also very little music. Most of the scenes play to silence or sound effects of scraping metal that fit the action well enough that I didn’t notice the sound couldn’t have come from what was happening on the screen. I only realized the music was there when I went back specifically to look for it.

A few things come up in almost every film that shake your suspension of belief. In ALTERED, there’s a character who steps in a bear trap, gets freed, and then walks on it with barely a limp for the rest of the film. I’ve seen this in CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL (1993) and SILVER BULLET (1985), that I can remember, and I’m sure one or two more times that I can’t. One of these days Adam Savage of (the TV show) MYTHBUSTERS will have to step in a bear trap and see if this is “Plausible.”

There’s a disappointing plot development later on that utilizes some Spielberg-inspired “alien magic.” It’s hinted at enough that the event doesn’t come out of left field, but it still feels out of place against the pent-up intensity of the rest of the film. In fact, it wasn’t until then that my first itch to walk away hit me. Which is not to say they screwed up the ending. Far from it.

ALTERED is a solid little alien movie, one for that deserves to be more well-known than it is. Though it might not be good enough to be listed alongside ALIEN, it’s a hell of a lot closer to that than ROBOT MONSTER.

I give it three stars, with two time-outs.

© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon

HOSTEL PART III (2011)

Posted in 2012, Bad Situations, Disturbing Cinema, DVD Review, Gore!, LL Soares Reviews, Murder!, Sequels, Torture with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2012 by knifefighter

HOSTEL PART III
DVD Review by L.L. Soares

As a big fan of the first two HOSTEL movies (2005 and 2007) that Eli Roth directed, I was more than a little leery about watching the third film in the series, which Roth had no participation in. But I had to at least check it out.

This time around, the action doesn’t happen overseas, but rather in Vegas. Four guys are on a road trip to celebrate the bachelor party of Scott (Brian Hallisay), who is about to marry his sweetheart Amy (Kelly Thiebaud). The friends include obnoxious Mike (Skyler Stone), disabled buddy Justin (John Hensley, who most people will remember from the FX series NIP/TUCK and movies like 2007’s TEETH), and Carter (Kip Perdue), who used to have a thing for Amy, but now is determined to give his best bud a good time before the wedding.

Once in Vegas, they meet up with two sexy girls, Kendra and Nikki (Sarah Habel and Zulay Henao respectively), who are escorts there to show them a good time. Or are they? They seem a little suspicious from the get-go, but then again this is a movie that’s not above inserting a few red herrings.

Everyone is having a good time until Mike disappears with Nikki, after a slightly unsettling party in a spooky warehouse far from the Strip, and the other guys can’t reach him. Things can only go downhill from there, as everyone is eventually drawn into the web of the Elite Hunting Club.

HOSTEL PART III differs from the previous movies in that 1) it’s set in America and there’s not an actual hostel to be seen, except for one shot when the guys are walking down a street and a neon sign advertises one building as a “Hostel” (but are there really even any hostels in Vegas?) and 2) once the torture and killing begins, we learn that every single act of violence is being watched by a roomful of spectators who bet on the outcomes. Will it take three arrows to kill a guy, or seven? Stuff like that. At least in the previous movies, you could get a little privacy when you dismembered someone and didn’t have to put on a show for an audience every time!

There are also the bad guys, Travis (Chris Coy) who likes to dress up like a typical college kid to fool people, and his boss Flemming, an Eastern European gangster type who you’ll immediately recognize as Captain Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann) from the new ABC series THE RIVER. That is, if you watch THE RIVER.

There are a few good scenes, especially the one involving the lady wearing a weird mask and shooting those arrows I mentioned before from a crossbow (she even has the room filled with smoke for added creepy affect), but nothing that comes close to the Eli Roth movies, which seemed to revel in their violence a lot more. Here, it’s more business as usual.

One of the few interesting visuals in HOSTEL PART III is a woman wearing a strange mask and wielding a crossbow. Otherwise, it’s pretty much business as usual.

Say what you want about Roth, but the guy has an artist’s touch when it comes to torture scenes, and I still say the first two movies (especially PART II) were more (very) dark comedies than horror movies. There’s no such ambition here. PART III is ably directed by Scott Spiegel, who, you may remember, was one of the kids who grew up making Super 8 movies with a young Sam Raimi back in the day, and has directed such movies as INTRUDER (1989) and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2: TEXAS BLOOD MONEY (1999).He’s also acted in a bunch of movies like SKINNED ALIVE (1990),and lots of Sam Raimi movies, from EVIL DEAD 2 (1987) to DRAG ME TO HELL (2009).

Here, Speigel makes a very standard variation on the Roth films, that doesn’t try very hard to be fresh or different. The Vegas setting really doesn’t add much (the more brutal scenes still take place in a deserted warehouse), and the murder set pieces are okay, but nothing to write home about (no Elizabeth Bathory wannabes like in PART II, or cameos by great foreign horror directors like Takashi Miike or Ruggero Deodato).  And no kids playing soccer with a human head this time, either!

It’s just a so-so ride, and the ending is sort of fun, but pretty implausible. Not that logic plays much of a role in movies like this.

Is HOSTEL PART III horrible? No, it’s just nothing special. Worth a rental, maybe. But if you haven’t seen the first two movies yet, maybe you should rent those instead. I still say Eli Roth has a killer sense of humor that is underappreciated.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

Cinema Knife Fight: THE WICKER TREE (2010)

Posted in 2012, 70s Horror, Cinema Knife Fights, Cult Movies, Dark Comedies, DVD Review, Indie Horror, Jenny Orosel Columns, LL Soares Reviews, Pagans, Plot Twists, Sequels, Twist Endings, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , on March 14, 2012 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE WICKER TREE (2010)
DVD Review by L.L. Soares and Jenny Orosel

(THE SCENE: A castle in rural Scotland. L.L. SOARES and JENNY OROSEL stand in front of group of locals. LS is wearing jeans, a jean jacket and a cowboy hat and JO is wearing a colorful May Queen’s dress)

LS: Howdy folks. So I guess we’re here to review the movie, THE WICKER TREE (2010).

JO: (smiles)  Aye, we are.

LS: Well, let’s not keep these people waiting much longer. Why don’t you tell these fine folks a little about the movie.

JO: There was a chunk of time in the 60s and 70s where British horror was like the perfect date—it didn’t take itself seriously and only wanted to show you a good time, with a little bit of naughtiness thrown in here and there.  The Hammer studios were masters of this genre, with Amicus tagging closely behind, and this era brought us the wickedly fun THE WICKER MAN (1973), a tale of Paganism on a remote Scottish island.  Now, almost forty years later, director Robin Hardy returns to that lovely heathen isle with THE WICKER TREE (2010), with all the affection for pure entertainment he carried in his heart during the original.

LS: There has been talk of a sequel for years now. Seeing THE WICKER TREE, I was just glad that this movie finally got made. Robin Hardy based it on his novel “Cowboys for Christ” (which was the original name of this movie). Hardy directed the original film, too, which was “inspired” by the novel “Ritual by David Pinner, and Anthony Shaffer wrote the screenplay for WICKER MAN.

JO: THE WICKER TREE opens with dancing shirtless men that look straight out of a party at the Burning Man festival.

LS: How apt!

JO: Then we cut to a small Texas church, and the caricatures begin.  Folding chairs are filled with jean-clad, cowboy-hat-wearing folks about to send off two missionaries, country singer Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her boyfriend Steve (Henry Garrett), to Scotland where “they don’t even believe in angels!”  Or chastity, as is later brought up.  So we start with two people totally unaware that, in fact, Scotland is a predominately Christian nation.  Their enthusiasm and ignorance might not serve them well for the rest of the movie, but it will serve the plot well.

LS: Caricatures is right. They’re pretty goofy characters. And there weren’t many instances when they seemed like real people to me. Although Beth does kind of redeem herself by the end.

JO: When they first arrive in Scotland, Beth performs for sold-out houses.

LS: Yeah, Beth is a singer back in the States whose career is just starting to take off. I thought it was odd that someone who is just on the cusp of becoming a star would suddenly leave the country to perform missionary work. Then we find out that this isn’t her first time in the spotlight.

JO: Yes, a local reporter uncovers her previous career as a secular country-western singer whose biggest hit was “Trailer Trash Slut.” (subtlety is not this movie’s strongest point).  She and Steve retreat to a small village off the coast, lured by the notion that, although not Christians themselves, the villagers will be open to the messages of Jesus and chastity.

LS: The “Trailer Trash Slut” video is actually pretty funny. But another big reason why Beth and Steve head to the country is that, when they going knocking on doors in the more “citified” parts of Scotland, all they get is doors slammed in their faces. The couple who actually hosted their visit, Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), suggest they might have more luck in the country, and bring them out to an island where the Morrisons pretty much own everything.

JO: I can’t imagine the experience of watching THE WICKER TREE without having any knowledge of THE WICKER MAN.  Part of the suspense for the next forty-five minutes is knowing what happened in the first movie, and knowing what the villagers like to do to Christian outsiders.   During this time we get to know the villagers, we find out that due to a nuclear accident, the men of the island are sterile and we see Steve fail at his chastity vows the moment he’s faced with a beautiful woman named Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks – what a name!) bathing in the nude in the local pond (after first noticing her horse.  Having lived in Dallas for the past four years, I can say that is the most realistically Texas part of the movie).

LS: So much for Steve’s purity ring!

(A MAN in the crowd before them stands up)

MAN: And when will we be eating the haggis!

LS: What are you talking about?

MAN: The haggis, man! I’ve got me a mighty hunger, don’t ye?

LS: I don’t think I’ll be eating any haggis. That stuff sounds gross.

MAN: How dare ye insult the official food of Scotland! Off with his head I say!

(The rest of the crowd bursts with noise and the people argue)

JO: Sit down, sit down. We’re not done with our review yet. Don’t you want to see where this goes?

MAN: I suppose so. (he sits back down and the crowd grows quiet again)

JO: The first part of THE WICKER TREE was rather unexciting, but the actors made it interesting to watch, and knowing what happens in the WICKER world, the tension built.  Plus, Christopher Lee made a cameo and he’s like bacon—everything is better with Christopher Lee.

LS: I didn’t find the first part of the movie that unexciting. I thought it was pretty watchable, actually. And yes, if you didn’t see the original WICKER MAN, then you won’t fully appreciate this one. You don’t have to see the first one to understand THE WICKER TREE – it is completely self-contained – but if you saw the first movie, there’s a different level of suspense throughout, as you anticipate what is going to happen to these two naïve Americans.

As for Christopher Lee, it’s nice to see him here, especially since he played the pivotal role of Lord Summerisle in the original movie. But it’s definitely a case of “blink and you’ll miss him.” Lee is only in one short scene, (the credits call his role simply “Old Man”) and it’s a flashback, so don’t turn this one on expecting to see Lee in a major role here. I know he’s pretty old and not as active as he once was, but I was still disappointed he didn’t play a bigger part in THE WICKER TREE.

JO: During the last half hour, it suddenly turns into a horror movie.  Our missionaries meet with their inevitable fates.  Steve’s was especially shocking, both in what they do to him and the style in which they filmed it.  For that brief sequence the movie hovered somewhere between 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and HOSTEL (2005).  It definitely jarred me out of the movie for a little while.  I’m still not sure if that was a good thing or not.

LS: Oh, I thought it was definitely a good thing. The movie is pretty much all leading up to that part, and you want it to have some impact – and it does. By the way, the way the pagans get the Christian missionaries to take part in their annual festivities is to make Beth their May Queen, for the feast of May Day, the rite of spring. She gets to wear a fancy gown and everything. And Steve gets the symbolic role as her “Laddie.” What exactly he has to do as the Laddie is explained as the movie goes on, culminating in the jarring scene Jenny mentioned.

JO: Once we return to Beth’s plight, the movie goes back into fun mode.  In fact, the end shot looked straight out of some of the best Hammer moments.

LS: Yeah, the last half hour or so of this movie is the best part of it. But the very end seemed a bit rushed – we’re treated to several short scenes and are left to make our own deductions. I know it was the case where the viewer has to fill in the blanks themselves, but it would have been nice to get a little more information. Of course, I can’t explain that further, since I don’t want to give anything away.

JO: THE WICKER TREE is not without its faults.  As I mentioned earlier, it is far from subtle.  The characters tend to be over-the-top stereotypes, from Steve’s ever-present cowboy hat to the gratuitous kilt usage.  The gags are broad and blatant.  Other than the level of horror in Steve’s demise, there are no surprises.  But rather than try to hide its flaws (think TROLL 2 (1990)), director Hardy revels in them.  It fully embraces the campiness it was destined to have.  As long as you realize going into it that THE WICKER TREE is more humor than horror, you can have as much fun watching this little flick as they seemed to have while making it.

LS: Here is where I kind of disagree with you. I don’t think THE WICKER TREE needed to embrace a campiness at all. The original WICKER MAN played it completely straight and serious and the ending was all the more powerful for that. This time around, Hardy makes THE WICKER TREE so silly in spots that the movie does come off as a comedy for most of its running time. Making fun of the dumb missionaries who think they’re there to do God’s work. But I thought this was the completely wrong tone for a sequel. There was no reason why THE WICKER TREE couldn’t be as serious as its predecessor, without the broad stereotypes and the inside jokes and the winks to the audience. The only scenes I really liked were when the movie stopped playing around and got down and dirty. It’s almost like Hardy was trying to make a parody of his original movie at times, and I just don’t understand why.

(Another man jumps up. This one is holding out his arm upon which sits a raven)

LS: Oh no, it’s that annoying guy Beame from the movie! He’s always carrying around that raven and he’s always talking in rhymes.

BEAME: Ye’re right that Beame be’s my name, and that I stand here so. But bored of your review I very am, and I suggest you go!

LS: Get bent! We’re finishing this.

JO: Yeah! Give us a chance, won’t you.

BEAME: I shall hold my tongue for a minute more. But then I’ll be compelled to show you the door.

LS: Sit down, you village idiot!

(BEAME sits down)

LS: Where was I?

Oh yes. THE WICKER MAN is a genuine classic, and that’s mainly because of its power to surprise you. There really aren’t any surprises in THE WICKER TREE. You know something bad is going to happen to these two bumpkins, and it’s just a matter of how. If Hardy wanted to be truly subversive, he would have given us a twist we didn’t see coming, and completely surprise us in a totally new way. I mean, he’s had 40 years to come up with something fresh!

JO: That makes sense, but I can also see where Hardy was coming from.  The big reveal was such an integral part of the original, and he probably figured audiences wouldn’t fall for it a second time, and tried for something completely different.  I’ve seen a lot of people angry at the tone of this one because they were expecting THE WICKER MAN again.  Perhaps if he’d stuck with the COWBOYS FOR CHRIST title, it would have gone off better.

COWBOYS FOR CHRIST was the original title of THE WICKER TREE.

LS: Maybe you’re right. But I think THE WICKER TREE was a missed opportunity. Robin Hardy had a chance to make a movie every bit as memorable as THE WICKER MAN, and instead he gave us something that was more of a light comedy in comparison. I was disappointed.

(FIRST MAN jumps up again)

MAN: What are ye wearing pants for! Here in bonny ol’ Scotland, men wear kilts! Get a kilt on ye, I say!

LS: We’re in the middle of a review here. Stop interrupting, please. Besides, I’m not interested in wearing one of those funny skirts.

MAN: A funny skirt? Ye call a kilt a “funny skirt?” HOW DARE you insult the official garb of the Scotsmen! Off with his head, I say!

(Rest of the audience begins arguing again)

JO: Please, please, let us finish. There is no reason to be rude.

MAN: Okay, I’ll let it go now, for your sake, lassie. But there is only so much a Scotsman can tolerate!

(MAN sits back down)

LS: Ahem.

I guess we should also mention that THE WICKER TREE is not really a sequel at all. It’s kind of a “reimagining,” since it involves completely different characters and a completely different outcome. It simply takes the basic premise of an unsuspecting “innocent” finding themselves among a group of pagans with a hidden agenda, and does a variation on that theme. And THE WICKER TREE is in no way even close to being the movie THE WICKER MAN was.

If anything, I found another recent British movie, KILL LIST, to be more in the spirit of the original WICKER MAN, in the way it sets up a story to shock us with a completely unexpected ending. And it plays it completely for chills. KILL LIST is a totally different movie, but it sets out to jar us in a way similar to the way THE WICKER MAN did, and THE WICKER TREE doesn’t even come close to doing that.

JO: Well, I really enjoyed THE WICKER TREE for what it was. I give it three bloody knives.

LS: I didn’t hate it, and it was a fun flick, but it wasn’t the movie I was hoping for when I heard they were making a sequel to THE WICKER MAN. I wish they’d gone the serious route. I wanted a good meal, and they gave me a snack. I give it two bloody knives.

(The crowd gathered before them claps. LS and JO bow.)

(MAN jumps up again)

MAN: Are ye finished, finally?

LS: Yeah, yeah, we’re finished.

MAN: Well, goodie for ye. Ye go around spouting on about bloody knives. Well then, we’ll very well give ‘em to ye!

(Everyone in the crowd is now holding either a knife or a hatchet. They proceed to chase LS and JO around the castle in fast motion, as the “Benny Hill” theme plays)

-THE END-

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares and Jenny Orosel

L.L. Soares gives THE WICKER TREE ~ two bloody knives!

Jenny Orosel gives THE WICKER TREE ~three bloody knives.

A “Suburban Grindhouse Memories” Classic: GANJA AND HESS (1973)

Posted in 1970s Movies, 2012, 70s Horror, Art Movies, Blaxploitation, Classic Columns, Cult Movies, DVD Review, Experimental Films, Indie Horror, Nick Cato Reviews, Suburban Grindhouse Memories with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2012 by knifefighter

(Editor’s Note: Because of circumstances beyond his control, Nick Cato wasn’t able to get me his latest SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES column this week. So I figured, instead of having a hole in our calendar, I’d just reprint one of his best old columns from 2010. Keep in mind, with the next installment, Nick will have written 47 columns of SGM for us here at Cinemaknifefight.com. This one was Number 4. A true classic that deserves a bigger audience. Mr. Cato will be back with a brand new column next time.)

******

SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES No. 4:  Bill Gunn: a True Filmmaking Genius.
By Nick Cato

In the early 1970s, “blaxploitation” cinema was all the rage on the grindhouse circuit (be it urban OR suburban).  When director Bill Gunn was approached to make a film in the vein of BLACULA, he took the money and did something far more serious.  Instead of trying to make an exploitative quickie, Gunn went for the gusto and delivered an artistic deep-thinker that (to this day) has many who see it believing it’s a vampire film.  It isn’t.  In fact, Gunn went all-out as he wrote, directed, and stars in this surreal, nightmare of a film that requires at least three to four viewings before even half of what it has to say will hit you.

Since I was only five years old when GANJA & HESS was originally released, it was a treat to (finally) see this for the first time at a revival theater last month (April, 2010).  This was the first time that I knew–halfway through a screening–that I’d have to see what I was watching again (and as soon as possible) just to keep my train of thought (this turned out to be one of the most challenging films I’ve reviewed yet).  So I purchased a DVD the next day and watched it three more times.

The film follows Dr. Hess Green (played by legendary NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD star, Duane Jones), his new assistant George (Bill Gunn), and his assistant’s wife, Ganja (the lovely Marlene Clark).  Despite what some reviewers have said (I’m assuming they saw one of the several, heavily-edited/re-titled versions), Hess DOES NOT become addicted to blood AFTER being stabbed by his assistant; the very beginning of the film scrolls these titles (over some magnificently eerie music): “Doctor Hess Green … Doctor of Anthropology, Doctor of Geology … While studying the ancient Black civilization of Myrthia … was stabbed by a stranger three times … one for God the Father, one for the Son … and one for the Holy Ghost … stabbed with a dagger, diseased from that ancient culture whereupon he became addicted and could not die … nor could he be killed.”  So, for the record, Hess is already addicted to blood when his suicidal assistant George moves in; Hess is a wealthy anthropologist living in a tremendous mansion (African American stereotypes don’t exist in this film, instantly banishing a “blaxploitation’ label from it).  He even manages to stop George’s first attempt at suicide; George (apparently aggravated at this) eventually attacks Hess with the ceremonial dagger Hess had brought back from Africa.  Hess survives, but George ends up shooting himself in Hess’ bathroom.  When Hess discovers George’s body, we see him fall to his knees and lap his blood (the main scene I’m assuming has caused many to label this a vampire film).

George’s wife Ganja shows up at the Hess mansion to wait for her husband (Hess has him stored in a freezer in the basement).  And this is where GANJA & HESS truly becomes strange.  After discovering her husband in the freezer and assuming Hess killed him, she ends up believing Hess’ testimony of George’s suicide and she helps Hess to bury him.

Ganja & Hess fall in love, get married, and Hess eventually makes her a part of the “Myrthia” tribe, bringing its ‘blood curse’ upon her (one edited version, released in the 80s on VHS as BLOOD COUPLE, gave the film a standard (and false) vampire-film packaging).  Things get even stranger when Hess brings a man home for Ganja to feed on (she ends up having an affair with him first) and Hess begins to doubt his Christian roots when he finally begins to feel guilt after feeding from a young mother–guilt that nearly leads him to a nervous breakdown.

One of several misleading re-titles for Ganja & Hess: BLOOD COUPLE

It should be pointed out here that while everything I’ve just described is happening, the incredibly spooky score by Sam Waymon, along with some dazzling cinematography (I swear Dario Argento was inspired by much of this) helps to give GANJA & HESS a constant aura of surreal darkness that won’t leave your mind anytime soon.  One commentary track I listened to on the “GANJA & HESS: THE COMPLETE EDITION” DVD (Image Entertainment) mentioned that the opening sequence is told from 12 points of view (after re-watching it, I’m betting this is why so many are turned off to the film early on—it’s truly unlike anything you’ve seen before).  And this is just one thing that makes GANJA & HESS such a unique–and challenging–film.

GANJA & HESS is a film about religious identification and one man’s realization that he has strayed from the faith of his upbringing.  After making peace with God at a church service, he attempts to bring Ganja with him.  The film’s final moments feature Hess’ death and Ganja contemplating her own life: to me it’s apparent she likes what Hess has turned her into by smiling when she visualizes the dead man Hess had brought home for her running naked out of their pool.  And being a sequel-less film, we’re left to consider and debate if this is so.

Again, this is NOT a vampire film.  It’s an intense, unusual study of a millionaire who, despite having all there is to have in this world, is haunted by what lies beyond this life.  And yet despite this underlying theme (as well as a church service scene that goes on for WAY too long), I don’t think it was Gunn’s intention to make an evangelical film (and if it was, I’d like to know what church–in 1973– approved of extended shots of full-frontal male and female nudity, pagan blood drinking, and an artistic-look at suicide).

Watch GANJA & HESS.  Then watch it again, even if you don’t like it the first time.  Despite a few slow stretches, the film has plenty to offer to those who take the time to contemplate and dig out its treasures.

I can’t remember the last time a film has caused so much conversation between my friends and me.  GANJA & HESS, despite its all-black cast, is NOT a blaxploitation film.  It is a genuine hybrid of horror and art house filmmaking that stands alone.  It can not (and will not) ever be duplicated.

This is a true gem from Bill Gunn, and a gem I’ll surely be revisiting again and again.

© Copyright 2010 by Nick Cato

(Editor’s Note # 2 – This movie had a LOT of alternate titles during its (several) runs on the grindhouse circuit. They include: BLACK EVIL, BLACK VAMPIRE, BLOOD COUPLE, DOUBLE POSSESSION, VAMPIRES OF HARLEM and BLACKOUT: THE MOMENT OF TERROR. Confusing enough for you?)

Criterion After Dark: GODZILLA (1954)

Posted in 1950s Movies, 2012, Classic Films, Criterion After Dark, DVD Review, Garrett Cook Articles, Godzilla, Japanese Cinema with tags , , , , on February 14, 2012 by knifefighter

CRITERION AFTER DARK: GODZILLA (AKA GOJIRA) (1954)
Review by Garrett Cook

Art snobs and Ebert acolytes were recently given what, for them, must have been a nasty shock. The company from which they bought their treasured Goddard Blu-rays had betrayed them. The chilled, sacred quiet of Bergman country had been broken by the sound of thundering pop culture stomping over their fantasy world of cinema segregation. Begging Jim Jarmusch to intervene with his newly constructed superbanality ray, they watched as their notions of cinematic purity came crumbling to the ground like so many Tokyo office buildings. Riding on the back of my childhood messiah, Godzilla, I laughed and laughed and laughed. And I know that a fair share of Criterion fans, horror buffs and geeks laughed with me.

The induction of Ishiro Honda’s  GODZILLA (1954) into the Criterion Collection seems like a strange decision. Some might think it was to pander to the mainstream or to get genre fans to start buying Criterion DVDs. Others may see it as a decision similar to Criterion’s choice to induct Michael Bay’s ARMAGEDDON (1998), as a chance to show them the rampant absurdity and kitschiness of a silly, silly genre. And what sillier genre is there than the Japanese giant monster movie? This is a film genre that brought us a towering Frankenstein monster tossing rocks at a triceratops/puppy hybrid, sasquatches wrestling in the sea with a running commentary by Nick Adams, and a fire-breathing turtle fighting a talking shark submarine. Putting one of these films on the same shelf as  8 ½ (1963) or PIERROT LE FOU (1965) is going to make some cinephiles cringe. Particularly those who instinctually check Roger Ebert’s website to find out if movies are any good. Ebert has led me to some fine films, and, during his Amazon Associate Days, my favorite brand of oatmeal, but those who read his 1 and a half star tirade against the film will be incredulous about its Criterion status and its merits.

GODZILLA is my idea of an art film. Crisp black and white, strong message, transgressive politics, mutable reality and moments of deep visual poetry. When a lot of us think of Godzilla, we think Technicolor stomping and giant spider wrestling. We think flying through the air on a cloud of radioactive fire toward a sentient Lovecraftian slag heap from space. But this is not where Godzilla came from. Godzilla, (or as I prefer to call it, GOJIRA, its proper Japanese title) is a film about impossible choices, forbidden love, social responsibility and questions of divine forgiveness.

The film begins on a shining sea, bathed in shadows. The sailors on a fishing boat gather around and listen to a melancholy tune played on harmonica. There is a flash of light and the boat is aflame. And lives are over. And nobody knows why. The opening goes beyond being an expressionistic portrayal of a fishing boat destroyed by bomb tests (one of the catalysts for the film), but a suitable metaphor for any number of the victims of war. Even soldiers find their lives snuffed out in short order—lightning-quick explosions of mines or IEDs ending their existence in the blink of an eye. The terms are clear; this is not a movie about a man in a rubber suit. Though when you finally get a look at Godzilla, you can see how it could be.

Godzilla himself looks nothing like most viewers will remember him. The creature is truly menacing in black and white, facial features vague, texture and topography cancerous, a creature of spikes and bumps and deformities. It is not dinosaurian, draconic or friendly or cute; it’s an abomination, a demon whose motives cannot be fathomed and whose primitive mind will not accept reason or compassion. The more I look at this creature, the more amazed I am that it became the kid-friendly critter I grew up with. The transition is something like Karloff’s creature’s evolution into Herman Munster. He looks as much like an irradiated dinosaur pissed off at being awakened by atomic tests as he could. It seems unlikely that this creature could be stopped by anyone, especially the film’s reluctant and traumatized heroes.

The film’s protagonists all have relatable real world problems. Doctor Yamane, the paleontologist (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, who was sensational in 1952’s IKIRU) has to choose between knowledge and helping to keep his country safe. His greatest discovery is something unfathomably terrible and a threat to mankind itself and he goes through a great deal of anguish. His daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) is in love with sailor Ogata (Akira Takarada), but engaged to brooding one-eyed scientist Doctor Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who has drifted away from her, consumed with guilt over the military applications of his invention. Even with the apocalyptic threat outside, the love triangle manages to hurt, the ethical conundrums of the scientists seem meaningful.

Hirata’s performance as Dr. Serizawa has always been one of the most appealing aspects of this movie for me. A sad, Byronic, but loveable character—a Victor Laszlo with the finer points of Rick Blaine—Serizawa  has the weapon that can destroy the monster but hates himself too much to use it and hates what the world could do with a weapon like this. His concern is a valid one. If the atomic bomb could wake up and mutate a monster like Godzilla, then what could his more powerful weapon do? He’s terrific. It’s the kind of acting one would think wasn’t necessary in a giant monster movie, but the kind of acting that really makes it work.

GOJIRA stands out for showing the human costs of this devastation. Not just in the anguish of Serizawa, but in the damage caused by the monster. You see mothers clinging to their children, telling them it’s all right because “they’ll be with daddy now,” you see victims in a hospital, mutated, burning and dying. You see the land scorched and the city ruined. In most giant monster movies, you watch the creature stomp around awhile until somebody comes up with a clever idea and kills it. GOJIRA isn’t like that. The creature ruins a city until a ruined man can find the courage to fight it. It’s great horror and it hurts like hell.

You want to see the movie in the cleanest, best format possible. You want to get the full effect of Akira Ifukube’s iconic music with great sound. You want it to look as good on your shelf as a movie of this caliber can look. Sony’s previous release of GOJIRA and its American counterpart, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (the bastardized version we first saw in the U.S., with added scenes featuring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin~ your intrepid editor), had good commentaries, slick packaging and good special features. If you have it or you would like a cheaper alternative to Criterion’s version, you may not feel inclined to purchase The Criterion Edition. But, Criterion provides great features, a no doubt beautiful transfer and cover art by Bill Sienkewicz.  This is very much on my list for the next 50% off sale. If you don’t have this movie and you want to see it the best way you can, get The Criterion Edition. The DVD version is only $23.98 at the Criterion Store and the Blu-ray not much more. This is geek culture history, a film that crosses the line between sci fi and art film, really getting the treatment it deserves. Criterion has done a great thing.

© Copyright 2012 by Garrett Cook

The original Godzilla (1954) may not be as cuddly and kid-friendly as you remember.

THE BASEMENT (1989 and 2011)

Posted in 1980s Horror, 2012, Anthology Films, Bad Acting, DVD Review, Just Plain Fun, LL Soares Reviews, Monsters, Witches with tags , , , , , on February 5, 2012 by knifefighter

THE BASEMENT (Filmed in 1989/Released in 2011)
DVD Review by L.L. Soares

THE BASEMENT came out in 2011, in an odd box-set that included the movie in both DVD and VHS versions, along with several other movies on disk, in a box that looked like the old-time boxes VHS tapes used to come in. Why the strange packaging? Well, THE BASEMENT was made in 1989 and seemingly dropped off the face of the earth before it could be seen by audiences. It is something of a “lost” film, and the packaging is an attempt to recapture what its original release in the 80s should have been. It’s also a clever attempt at retro-packaging.

Unseen since its making, THE BASEMENT is finally available. And it’s kind of a treat.

An anthology film in the spirit of movies like CREEPSHOW (1982) or the Amicus films TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) and THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973), it begins with four people wandering around a filthy basement (we’re not sure how they got there), when they come across a strange door, which opens to reveal a monstrous creature in a hooded robe who says he is “The Sentinel.” He then goes to tell each of them what will happen in the future—and how they will die. Each story is a separate mini-movie within the whole.

The first story (“Swimming Pool“) is about an unhappy middle-aged woman named Victoria (Kathleen Heidinger) who is having an affair with a much younger “pool boy.” When her husband, whom she despises, goes for a dip in the pool one day, he is drowned by some kind of monster with tentacles, that churns up the water in a bloody froth. She’s able to dispose of some pesky neighbors in the same way, and seems both horrified and happy with the results. What kind of monster did her young paramour put in the pool? When she finds out herself, she doesn’t exactly like the answer.

The second story(“Trick or Treat“)  is the most entertaining and involves a mean old school teacher named Charles Huff (Dennis Driscoll) whose wife died the previous year around Halloween. Despite the fact that he is a teacher and is around kids all the time, he despises children and hates Halloween most of all. One day during class, he fantasizes about walking around his classroom with a knife and a gun, killing all his students.

Later that night, his dead wife comes to pay him a visit and tells him he has to change his ways, and that he will have a special visitor the following night on Halloween. Considering it to be just a dream, the man ignores her warning and continues with his child-hating ways.

On Halloween night, he shouts at children to go away when they come asking for candy (in a special bit of 80s nostalgia – one of the children is dressed like one of the California Raisins that were popular in Claymation commercials at the time!), and he eggs other kids who are in his yard, preparing to toilet paper his house. His anger is actually pretty funny. But then he starts seeing those “visitors” his wife warned him about. Demons and witches and mummies who want to scare the hell out of him. If this story sounds a little familiar, it’s because it’s kind of a Halloween variation on A CHRISTMAS CAROL, where a mean old man is scared into changing his ways by monsters in the night. I really enjoyed this one, and it’s my favorite of the bunch.

The third story (“Zombie Movie“)  involves a bad horror movie director named Mr. Adelman (David Webber) who attempts to make a zombie movie in a real graveyard. When his production assistant (a movie nerd who loves George Romero and reads Fangoria magazine, played by low-budget director J.R. Bookwalter!), tells him that the zombies are lame and he’s doing it all wrong, and that horror fans will hate his movie, the director threatens to fire the kid. But later that night, real zombies come up out of the earth to teach him a lesson.

The final story (“Home Sweet Home“) involves a guy named Scott Caplan (Scott Corizzi)who moves into a house that was previously owned by a murderer. He begins to see horrific things as the house’s victims appear to him and threaten the lives of his best friend and girlfriend, who come to visit. How will Scott confront the curse of the house?

We then go back to the confused foursome who demand to know how the “sentinel” knows these things and when these future events will happen to them. At which point we get a “twist” ending meant to jolt us.

THE BASEMENT box set consists of both VHS and DVD versions of the movie, THE BASEMENT, as well as four other films on disk.

I didn’t have high hopes for this one, since it was directed by Timothy O’Rawe who gave us the low-budget horror comedy, GHOUL SCHOOL (his only other directing credit, from 1990), a movie I didn’t particularly care for. However, THE BASEMENT is a much better movie (even though it was made a year earlier than GHOUL SCHOOL), despite limitations such as bad acting, bad writing, and the usual setbacks of ultra-low-budget cinema. The monsters, however, look kind of cool, despite the shoestring budget, and everyone here at least attempts to play things straight.

I enjoyed this movie, and it’s sad that it took almost 30 years for it to finally get released. But at least it was found and finally made available. Definitely worth a rental if you’re a fan of low-budget horror flicks, especially the kind you used to find in Mom and Pop video stores in the 1980s.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

THE BOX SET INCLUDES:

Both VHS and DVD versions of the lost 80s horror film, THE BASEMENT
CAPTIVES
(1987)
VIDEO VIOLENCE (1987)
VIDEO VIOLENCE 2 (1988)
CANNIBAL CAMP-OUT (1988)