Friday, June 12, 2015

The Mummy (1959)

Christopher Lee is dead...for now.  And the past few days have seen a deluge of tributes, with Lord Summerisle replacing avatars and people tweeting "RIP Dooko" (annoying) and "RIP Dracula" (hilarious).  Lee was pretty much the last of the old-guard greats, the last bastion of Hammer, and it's unlikely that we'll see a similar talent in our own lifetimes.  But he left behind a deep body of work, so why not dive in now?

Lee was the first person to wrest Dracula from Bela Lugosi's grasp.  You can talk about the Lonster and the other dudes who wore the cape, but nobody until Lee was able to shift the character out of Bela's long shadow.  So it should be interesting to see how Lee's performance here compares to another horror titan, Boris Karloff in the 1932 version of The Mummy.  Will we see another claim staked here?

Egypt, 1895.  An archaeologist family has uncovered the lost tomb of Princess Ananka.  The son (Peter Cushing) languishes in a tent with a messed-up leg while his dad delves into the burial chamber.  Dad unwittingly revives something that rends his sanity.  And that's the prologue.

England, 1898.  Dad's in a home for the "mentally disordered" when deaths start happening.  Could it have something to do with the Egyptian guy in the fez who's been hanging around town?  Well, of course it does.

If you're experienced in horrordom, you can pretty much predict the story from the word "mummy". So let's discuss the traits that are distinct to this Mummy.  I would argue that Lee gets tons of chances to display acting range, far more than you might expect in a mummy film.  As Kharis, quondam high priest of the god Karnak, he's responsible for overseeing the burial rites of the dead Princess Ananka.  In these scenes, Kharis bears a serious and imperious face—he's setting an example for the Egyptian people and opting for ritual over displays of grief.

But, later, we discover that Kharis has been in love with Ananka and we get a second tomb scene complete with Kharis pleading to the god for a resurrection of his beloved.  Lee in these scenes is super-good, acting with the eyes and suitably strained facial expressions.  Kharis, who had been the central acolyte for the religion of Karnak, is condemned by the same religion for his human frailties and muted, then mummied.

As the revenant Kharis, Lee does indeed give a definitive portrayal of the Mummy.  This Mummy ditches Karloff's gloomy menace for full-on frightening spirit: he storms across lawns with purpose, batters his way through doors and windows, and chokes people to death with one hand in a matter of seconds.  You could directly compare this performance with Karloff's as The Monster and not find Lee lacking.  As a role rooted in body language, it's one of the best ever.  I love the look, too, as the mummy here is more slimy than dusty, bandages all wet with mud.


Beyond Christopher Lee's laudable performance, this Mummy also impresses with its characterizations.  The main baddie isn't really so bad, he just objects to grave robbing!  And the dad archaeologist displays flaws of his own during his limited screen time—Mehemet the evil Egyptian cares more about a princess corpse than this dad does about his own son.  Best of all, Kharis is given opportunities to earn our sympathy, a small miracle for a non-speaking role.  

There are drawbacks here, like the low budget bulging in some of the Egypt scenes or the not-World War Z-speed early scenes.  But this film is one of the better that 50s horror has to offer and is certainly one of the crown jewels of mummy movies.  

***1/2

Monday, May 4, 2015

Malatesa's Carnival of Blood (1973)

CWL's rule of movies #1: the more grandiose the movie title, the more crushing your disappointment when you see the actual movie.  Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is a title that makes genre hopes soar, so I guessed at the outset that this would  make me cringe hard or cry.  And I was partially right, but for different reasons!

Ordinarily, this is the section of the review where a plot summary would live, but Malatesta is so steeped in the last gasps of psychedelia that it's hard to argue it even has a plot.  This is my best effort: a carnival provides employment to a girl named Vena (GET IT GET IT??), whose family lives in a trailer.  The carnival is rife with weirdos, like a French dwarf and a transsexual psychic, and what's even weirder is the body count which it accumulates.  The Tunnel of Love becomes a Tunnel of Death and what have you.  Shockingly, the authorities don't suspect anything untoward, nor does the fact that the carnival is managed by MR. BLOOD tip anyone off.

So, okay, there are monsters in the carnival who dine on flesh because "no one ever told them eating human flesh was bad."  In their spare time, they screen old silent films and the appearance of Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame pull back the curtain on the film's artsier aspirations.  Malatesta could be described as a Jodorowsky film on a Ray Dennis Steckler budget.  You can see the muses dancing in scenes that blend German expressionism with pieces of Hot Wheels tracks.  But you can also see ghouls sliding around on mail packaging and aluminum foil for far too long.  Nothing happens and it happens a lot.

It all makes very little sense and seems to get more and more incomprehensible as the movie progresses.  Symbols start populating the scenes, as undisguised as newborns in Eden.  Bad actors act badly and can't interpret a script that often seems barely there.  

Obscurity has granted this one a legendary reputation, but it's not especially enjoyable.  It's not even the best psychedelic horror of 1973 that starts with an "M" because Messiah of Evil.  Some of the ideas are promising, but practically none of them are brought to fruition and this thing is almost totally rough edges.  

**1/2

Friday, April 17, 2015

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)

The best and worst aspects of this film are jammed into its first ten minutes.  I sighed during the interminable establishing shots of the credits, shots of random New York buildings scored to annoying disco.  WE ARE IN NEW YORK, these scenes scream, and their cousins will follow.  But then things get promising, as we find Emanuelle infiltrating a mental hospital with a camera disguised as a doll.  The same mental hospital houses a girl found amongst cannibal tribes in the Amazon.  Em gets some bottomless snaps of her because nothing sells magazine like hospitalized white cannibal pussy.


Said cannibal girl also bites off a nurse's boob.  Later, Emanuelle goes completely out of character and says, "She'll have lost a breast.  However, it seems she asked for it.  She's well-known for her homosexual inclinations."  LOL WUT?  Did she have a flashback to her judgmental nun days?  Let's ignore some of the iffy plotting here, like why a newspaper would have an archive of Aztec symbols, and just say that Em decides to travel to the Amazon to cover cannibalism.  Before leaving, she hooks up with her sometimes-guy and they make love on some jagged, slippery rocks.  This doesn't seem to make sense until you see the Brooklyn Bridge and such in the background.  It was exceedingly important that we establish these scenes as New York.


It's a good time to talk about the dubbing.  Wow, it's not...good at...all.  There are...long pauses seemingly...inserted at random.  It makes...the entire cast seem...like they've had strokes.  But no one watches these movies for dialogue.  They watch them in order to have strokes of a different kind.  Unfortunately, the sexy scenes don't spark and, before long, we're in the Amazon, anyway.  Scenes of walking around replace any potential slutting around.  Only one jewel is embedded here, Laura Gemser and her old pal Monica Zanchi gingerly washing each other's pubes in a river while a chimpanzee smokes a cigarette on the shore.  Yes, South America has chimpanzees and they love smoking and girl-girl scenes.


That aside, the last portion of Last Cannibals is deadeningly dull.  Lots of walking leads to a climax complete with first year art class gore.  Tight close-ups of paint and clay fill the screen, Herschell Gordon Lewis-style, but without the charm.  I loled when a man was cut cleanly in half with no dripping blood.  Even gore aficionados are going to find it hard to like this one.  


So, yeah, Black Emanuelle, huh?  I think that time has been exceedingly unkind to these films.  Whatever charms they have to offer are swamped by flaws that look even more glaring when you consider the other entertainment choices available to modern deviants.  But Laura Gemser sure was pretty, right?

**

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Backcountry (2014)

I think this film is betrayed by its give-away marketing and cover image, so here's the review: if you like nature/survival horror, see this, it's good.  Okay, spoilers after the cuteness.


The first section of Backcountry is steeped in nebulous fear.  We meet a couple and watch them traipse off into the woods.  Something bad is coming, we're sure, but it's unclear whether it's the scuzzball Irishman they meet while camping or a canoe injury that could hobble Alex (Jeff Roop).  Or is it a ravenous black bear?  If you looked at the cover, even after I advised you not to, you know the answer is C.


If you know at the outset that this is a bear movie, you feel free to ignore the character-development stuff and the red herrings and just keep eyes peeled for the bear.  But I think that's a mistake.  Pretty much all movies are better if your foreknowledge is limited, but this one especially benefits from viewer ignorance.  The dread that's amassed in the early stages is lessened if you're just waiting for a bear to hop out and start snapping off legs.  Plus you miss out on some mournful romance stuff, especially a heartbreaking fight on a mesa.  Missy Peregrym has apparently previously been famous for her abs, but she shows a ton of acting skill in her performance and Jeff Roop is also quite convincing.


Couples in the woods horror is having a grand flowering right now, but I'd rank this above the likes of Willow Creek.  It'll be interesting to see what director Adam MacDonald produces next.  [Meta note: I'm ditching the idea of 1/4 stars, it's just ridiculous and I'd rather overpraise stuff than worry about the scientific measurement of bear movies.]

***1/2

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cool Cat Saves the Kids (2014)

This blog was born out of my love for accidentally great films, like Robot Monster, The Room, and Troll II.  As time has passed, my portfolio has diversified, but my heart still beats for z-movies.  Which is why I'm so happy to meet Cool Cat:


Cool Cat lives in California with his human dad (addressed, weirdly, as "Daddy Derek") and cat mom.  California, land of freaks.  Cool Cat is presumably a child, since he is friends with children named Maria and Madison, and since he references his teachers in the dialogue.  Enough backstory.  We open with music that's similar to that of Troll II's party scene and this bodes very well.  Cool Cat answers the phone by barking, "Hello, this is Cool Cat!  Who are you?  And what's your name??!"  This seems to be an crude reaction, but maybe it's foreshadowing since Cool Cat and his friends will soon be getting bullied via phone.  Meet Butch the Bully: 


His dialogue is sometimes hard to decipher, as I think the kid has a speech problem.  Giving the bully a speech impediment, Cool Cat Saves the Kids?  You are so meta.  This is how bullies bully these days: "Maria has pretty hair, so I'll text her it's ugly!  Ha ha ha!"  The "ha ha ha" is a direct quotation, as Butch lacks the cackling skills of most movie villains.  Young Maria receives a text that says, "You're ugly and your hair looks like rat hair!"  I'm no fan of bullies, but that is a pretty sick burn.  Note that the bully is a little chubby.  No problem, lots of actors are, but nearly every scene involves him running in a very agonized way.  It's like this movie about anti-bullying is actually bullying the one kid with a different body type.  META.
 

The bullying sort of escalates and Cool Cat is targeted and again hysterically overreacts ("Dogs are my friends!  Identify yourself!").  Butch finds a can of spraypaint and Cool Cat gasps, "He's about to graffiti our neighbor's wall!"  The movie is insistent on making "graffiti" a verb and we also get a line about "kids graffiti-ing all our sandboxes!"  Don't get too attached to the vandalism and bullying storyline, though, because the movie jumps topics midway through, as Cool Cat is invited to a parade in Hollywood!  And you're in luck, because we get to watch him prepare TWO special songs for the parade!!!  Sample lyric: "Cool Cat wants to play that drums!"


"Is that an Eddie Van Halen guitar?" you ask.  And this movie answers "yes!" with loving close-ups of autographs on the body and hands way too high on the fretboard.  Just to drive the point home, we get dialogue about how it was "autographed by the Van Halen band back in the 1980s!"  Presumably, this movie is aimed at children, but the pop culture references are so dated.  Maybe a kid might know Van Halen, but would any kid be able to parse "Isn't the Smokey and the Bandit car pretty?"  It would just be meaningless gibberish to a millennial.


The parade business drags on and on until we finally welcome the return of bullying to this film.  Some luckless celebrities get drafted into action here, leading to the solid gold line, "That darn Vivica A. Fox and Erik Estrada messed it up!"  Fox advises the kids to yell at bullies like an insane person until they go away.  In the Cool Cat universe, this strategy totally works!  I love these scenes and am using "OH NO! They put lies on the Internet??" for my work stuff.


What had previously been a goofy melodrama gets way more serious as a gun is introduced in the last fifteen minutes of the film!  This part of the movie seems painfully ironic now, as Butch is not immediately shot to death by a policeman, even though he is holding a pistol.  "Cops are our friends!"  Butch does get a great parting line in one of his arrest scenes, "I'm a bully and I'll be back!"


Let's hope so!  Cool Cat manages to avoid the turgid plod that afflicts too many of these films.   There are some slower moments (parade footage, why God why), but generally there's always something new and outrageous just around the corner.  If this doesn't dethrone The Room, it at least outpaces the overpraised Birdemic and execrable Sharknado.  Please visit director/producer/writer/star Derek Savage's webpage for all your Cool Cat, Trolly the Trout, and Bible Birdie merch.

***1/4

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Return to Oz (1985)

Judging by the financial stats on IMDB (this didn't even make half of its $25 million budget back), it seems that audiences in 1985 were just not buying an Oz movie that mostly ditches the Scarecrow and Toto, but does include a talking chicken, a flying couch, and electroshock therapy.  It's 1985's loss.   And Disney's!  


A sort of amalgamation of two L. Frank Baum Oz books, Return (despite Internet rumors) is pretty definitely a sequel occurring in the same universe as The Wizard of Oz.  Firstly, it is named Return to Oz.  Also, the first part of the film involves Dorothy's transfer to a terrible psych hospital because she cannot sleep and won't stop talking about her trip to Oz.  Through stormy happenstance, Dorothy delivers on the title's promise and returns to Oz. 


But first we spend some time in Jodorowsky's Dune.  This Oz is a much more barren and bleak place than the sugar-sweet Wizard.  Dorothy and her talking chicken Billina traverse a desolate landscape, finally arriving at an Emerald City in which the residents have been turned to stone and replaced by monstrous dandies called Wheelers.  


The film could be read as a prolonged series of jokes on audiences who expected something conventional.  Instead of dancing munchkins, we get decapitated statues.  Rather than cowardly lions, we get a flying machine made out of a couch and a moose's head and a dusty, portly clockwork robot.  All of this is straight out of the Baum books, but people generally won't read and weren't prepared for the shock of so much unfamiliar territory.


Thirty years later, the virtues of Return are easier to see.  As with the books that inspired it, this Oz doesn't flinch from shadows—it remembers that the beloved original had witches and flying monkeys, and makes sure to toss in similarly upsetting characters.  Return realizes that fantasy aimed at children needs menace and general weirdness.  This movie frequently dives way into psychedelia and dreamlike visions.  A talking pumpkin calls a nine-year-old "Ma".  An evil queen keeps a room full of spare heads, then later whips a chariot pulled by wheeled men.  Rocks are killed by eggs.  All of this is realized with no expense spared—the effects, for 1985, are glorious and the set design in this movie makes it worth watching despite the flaws.


Okay, the flaws.  Some elements of the books were tweaked, but it might have been nice to see even more monkeying before this hit the screen.  It's perfectly fine in fiction to shrug the shoulders and say, "Oh, yeah, PS, eggs are poison."  But in a film, we're watching scenes unfold for a long while and aren't sure what's happening until after the fact.  This would have been much tighter if some of the middle portion had been clipped as well, though it would be a shame to lose those long scenes of Mombi's palace.  I would have loved to have seen General Jinjur and her all-girl army shoehorned in, but the film's already kind of bloated as it is.


But!  You should still check this one out.  As a sequel/retread, it ties Showgirls 2 for brazen insanity and it's much more endearing than Sam Raimi's joyless Oz treatment.  "I have always valued my lifelessness." 


***

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Canal (2014)

It might just be me, but it sure seems like there's been an outbreak of horror centered on parents in perilous situations.  The teens who survived the forest slashers of the 80s have grown up.  Now they must survive dinner parties and child behavior problems and adultery.  It may be an indication of the aging target audience (and horror films 20-30 years from now should be fascinating/hilarious), but as long as the films are good, who cares?  The Canal isn't a classic and resides in one of my least-loved horror subgenres, but viewers who like thrillers and slow-burn storytelling should get a kick out of it. 


Rupert Evans excels as David, a film archivist who's insecure about his wife's job and dalliances with the upper crust.  They move into a house with a rich history of murder and bad things start happening.  It's almost impossible to give a synopsis of the film without spoiling it, but think a less intense, Irish/Welsh Babadook and you'll be near the truth.


I loved how much consideration was taken in setting up the visuals.  The film looks fantastic—scenes are framed and shot with exacting care, and portions of The Canal play like nods to vintage Argento or the more comic book-y parts of Creepshow.  Blues and reds and greens swarm the screen.  The editing's often a highlight as well.


Again, hard to avoid spoiling this, but the final resolution plays out in a way that annoys me personally, though it might be acceptable to other folks.  I was able to predict the ending at the 43-minute mark, if that tells you anything.  Maybe these films really are the inheritors of slashers past and require you to turn off the critical part of your brain while watching?  Still, I don't regret watching this and will keep an eye out for the director's future efforts.  


***

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Razorback (1984)

"Katie, bar the door!" Razorback shouts as it opens with a large pig tearing through a small house and carting off its smallest resident.  A film could do worse than borrow from Jaws, especially when it basically transplants the action to the Australian outback and gives a boar instead of a shark the starring role.  This frenetic opening gives the audience a big jolt right at the beginning, but it also serves notice that this film is not going to be a hack job.  We get gorgeous Suspiria-style red and blue lighting, then smartly-photographed effects and on-point editing work.  


No one believes this grandpa about this pig eating the baby.  This must have burned badly to Australian audiences because of the Azaria Chamberlain case.  But, surprisingly, we now divert our attention from this vengeful old man and meet an American journalist who's arrived to expose animal cruelty.  It's also here that Razorback swings from pure black tragedy (baby-eating pigs) to the oddness of Australia.  Sometimes the oddness arrives as scenes of random quirkiness.


And sometimes it's pretty dark in its own right, like when we meet two hoons who work at a meat-processing plant and spend their spare time shooting kangaroos and raping.  Some viewers might get a Texas Chainsaw feel from the attack below, with its truck-lighting and its murderous backwoods mutants.  So what?  As with Jaws, it's not a flaw to borrow from the best and the movie does gives its villains a nasty Australianess, including ugly laughter that sounds like kids imitating machine guns.


Later, the imitation tables are turned, as we go to the boys' underground lair and get a premonition of similar scenes in Texas Chainsaw 2, which would arrive a full two years after Razorback.  We also get more of the twisty turns of the narrative, as the movie eventually seems to settle on one protagonist after its long search.  I'd say this is one of the movie's main flaws.  If I were making it, I would've stretched the second portion of the narrative out a little more.  There's a little too much of the third act and not enough content to fill it.  What had been relentless and driven starts to show some flab.


Having said that, there's more good than bad throughout the film.  Russell Mulcahy had established himself by directing videos for people like Duran Duran and the best parts of the video aesthetic show up here.  It's visible in the surreal dream scenes and the rapid pace and the very impressive transitions between scenes.  


The human villains also add to Razorback's ambiance with their psychedelic cannibal couture.  


Oh yeah, and this movie also has a pig in it.  Again, wisely borrowing from Jaws, we mostly get flashes of the beast and never really see the whole thing.  What's here looks great, though, except at the very, very end, when it's obviously a stationary prop.  But, by that time, you've already been seduced by the charms of Razorback and will probably be able to overlook such minor details.  This isn't a classic, but it's definitely underrated and still a fun viewing some thirty years after its release.


***1/4

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

The homoerotic content of this movie has been discussed to death, I think.  But it's hard to avoid it when you get an opening scene that serves as a synopsis for everything that this film will contain.  A bus trip to school turns into a surreal nightmare as the vehicle plows across the deserts and eventually lands precariously on some phallic rock formations.  Stay on the pole and live, yield to the hole and die.  


This is Jesse's nightmare.  He's new in town and has moved into the house where Freddy nearly slew Nancy last go-round.  The set and wardrobe choices in this movie are something else.  This sequel manages to somehow be more tragically soaked in the eighties than the original Nightmare.  Bad haircuts and shoutingly-loud shirts abound.  But it's an alternate universe version of the eighties, as you can tell by the popularity of Fu Manchu cereal (way to reach for that gag, movie).  Importantly, probably, it's the pre-AIDS eighties and I think we're gonna have to talk about the gay stuff after all.


Jesse is placed in scream queen position for most of NOES2.  He wakes shrieking from nightmares, is pursued by Freddy, and finds himself in scenes with Freudian symbols.  He also has to deal with the usual teen travails, like a coach who likes to "hang at the queer S&M joints downtown".  He begins to make friends with a girl named Lisa, but, you guys, this movie goes pretty far beyond celebrating homosexuality.  It gets downright intolerant of women at times. 


When we meet Lisa, Jesse opens a door and she has her back turned.  It's not the door that has a NO CHICKS sign affixed, though.  Plus the portrayal of wives in this movie is notably ugly.  They don't actually do much of anything, but they generally look extremely haggard and wear dresses that are like Cracker Barrel tablecloths.  The film even retroactively attacks Nancy by making her indirectly recite bad dialogue through her diary.  Go have a vagina somewhere else!


The homosexual subtext is one of the only reasons that this film stands out.  In plenty of ways, this is a typical Elm Street sequel, with retreads of the original's scenes and poorly-conceived screenwriting.  One of the other things that sort of works are the non-Freddy scare scenes.  These walk the line between complete idiocy and godhood, like when a bolt of lightning directly strikes the dishes in the drying rack.  Or when a parakeet knocks over a heavy lamp and terrorizes the family before immolating out of nowhere.  This leads to a golden Clu Gulager line: "I mean, animals don't explode into flames for no reason!"


That's the level of scripting that we have here.  There are poor lines and poorer lines of thought, as when the movie foolishly tries to insert some comedy during the pool party scene.  The dad loves Benny Goodman and forces these kids to listen to it!  "Lol"!  At least the color choices in these scenes are superb, as the eighties were apparently a golden time for stop sign cosplay.


Sometimes the effects work, but they often don't and that's a killer for a bigger-budget horror film like this.  Any effect can look dumb in a screengrab, but the scene below doesn't work any better in real time and is preceded by an awful eye-inside-the-mouth effect.  


Not that we're talking scads of effects in general.  Freddy's pretty flaccid in this one and few of the kills reach for the Looney Tunes level of absurdity that would happen later in the series.  It's all very dry and unfun, and the end comes with Lisa and Freddy arguing like siblings in family therapy.  Lisa kisses Freddy and, soon after, he dies, like the Wicked Witch of the West.  A strange film with so-bad-it's-greatness in spots, but far too often a typically unimaginative cashgrab.


**1/2

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Sister Emanuelle (1977)

Black Emanuelle History Month gets a little botched with this one.  Joe D'Amato hands over the directorial reins to spaghetti western & peplum vet Giuseppe Vari and the results are not inspiring.  Emanuelle, repenting of her sluttery, joins a convent that retrains female juvenile delinquents.  Trouble arrives in the form of a brazen and apparently middle-aged teenage girl (Monica Zanchi, who we'll meet again in the next Emanuelle post).


It's a fine story, to be sure.  But taking the plucky Emanuelle and denuding her of her harlot crown doesn't work well.  I'm not Catholic, thank God, but I can't picture anyone getting excited by Emanuelle spending most of the movie dressed like a fancy napkin.  Her acting actions are mostly devoted to scolding and being shocked, too.  Which means that Monica Zanchi has to provide the requisite amounts of scuzz and she's miscast as a teen and the film also seems very restrained in comparison with the sleazy anarchy of previous Em sequels.


This attempts to be a far more conventional film, devoting lots of time to relationship drama and broad farce.  Parts of it work, like the legit funny stuff involving one nun's bladder problems.  But, please, Sister Emanuelle.  We put down our money with certain expectations and you give us teenage crying and arguments?  Most dreadfully, the movie barely cares about sex scenes.  What we get is shot in ugly close-ups of pale skin rubbing gross hirsute man chest (Gabriele Tinti, who played a different character in Emanuelle in America).  Gemser barely contributes, doing a repeated bored solo disrobing, like the world's sleepiest stripteaser.  It was probably fun for her to do something different with this character, but it's no fun for us to watch.


People expecting an Emanuelle movie are going to be unsatisfied and people who like sophisticated real cinema are going to be unimpressed by the amateur work here.  I haven't seen the next sequel, Last Cannibals, yet, but I'm pretty confident that you can skip this one and move on to the next phase of Black Emanuelle.  


**