Sunday, October 4, 2015

31 Days of Gore: Evilspeak (1981)

It's October. Time to talk horror. This year I'm reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

When you hear Evilspeak was not only one of the UK's Video Nasties, but the studio had to cut seven minutes of footage to get an R-rating in the states, you expect bucket-loads of blood. Unfortunately, these facts speak less about how much gore you're going to get and more about how absurdly silly things were in the era of Thatcher and Reagan. Violence-wise, Evilspeak is surprisingly tame for a horror movie in which the Carrie-like protagonist uses Satanic rituals (and, uh, an Apple IIe computer) to summon demonic revenge.

I'm not saying you shouldn't pay the twenty bucks for Scream Factory's awesome Blu-Ray edition—you probably should—I'm just saying it's not the film gore hounds might expect. Yeah, there are some really great practical effects in there, but the promotional material makes you believe you're in for something more splatter-filled like the original Evil Dead. You're not.

Richard Moll (yes, the bald guy from Night Court) plays Father Estaban, the long-dead leader of a long-dead cult of Satan worshipers. In the opening scene we see him disrobe an attractive woman before chopping her head off with a sacrificial sword. The effect looks suspiciously crunchy, like—I don't know—maybe a mannequin filled with red food coloring and corn syrup. I'm pretty sure people's necks don't shatter like plaster when struck with a sharp blade. And believe me: I'm really not knocking the effect. It actually looks really cool in the sense you've never seen anything like it before.

Fast-forward a few hundred years later to a modern military academy. The orthodox church on the grounds was inexplicably built on top of Father Estaban's Satanic church. This isn't rediscovered until Stanley Coopersmith (the insanely awesome and awesomely insane Clint Howard) finds a hole in the cellar's brick wall. I'm surprised to learn middle age Europeans were practicing Satanism in what would later become the United States. Hell, the fact that Estaban's church still exists at all raises more questions than answers, but I'm willing to go with it. Why? Because this movie is fucking awesome, that's why.

Coopersmith, who's referred to as "Cooperdick" by his classmates, is the quintessential outcast in movies like this. The first time we see him he gets his ass smeared across the soccer field. The next time we see him, a prank leads to him being late for class. His tardiness, of course, leads to the administration themselves bullying him. Coopersmith's only refuge is the computer lab and the secret church beneath the church. This is pretty much all the movie has to offer for the next seventy minutes or so, but it feels less like the typical padding of a horror movie and more like a satisfying slow burn.

When a secretary steals one of Coopersmith's books, I legitimately felt bad for him. When the other kids destroy Coopersmith's catapult, I felt bad for him there, too. And when they discover the dog he's been hiding in the secret church, I really felt bad for him. Thing is, the movie doesn't fail at anything it tries to do, it just sustains the same note for a little too long. That is until the glorious and horrific ending.

The climax isn't just satisfying. It's actually better than Carrie (do keep in mind I've never really cared for Brian De Palma films very much). To see Clint Howard levitating around the church, terrorizing his bullies with a giant sword, is cheese of the finest flavor. All Evilspeak promised to do was entertain me and I can't say I wasn't tickled by its intentional absurdity. I don't know why nearly half the characters are in it, especially Haywood "What's Happening!!" Nelson (who escapes the carnage as well as most of the movie), but man, that ending makes all the little flaws worth it.

The special features on the Blu-Ray are only a little more than bare minimum. The retrospective offers some amusing anecdotes; it was fun to learn Clint Howard had to wear a hairpiece for this film. In an even better video on YouTube, Howard says the film was special to him because he lost his virginity during the production. It's a film that's special to me, too, and not only because it got one of my favorite character actors laid.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

31 Days of Gore: Shrunken Heads (1994)

It's October. Time to talk horror. This year I'm reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

Thank the girlfriend for this one—she forced me to watch it. I didn't plan on viewing anything from Full Moon this year.

That isn't to say I dislike Full Moon. When I was a kid I loved that Dollman vs. Demonic Toys not only served as a sequel for those two films, but for the surprisingly hip Bad Channels as well. When I saw this awesome advertisement for Puppet Master 3 in the back of a Fangoria, I went straight to the video shop and sought out the entire trilogy. I never really cared for Subspecies, but I confess an unusual fondness for Tim Matheson's Jack Deth (Trancers) and the whip-cracking Musetta Vander in 1994's Oblivion. What was really cool about Full Moon is they did crossover films about two decades before mainstream Hollywood caught on. Other than that, though, I felt more comfortable in the Troma camp, pun intended.

This is all to say I haven't seen a Full Moon production in years. Now that I'm older, I realize they're not quite as shitty as I remember them being. Considering the sub-million dollar budgets, they were spectacular. Shrunken Heads isn't what most people would call a great movie, but it's certainly not a bad one. Anyone who follows this blog will know I'm a fan of cheese. And what's cheesier than voodoo-resurrected heads exacting revenge on a street gang?

Okay, I'm just going to admit it right now: this film was made for me.

At the beginning of the movie, said street gang is making life hell for a trio of school kids who just want to read their comic books in peace. The kids are later murdered when they steal two sackfuls of gambling slips from the gang's hideout; without those slips the leader of the gang won't know who actually won their bets and who didn't. In theory, the gang will have to pay everyone who gambled that week. Because we all know street gangs have a reputation for being honest.

That's when a voodoo priest (veteran character actor Julius Harris) goes to the funeral parlor with a hacksaw and decapitates the three boys' corpses. He shrinks the heads, revives them with magic, and spends a year training them how to fly and develop their superpowers. The special effects during this sequence are actually pretty good.

It's easy to see why Charles Band (the founder of Full Moon) was so good at making his straight-to-video films feel more expensive than they really were: he was no doubt a master at calling in favors. The opening credits are scored by none other than Danny Elfman, frequent Tim Burton collaborator and the creator of the theme for The Simpsons. How did Full Moon get a big, Hollywood name like that? I'm guessing because the film's directed by the famous composer's unknown brother, whose son takes a leading role.

The rest of the film, like most of the Full Moon productions I remember, is scored by Charles Band's brother. And it's overly scored at that—nearly every scene has music, none of which is subtle. Most of the time it borrows heavily from West Side Story, merely swapping out notes of the Jets' song.

Big Mama, the leader of the gang, is played by Meg Foster. Foster is among my favorite B actresses. Unlike Zach Galligan, who once tried to distance himself from genre films, Foster really seemed to embrace the nature of her career—she's played everything from cyborgs to villains and even the traditional love interest. You probably remember her as the female lead in They Live. Her unusually blue eyes are recognizable from a mile away.

Which is why I was taken by surprise when I finally recognized her in Shrunken Heads. I initially thought she was a man—that's not a put-down as that's what she's going for—and those oddly colored eyes are concealed by contact lenses. Her unusual look is only heightened by this strange creative decision. Something about her in this film reminds me of the characters from a Fallout game.

Shrunken Heads is a feel-good movie for horror fans, who usually loathe feel-good movies. It's light on the gore, but heavy on the charm. The unlikely relationship between the fifteen year old girl and one of the shrunken heads is kind of creepy in the beginning (intentionally so... I think), but against all odds, it's endearing by the end. And speaking of the ending, it certainly doesn't disappoint.

So, do you want to see three children murdered in the streets, only to be resurrected as discombobulated heads? No? Then you don't want to see this movie. But if the answer is yes, well, you're not going to find a better movie about this subject matter... or any other movie, for that matter.

Do stay for the post-credits scene.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Martian: NASA's answer to Top Gun

this trailer is selling a slightly different movie (it also contains some spoilers IMO)

The opening line of Andy Weir's novel begins:

I'm pretty much fucked.
That's my considered opinion.

Early on, the movie adaptation drops the F-bomb twice, which is the maximum allowed for a PG-13 film, given there's not much violence or any nudity. Through the use of clever cutaways, the filmmakers manage to preserve the unfiltered character nicely for the film. And no, these workarounds are not nearly as insulting as sanitizing the curse word with a perfectly timed gunshot √† la Live Free and Die Hard.

I'm glad, too. Mark Whatley (Matt Damon) is an endearing character whose cursing is integral to the full experience. He's the only human on Mars. His diet, consisting mostly of microwaved potatoes, is in constant peril. Worst of all, he just ran out of ketchup. That he only says (and types) "fuck" a handful of times is pretty amazing, really.

The first thing that struck me about The Martian were the landscapes. None of it was obvious CGI and none of it looked like rose-colored Earth locations, either. Most of the time the horizons and the faraway sun look just about right. Having just seen the trailer for Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, whose liberal use of cheap CGI verges on obscene, I couldn't believe what my eyes were seeing. The Martian has some of the best special effects ever. Every bit of this movie is visually believable.

The movie wastes no time setting up the comradely among the martian astronauts, whose mission to Mars is jeopardized by a freak storm. The mission commander (Jessica Chastain) makes the hard decision to return to Earth prematurely. Moments later, she has to make the even harder decision to leave Whatley behind when he's struck by a satellite dish that's just been ripped off of their habitat by the wind. Everyone believes he's dead because the component which relays his life signs has been impaled by shrapnel.

The film trades first person narration for the video diaries Whatley makes to entertain himself, which often involves him ransacking his coworkers' personal effects and making fun of what he finds. He tells the GoPro cameras stationed around the hab what he's up to every step of the way. The first order of business is setting up a crop a of potatoes. Then he'll have to "science the shit out of the situation" in order to send an SOS back home. At one point he says in a weak voice, "Surprise."

Early on it becomes clear Murphy's Law is in full effect. You always know something is going to go wrong, but you never know what or when. That may sound like the story becomes a little predictable, but it provides the kind of suspense which made Apollo 13 so enjoyable even though we all knew the characters in that movie would make it back home. Like that movie, The Martian doesn't try too hard to make its audience teary-eyed. (See: Mission to Mars for an example of one of the worst offenses in that category... bleh!)

The Martian is one of the best films in years. It's so good I think it's safe to say Ridley Scott has atoned for Prometheus and a lot of the other movies he's made in this portion of his career. For the past few weeks, NASA TV has been leveraging The Martian's hype to drum up interest in space. I guarantee you there will be kids who see this movie and aim for careers in science because of it. It's good the filmmakers went for the PG-13 rating after all.

The Martian has everything I wanted from Gravity and Interstellar. This is real science fiction and not the typical Hollywood bastardization of the genre. Sure, a few of the things that happen are unlikely (Weir himself said he wishes he had chosen a different disaster to kick off the story), but there are plenty of scenes here which contain more science than movies like Mission to Mars and Red Planet combined.

I think one of the biggest reasons I enjoyed this movie so much is because every time a "serious director" makes a space movie, they fall back on trying to homage Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (see the stupidly mystical climax of Interstellar). Scott knows he's not going to top 2001: A Space Odyssey and he feels no need to allude to it in any way. It's its own movie and makes no apologies for it.

This is easily the best science fiction movie of the 21st century. It's no wonder why the NASA program seems to be promoting it like their version of Top Gun, which was a boon to the Navy's recruitment efforts. We need more movies like it.

31 Days of Gore: The Slayer (1982)

It's October. Time to talk horror. This year I'm reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

Yesterday's Hatchet III is probably going to be the newest movie I review for this feature. I just prefer the fine vintage of movies like The Slayer, which was crafted in an era in which mutilations and monsters were shown rather than suggested, and shower scenes were par for the course. I'm sure some of the cheese from the early 90s will sneak into the movies I feature this month, but The Slayer is, in my mind, the classic model for 31 Days of Gore.

Note: I'm not embedding the trailer here because it shows nearly every kill in the movie.

Here's everything you need to know: four people take a vacation on an island, but they're not alone. We're not talking a human slasher, but something more supernatural like Freddy Krueger. This killer, however, is not above using low-tech methods such as bashing a victim's head in with an oar. Like most movies of its type, it's slow to get started, but early on there's a delicious slice of cheese on the private plane that's chartered by the leads: one character gazes out the window and remarks of the island, "It's surrounded by water."

God, I love this shit.

"G'mornin', honey!"

The Slayer opens with a series of disjointed images involving a redheaded woman who's being attacked by... something. Whatever it is, we can tell it's pretty gnarly and the film (at least the uncut version) isn't going to shy away from the good stuff. The only problem is scenes containing the good stuff are few and far between.

Naturally, it turns out this scene was just a dream, which immediately reminds us of A Nightmare on Elm Street, an observation which will beg even more comparisons towards the end. Just don't call it a ripoff because Wes Craven's franchise was still two years away. I wish I could say The Slayer is ahead of its time in that regard, but that would be more praise than it probably deserves.

If there's anything the filmmakers want to make absolutely clear in the beginning, it's this: "There's no phone service on the island!" By the way, the redhead who had that terrifying nightmare has been having dark premonitions all her life and, surprise-surprise, she really doesn't want to go the island where the rest of the movie will be set.

Following a disappointingly tame sex scene, the redhead's lover wanders into a dark, creepy basement. I'm expecting to see a lot of creepy basements and cellars this month, but let's call it a trope rather than a clich√©. When you only have a handful of characters to kill in your little horror movie, you've got to concoct ways of splitting them up and killing them separately so you don't blow your load too soon.

That's beside the point. The point is, while The Slayer is little more than a standard horror movie of its time, it's a fairly solid one and worth a watch. It's suffering from many of the same problems films of this type almost always have, chief among them its plodding pace. But maybe, just maybe, it subconsciously planted the seed in Wes Craven's head which would later become A Nightmare on Elm Street...

Eh, probably not.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

31 Days of Gore: The Hatchet series

It's October. Time to talk horror. This year I'm reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

Hatchet (2006)

Harry Knowles proclaimed the killer in Hatchet would be "the next icon of horror." It's safe to say Harry jumped the gun a little. Maybe Victor Crowley is more memorable than your usual villain, but he's certainly not on par with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Nonetheless, Hatchet is still better than a lot of Freddy and Jason sequels.

Hatchet opens with Robert Englund (Freddy Kruger) playing a hillbilly who's hunting gators in a New Orleans swamp. Instead of letting Englund and Kane Hodder (Crowley) share screen time, Englund's character is killed off screen. Talk about wasted opportunity. Tony Todd (Candyman) makes a cameo later on and you can practically read his thoughts: "Why am I in a fucking talky scene? Couldn't they at least give me someone to kill?" 

That's among my biggest beefs with the original Hatchet: there's so much cool stuff in it, but most of the time it reaches for greatness and stumbles over juvenile creative decisions. I'll give it a pass for not putting Englund and Todd to better use—the filmmakers probably didn't have the money to use the icons for anymore than a day or two of shooting. 

this is the lead actor... he looks exactly like the doodle on his shirt

But here's where the filmmakers don't get a pass: the movie looks goddamned terrible. Even though it's shot on 35mm film, the stream I rented through Xbox One looked more like the video-made Thankskilling than the atmospheric B movies the director wishes to emulate. The woods and swamps are lit so brightly it's hilarious when one of the characters suggests a flashlight. The opening scenes, set during Mardi Gras, look like a cross between Girls Gone Wild and a proper porno. 

Despite the crappy production values, you can tell it's a labor of love. I actually like horror-comedies, but holy hell, the jokes in Hatchet are bad. The only thing I hate more than "comedy" which arises from characters being inexplicably clumsy is forcing characters to say completely ridiculous things just for the sake of being funny. "Hey, it's like that time you caught crabs!" "What's 911's area code in the south?" Holy shit, the humor sucks. When one character tells another to blow her dad, the response is, "I will as soon as you're finished!"

I'm sorry. What?

What really hurts is there are actually some actors here who are capable of comedy. Joel Murray (Bill Murray's brother, a godsend in God Bless America) and Richard Riehle (the guy who invented the "Jump To Conclusions" mat in Office Space) have much bigger roles than you would expect, but instead of elevating the material, they're bogged down in the mire of forced jokes. Beyond the over-the-top kills, I laughed only once. The scene responsible involved a close-up of a very attractive woman scratching her crotch in a very unladylike manner.

So are the kills any good? Oh boy, you'd better believe it. 

The sound effects are great and the splatter is pitch perfect. I'm only disappointed there's so little of it. We get a decent kill right out of the gate, but the movie drags and drags until the next one. In case you're the type to fast forward through the boring parts, I checked: the movie doesn't pick up again until the 49-minute mark. But man, I've never seen a belt sander used like that before. And what Victor Crowley does with his bare hands is downright glorious. You can tell that's where the majority of the budget was spent. It makes an otherwise shitty movie worth the rental price.

So yeah, Hatchet is a movie gore aficionados have to see. Everyone else should probably skip it. Why it took me nearly ten years to see it is hard to explain... it's just one of the ones that got away, I suppose, and frankly, I dislike most horror films made between 1999 and about 2010 so I pretty much learned to stay clear of them. But if you're just looking for an all-star horror film, Wishmaster was much more effective at delivering the goods in my opinion. 

The Burning is one of my favorite slasher films

It's worth noting I was frequently reminded of the movie that more or less built Miramax: The Burning. Like that film (and some spoilers for both movies follow), I felt sorry for the bad guy the way we felt sorry for Frankenstein's monster. Hatchet's origin story also involves an accident with fire and the directors of both films concoct far-fetched ways of setting their antagonists ablaze in the climax. I'm fairly desensitized to this stuff by now, but setting a burn victim on fire just seems cruel, man.

Spoilers below. It's impossible to talk about the sequel without spoiling the first one.