Friday, October 21, 2016

Wishmaster sequels (1999-2002) [31 Days of Gore]

I wanted to link my review of Wes Craven's Wishmaster only to discover I never actually wrote it. It's a shame because I rewatched it as recently as a couple years ago. In summary, it was a movie I really admired despite its many faults. If you enjoyed that movie, but passed on the sequels, this post is for you.

Don't say I never did nothin' for ya.

Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies

I avoided Wishmaster 2 for over a decade because everyone said it was awful. Even mega fans of the original said it sucked. In fact, the film currently holds a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. The director himself admitted he hasn't seen it since he made it.

These are bad signs for the franchise.

The opening credits, which didn't get Craven's seal of approval this time around, make it clear Wishmaster 2 isn't going to have any horror icons making cameos like the original did. Tommy "Tiny" Lister, Robert LaSardo, and Bokeem Woodbine from Fargo's second season make substantial appearances, but beyond that there's rarely a moment of "Hey, it's that guy!" Fortunately, Andrew Divoff returns as the evil Djinn. His performance isn't something I can gloss over. It's the entire reason the picture works.

Sometimes good acting and compelling acting aren't one in the same. Even though I wouldn't call Divoff a good actor here (he's been good in movies which didn't have "Wishmaster" in the title), there's something interesting about him—something playfully sadistic and bizarre. You can almost hear the director calling, "Okay Andrew, be menacing here," before Divoff puts on a mischievous face which looks like he secretly farted. Whether or not this facet of his performance is intentional, it works. He's a demon so why shouldn't his expressions be completely alien to humans? I imagine it's something Crispin Glover would do in a similar role.

We're going to see a lot of the Djinn this time around. If you disliked that Hellraiser: Bloodline made Pinhead a little too pedestrian, you're probably going to hate this movie because the Djinn doesn't lurk about the shadows anymore. But if you want to see Ernest Goes to Jail starring an evil genie as opposed to a clumsy idiot, you're going to get your money's worth. (I'm going to be very upset if they never make a Wishmaster in Space. Seriously. I want that movie so bad it hurts.)

In the first film, whose tagline was, "Be careful what you wish for," the Djinn had twisted interpretations of his victim's wishes. This time around we quickly learn that the rules regarding the Djinn's powers are murky. When a police officer tells him to "freeze," the Djinn encases him in a block of ice. This would have been clever if the character had said "I wish I was cool" or something like that, but whatever. I'll take what I can get. More often than not the setups to these ridiculous payoffs are poorly worded from the get-go.

I do have to say my favorite wish fulfillment is when LaSardo's character wishes his lawyer would "go fuck himself." The anticipation of that moment is supremely satisfying. Whether or not the payoff itself is any good is debatable so I won't ruin it for you.

the biggest stars in the entire movie

There's also a scene in which the Djinn is having a dull conversation, which is unexpectedly interrupted when the heroine pops out of nowhere and shoots at him. It's one of the most awkward and hilarious things I've seen in a long time. Anyone who's ever gotten a case of the giggles during a movie like this should be able to relate to the fun of that non sequitur moment.

I know what you're thinking: it sounds like I actually enjoyed this movie. Well, I hope this doesn't ruin my street cred', but I did. I'm sure you can say this of any film, but I was in the right frame of mind. Even though the practical effects can't hold a candle to the original, and it's severely lacking in the blood department, it's an oddly satisfying film. And not only because it's so honest and pure in the misguided era that gave Jennifer Love Hewitt leading roles.

So yeah, if there's ever a Kickstarter for Wishmaster vs. Leprechaun, I'd fund that shit in a heartbeat.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Brainscan (1994) [31 Days of Gore]

I was unreasonably stoked to see Brainscan back in '94. Not only was it hyped to the moon and back, even Entertainment Tonight was pushing it as some kind of historic cross between iconic horror and modern technology. I wasn't disappointed, either. The teenage characters were addicted to bloody movies, the sets were dressed with piles of Fangoria, and there was just enough violence to keep its intended audience—teenagers—entertained.

Terminator 2's Edward Furlong plays Michael, the kind of cynical outsider who'd probably be suspected of shooting up his school today. Moodiness aside, eleven-year-old me really identified with Michael. I still want to live in his hyper-90s, pseudo-cyberpunk bedroom, playing CD-ROMs all day while using a voice-activated interface that puts Siri to shame. Why would a teenager need his own refrigerator, especially when his mother's dead and his father's never home? Because fuck the rest of the house, that's why. That attic bedroom is the tits and I could live in it forever.

Although Michael used to love horror, he's become exceedingly blasé about it. He turns cynical whenever video game companies oversell their "terrifying experiences," and he talks about his favorite movies with all the enthusiasm of someone doing house chores. By the time he gets his hands on a copy of the mysterious video game Brainscan, he rolls his eyes like the angsty little piece of shit he is. The game ends up blowing his mind (never mind the seizure it somehow caused him before he actually played it) and he raves about it to his metalhead friend (his only friend) on the way to school the next day.

So in a plot twist no one didn't expect, Brainscan's depictions of murder seem real because they are. Michael finds out he unwittingly killed a man and has to spend the rest of the movie covering up his crime. Each cover-up requires an additional cover-up and so on and so on. I'm afraid I'm making this sound cleverer than it is, but it's not not clever, either. Just average clever.

That's when the Trickster enters the picture, played by T. Ryder Smith. If you don't recognize the name, that's okay. The film's marketing department wanted you to believe this guy was a big deal. The impish Trickster is a cross between Freddy Krueger and an obnoxious MTV veejay. Smith, who was previously a stage actor, doesn't exactly suck in the role, but he's probably miscast. No amount of guitar riffs and scenery-chewing antics will convince you this guy's comfortable in the role of a bad ass, nor will you believe he's eating the raw chicken as advertised in that Entertainment Tonight promo.

The film's really punching above its weight when it folds in Frank Langella as a surprisingly likable detective. Whereas all the other adults are either missing in action or portrayed as clueless squares (Parents just don't understand, right kids?), Langella gives it his all and it really shows. Other portions of the movie are surprisingly mature, too, which is why I give it a cautious recommendation.

And here's why you should be cautious: whenever Brainscan gets odd—and not in an entertaining, so bad it's good kind of way—you just have to remind yourself: "Because the nineties." The oddest thing about Brainscan is probably the romantic subplot. The filmmakers go for a Judy Blume approach to sexuality, but come off as wildly misguided... and creepy. See, Michael secretly video tapes his high school crush whenever she gets undressed in her bedroom window. At first you think the film means to damn his voyeuristic proclivities as a despicable character flaw, but later the filmmakers make it clear it's supposed to be cute. I guess if you're as hopelessly vapid as these teens are, it would be kind of cute, but that's missing the point.

Despite the film's many misses, it gets a lot of points for effort. Yes, they were being just a little too derivative of Nightmare on Elm Street and yes, there are so many holes in the plot they begin forming clover shapes. Yet where so many other "serious" horror films miss the mark entirely, Brainscan is almost there. I really enjoyed it at times and managed to keep my snickering to a minimum. It could very well be the fulcrum point between 80s slasher flicks and the following era's abundance of Scream knock-offs. That alone is interesting for historical purposes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Bad Biology (2008) [31 Days of Gore]

Director Frank Henenlotter insists he makes exploitation films, not horror. The line is blurry in Basket Case and Brain Damage, but Frankenhooker made the distinction a little bit clearer. With Bad Biology, Henenlotter goes all the way. This is technically not a horror movie, but it should certainly appeal to the fans of the genre.

The paradox of Bad Biology is A) you should see it without knowing anything about it and B) you really ought to know what you're getting yourself into. It's easily the most offensive movie I've featured this month. The most offensive thing for gross-out veterans will be how the lighting and the camerawork take on a soap opera quality while the abundant voiceovers sound rushed. For most viewers, however, the offending material will probably be the rampant psychosexuality and violence toward mutant babies.

The main character, Jennifer, is a sex addict with an abnormal vagina. Not only is she helplessly compelled to sleep with strangers every night, she frequently murders them before giving birth to a baby two hours after its conception. You read that right.

Then there's this guy nicknamed Batz on account of him being bat-shit insane. His penis was accidentally severed at birth and although the doctors managed to reattach it, it never quite worked right again. In an effort to rejuvenate his beloved member, he began experimenting with steroids and other drugs. Now his penis has developed a drug deficiency and, inexplicably, a mind of its own.

You remember the phallic rocket gag in the Austin Powers movies? There's a scene kind of like that near the end of Bad Biology. To say more would give it away, but it's much funnier because it doesn't require cheap cameos to sell it (only cheap effects). Just when you think the sequence is over, it starts all over again, and the sheer stupidity of it makes you snicker. A lot of R-rated Hollywood comedies certainly try to be as outlandish as Bad Biology, but Henenlotter does it effortlessly.

Henenlotter's done this shot from baskets, zippers, and now the holiest of holies

Obviously Jennifer and Batz are made for each other, but they don't even meet until the second half of the movie. That may sound like the movie plods, but it doesn't. It's actually one of the best modern exploitation films I've ever seen. It's also one of the shittiest-looking. No, it's not quite as shitty-looking as yesterday's Video Violence, but movies like that get a pass because a bonafide film shouldn't look as bad as Bad Biology does. Thankfully, the offensiveness of the cinematography all but disappears by the end of the movie.

I can't think of many genuine exploitation movies made in the 21st century. Bad Biology gets a ton of points for pulling that off. Despite the gore and the bizarre subject matter, it's a cute little picture. Now it's time for Basket Case 4, Frank. We all want to see it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Video Violence (1987) [31 Days of Gore]


Here's what you need to know: a New Yorker opens a video store in a small town. One day a homemade snuff film finds its way in the overnight return box. Naturally, the cops don't believe his "crazy story" because otherwise the movie would be over as soon as they do their job. Or maybe they're in on it... maybe. (I'm not just being flippant here. It really is kind of hard to tell.)

I began snickering almost as soon as Video Violence began. In the opening scene, a couple of store clerks wait for an unsuspecting shopper to go into the dressing room before bursting in and beating her to death with a baseball bat. That, of course, isn't the funny part. What's funny is these aren't actors, just people who the director probably talked into being in his little horror movie. I imagine the writing process was like this: "Hey, I know a guy who owns a grocery store, so let's set a scene there."

In 1985, United Home Video gave us Blood Cult, which was billed as the first straight-to-video horror movie. Whether or not that claim is true is debatable, but I cherish the VHS copy I found in the clearance bin because it was shot in and around my hometown. (United's follow-up, The Ripper, has scenes shot about two blocks from my current address.) Video Violence references Blood Cult twice and there's something oddly pointed about it.

According to Wikipedia, Video Violence is an angry response to the cheap horror films which were infiltrating the newly created video market at the time. The director, who worked in a video store, claims he was disheartened by the fact so many people were into these types of movies. So what did he do as a response? He created one of the sickest of the bunch. At least one section is as uncomfortably brutal as the scene in A Clockwork Orange, complete with the instigators using scissors to reveal the victim's nipples.

So it's remarkable that out of Blood Cult, The Ripper, and Redneck Zombies, Video Violence is easily the most watchable. The other movies were boring more often than not, but even though it's longer, Video Violence has that certain undefinable trait found in Neil Breen films and The Room. The actors probably have no business being in a movie, but what they lack in talent they make up for with charm. And imagine driving through a small town and seeing this guy on the sidewalk:

I always loved the idea of everyday people picking up a camera and making a movie. Youtube has kind of ruined the novelty of it, but back then it was great to think an impromptu horror movie was the talk of a small town in a Waiting for Guffman kind of way. Video Violence drags a little towards the end, but atones for its slip-up soon enough.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Angel Heart (1987) [31 Days of Gore]


Why does black magic, devil-worshiping, and detective noir go together so well? I don't know, they just do. There are few genre mashups I like more than hard boiled horror. This one reminds me of Jacob's Ladder, The Ninth Gate, and Lord of Illusions, all three of which seem to be divisive movies that keep drawing me back in. If those aren't your cup of tea, neither is Angel Heart.

Mickey Rourke plays Harry Angel, a morally ambiguous private detective in 1950s New York City. He's just been hired by Louis Cypher (Robert De Niro) to track down a missing person by the name of Johnny Favorite. Cypher's reason for wanting to find Favorite is vague at best, but he's offering Angel five thousand bucks to do it. So even when some of Angel's leads start turning up dead, he needs the money too bad to quit.

Here's something I've been thinking about this a lot lately: What's the difference between a trope and a cliche, anyway? The simple answer is we like tropes. They're the elemental building blocks for a specific mood. Like Jacob's Ladder, Angel Heart is a master of mood, but more than anything it's a master of imagery. Watch it a second time and those nightmarish images will start to make a little more sense, yet somehow the film becomes even more unsettling with coherence.

It's darkly funny at times, too. When his investigation leads him to New Orleans, Angel falls under the scrutiny of a couple of Louisiana homicide detectives who're trying to finger him for the murder of a musician who choked to death on his own severed genitalia. Later, they harass him for the murder of a woman who, they claim, "Died under similar circumstances." Angel squints at them before replying in his Brooklyn accent, "She choke on her dick, too?"

If the movie breaks down anywhere, it's in the end when Angel starts piecing together the puzzle. It's something we wouldn't have seen much around the time of its release, but nowadays it's all becoming a little too old hat. Doesn't matter. Angel Heart is still one of the best horror films ever made.