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Friday, October 19, 2018

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 19: HALLOWEEN (2018)

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is back: She's had four decades to prepare for this inevitable showdown, and she is NOT fucking around.

Michael Myers, the infamous perpetrator of the Haddonfield babysitter murders of 1978, has spent the last forty years under maximum security psychiatric care, remaining utterly silent the entire time, and he now awaits transfer to another facility with fewer amenities. A pair of British podcasters gain access to interview him but he remains as taciturn and unresponsive as ever...until the male fuckwit of the British pair whips out Michael's signature William Shatner mask (which has spent decades in police evidence storage) in hope of eliciting a response. 

Seriously, is it ever a good idea to "poke the bear?"

When the masked reminder seemingly fails to provoke the desired break in Michael's silent treatment, the Brits go with Plan B and instead attempt to interview Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who memorably tangled with Michael and survived that horrific Halloween night in 1978. Now living as a recluse in a remote house that's tricked-out with all manner of home security, surveillance cameras, and a well-stocked safe room complete with an armory that would make even the most fanatical of survivalists cream their jeans, Laurie makes it clear that she's unwilling to spill her guts to the two Pommie podcasting morons and promptly boots them from the premises. We also learn that Laurie has a grown and happily married daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), who was taken away at age 12 by Child Protective Services due to concerns over Laurie being an unfit mother. Karen's childhood, from ages 8 through 12, was essentially a non-stop regimen of training and preparedness-enforcement should the day ever come when Michael Myers escapes, and despite all of the comprehensive combat training that she received from her mother, even Karen was convinced that her mom was simply a paranoid basket case. Their adult relationship is one of tragic estrangement — made more heart-wrenching because we, the audience, know that Laurie is absolutely not insane or paranoid, and the way she tried to raise her daughter was an act of deepest love and caring — but Laurie maintains a positive (if somewhat strained) connection with her college-bound grand-daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak).

Then, on October 30th, Michael's transfer takes place and the bus bearing him and other inmates crashes — whether the crash was caused by Michael is not made clear — which allows him to escape, and in no time he begins killing his way through Haddonfield after snagging a new mechanic's jumpsuit and retrieving his mask. (Do I really need to tell you things do not work out well for our visitors from across the pond?) Halloween rolls around and Laurie's worst fears become bloody reality, as her long-overdue reckoning with Michael comes to a head, only this time involving three generations of Strode women.

Just one of the film's memorable kills.

If you, like me, have stuck with the HALLOWEEN franchise through all of its installments, you know that every one of the sequels to John Carpenter's 1978 slasher landmark mostly suck out loud, to varying degrees — with the sole exception being the unfairly maligned HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1983),  which had nothing whatsoever to do with Michael or Laurie — so one has every reason to approach yet another HALLOWEEN sequel with the bar of expectations set about as low as a snail's dick. With that caveat firmly in mind, allow me to state in no uncertain terms that HALLOWEEN (2018) is easily the best of the direct sequels, by a goddamned landslide. That's admittedly not saying much, but the current installment does what it sets out to do, which is to wisely erase every film in the post-1978 canon continuity from memory and set the current chapter as the point from which the tale of Michael and Laurie truly continues. It's always fun to see Jamie Lee Curtis return as Laurie Strode, and she's especially entertaining here as she's in full-on Sarah Connor mode. Hell, that only makes sense when one considers what she endured in the first film, and you had better believe that she proves to be one utterly badassed opponent for the ever-deadly Michael. And while there's no Dr. Loomis in this one, since good ol' Donald Pleasance croaked during the reshoots for the monumentally ludicrous HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995), he's replaced with Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who, for no adequately explained reason, is a Dr. Loomis/Donald Pleasance sound-alike. Oh! And it should also be noted that viewers should pay attention to the kids running around Haddonfield on Halloween night. Among them are a trio rocking the Silver Shamrock skeleton, witch, and Jack o'lantern masks from HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, but you'll miss them if you blink.

The film itself is just right as a season-appropriate confection, but it is by no means a masterpiece. To audiences well-steeped in cinematic horror, it offers nothing new or surprising, relying on what one would expect from the purported final showdown (yeah, right) between the protagonists to put asses in seats. As such, it is satisfying enough and definitely worth sitting through, but do not go into this expecting anything close to the suspense to be had from the original HALLOWEEN. What we get instead are a number of very brutal, visceral, and memorable kills from one of cinema's signature boogeymen, and the audience I saw it with ate it up like the thrill ride that it is. It's definitely made for an undemanding audience, but sometimes one craves an order of Chicken McNuggets instead of chicken cordon bleu, and HALLOWEEN (2018) definitely counts as palatable horror movie junk food and it's a better-than-average example of the garden variety slasher gore-fest.

Poster from the theatrical release.

(L-R) Suzi, Eryn, and myself, just after seeing the film at the Regal Court Street Stadium 12.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 18-THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964)

Universally hailed as a member of the bad horror movie pantheon, THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH is a film that's held a dear place in my heart since I was nine years old, and even at that tender age I knew it was a steaming turd.

The plot, such as it is, is simplicity itself: After toxic chemicals are dumped offshore near a beach in southern Connecticut, human remains in a sunken boat come unto contact with the stuff and spontaneously mutate into murderous fish-men. The rampage of the creatures plays out against an uninteresting romance sub-plot involving a wooden bohunk whose sleazy girlfriend is the first to get offed by the the monsters, so he finds solace in the arms of a "nice" girl whose dad is the requisite scientist who's investigating the creatures. And there's even an out-of-date stereotypical superstitious black maid thrown into the mix who is convinced that the monsters are the direct result of voodoo. No, seriously.

The unexpected box office success of BEACH PARTY, the film that single-handedly created the low-budget,  brain-dead fun-in-the-sun musical comedy genre which formed part of the American cinema mosaic of the 1960's, spawned a host of imitators and cash-ins, some of which attempted to fuse its chaste, pre-hippie teen shenanigans with Abbott & Costello-level horror. But while the legit BEACH PARTY series had the matinee star appeal of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello (yum!) to put asses in seats, the imitators dredged up whatever then-popular musical acts they could afford, along with has-been faces familiar from old movies or defunct TV series, and the resulting films were often dire wastes of time. That said, THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH was made on the ultra-cheap and shot in Stamford, CT (not far from where I grew up), and the closest it could get to any sort of celebrities or popular music act was the Del-Aires, a surf rock band from Patterson, New Jersey. (To be fair, though they were pretty obscure at the time, their surfy stylings were pretty good, and I say that as a lifelong surf music enthusiast.)

When taken as a whole, THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH is a rather tepid affair with a handful of Del-Aires numbers sprinkled in to keep things from being altogether turgid, but what really sends the picture straight over the top into the annals of bad movie legend is the monsters. These bargain basement Creature from the Black Lagoon wannabes wouldn't even have passed muster as characters on SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS (1973-1975), what with their googly eyes and mouths that appear to be crammed full of bunless hot dogs.

Can your mind withstand the sheer horror???

It's utter trash and not even scary to a nursery-schooler, but I love it in the same way that one loves a particularly stupid mongrel puppy. I recommend checking it out for yourself, especially if you have a few six-packs of beer or a packed bong close at hand, and you have a choice of watching it in its straight release or in the memorable version showcased on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 back in 1997. The film was ripe for the MST3K treatment, and I think their handling of it ranks among the best of the show's efforts. Sheer hilarity from start to finish, with extra points going to the spot-on observation that the leader of the film's allegedly intimidating motorcycle gang is a dead ringer for "sensitive" '50's pop singer Johnny Mathis.

Ad from the film's original release press kit.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 17: MARTIN (1978)

"There isn't any magic. It's just a sickness..."

After the death of his immediate relatives, Martin Mathias (John Amplas) moves into the Pittsburgh home of his aged and strict Catholic cousin, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who considers Martin a "nosferatu," the latest bearer of a family  curse, and seeks to redeem Martin's soul before destroying him. Cuda is about as "old country" as one can get in late-20th century America and he handles Martin as a true believer would deal with the threat of a known vampire, making sure his home is outfitted with crucifixes, garlic, and other standard deterrents. But Martin is anything but a standard example of a textbook vampire, in that he has no trouble with sunlight and none of the usual anti-vampire items work when wielded against him, with Martin dismissing them and clearly declaring that there is no such thing as magic. And instead of engaging in the vampiric act in the manner that we have all become accustomed to via movies, Martin stalks his female prey, gets them alone and shoots them up with a strong sedative, strips them and himself naked, has his way with their unconscious bodies and finishes the act by opening their veins with a utility razor to sup upon their blood. In short, Martin is a shy serial rapist whose hypodermic needles and razor blades provide the penetration that he cannot otherwise achieve due to his lack of the familiar traditional fangs, and his rape of unconscious women can be read as being akin to necrophilia. As Martin tellingly puts it, he's self-admittedly "much too shy to do the sexy stuff with someone who's awake."

Martin (John Amplas), playing to Cuda's superstitious beliefs.

Martin's existence is punctuated by recurring black and white visions of his self-perception in the role of a romantic vampire straight out of a clichéd gothic horror flick, but the sordid reality of his crimes puts the lie to his delusions. But are they delusions? Though he appears to be a young man of perhaps 20, family records state that Martin was born in 1892, making him a solid 84 at the time when the story takes place, and his alleged advanced age makes his social and sexual awkwardness that much more pathetic. Desperate for a connection and understanding, Martin regularly calls in to an all-night radio talk show as the anonymous "Count," outlining his needs and modus operandi for his nocturnal misdeeds, becoming a listener favorite. But as the dysfunction in Cuda's household escalates, Martin  clumsily has his first consensual sexual encounter in the wake of a particularly sloppy home invasion, and that entanglement with Mrs. Santini (Elaine Nadeau), a kind woman who has problems of her own, leads to a double-tragedy...

Bearing the same indie/DIY feel that gave his epochal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) its memorable feel and power, MARTIN is by far writer/director George A Romero's darkest and most tragic effort. Steeped in a signature Pittsburgh industrial bleakness — I've been to Pittsburgh and it felt like being in a Romero movie — the film is grounded in a recognizable mundanity that makes the  story's events all too believable. We've all known someone as awkward and "creepy" as Martin, and his sorry version of sexuality is simultaneously loathsome and pitiful. Whatever side on the debate over his supposed vampirism one falls on, Martin is an individual who is clearly in need of years of deep and thorough psychiatric treatment, and one cannot help but feel great pity for him. (His vile rapey and exsanguinatory behavior notwithstanding.) 

Not at all a "fun" entry in the genre, what one gets with MARTIN is the most melancholy of character studies rather than an outright thrilling shocker, but it's the low-key, slow burn approach that gives the film its punch, and once seen it sticks in the viewer's memory like a wooden stake through the heart. Hardcore vampire traditionalists may turn up their noses at its eschewing and mocking of just about every undead suckface trope, but it remains a noteworthy divergence from the expected. RECOMMENDED.

 Poster from the theatrical release.
 An amusingly lurid variant theatrical poster.

From my collection.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 16: THE RUINS Unrated (2008)

 "Visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico," they said. "It'll be fun," they said... WRONG.

Two young American couples and a pair of foreign tourists are on vacation in Mexico, and one of the foreigners is searching for his missing brother, whose last reported location was at an archaeological dig at a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle. When they arrive at the ruin, they find a stone temple with ascending stairs, covered with lush vines, they are confronted by locals natives who do not speak English, and it's clear that the locals are keeping a safe distance from the site. When one of the girls touches some of the vines, the natives become quite distressed, and when one of the foreigners attempts to move closer and communicate with them, he is remorselessly shot dead. Confused and fearing a similar fate, the tourists runs up the stairs and find themselves at the open top of the temple, where they find the remains of an abandoned camp, presumably the camp of the missing brother and the archaeologist he was last seen with. The camp is right next to a deep, dark pit that goes deep into the bowels of the ruin, and from its depths can be heard the sound of the missing brother's cell phone.  Further attempts to communicate the situation to the locals fall on deaf ears as they keep the tourists held on the temple at gunpoint. The bottom line is that it's clear the tourists have unwittingly stumbled upon something very dire indeed, something that cannot be allowed out past the confines of the temple site, and the locals will not hesitate to kill them to prevent their escape. But exactly what are the natives so terrified of? The answer to that question is quite unexpected and very, very nasty, and the party of tourists is, to put it as mildly as humanly possible, completely fucked beyond all hope.

One of the many things I hate about the MPAA is that it does not respect the intelligence of its adult audience, especially when it actively works to neuter horror films in order to make them more "acceptable" for the lucrative teen audience to see. While not all horror need an R-rating (or beyond) in order to be a scary bit of fun, grownup horror fans often prefer to see such material without its teeth removed, as visceral, gory nastiness has been part and parcel with yarns of terror since the dawn of storytelling. In the case of THE RUINS, the film was released with an R-rating, but the unrated version (available on home video) is really the one you want to see. Once the tourists discover exactly what waits within the ruins, things immediately veer into no-way-out territory and some truly harrowing and downright vicious and gory things happen that whittles down their number one by one. I will not spoil the particulars but I will state that this is a prime example of a 21st century venture into the realm of Lovecraftian horror that is not necessarily meant to be comprehended by man. The threat is an elder presence that's likely been there for centuries, or maybe even millennia, and no answers are given as to its exact nature or where it came from. But whatever the case, it's an exceedingly dangerous entity and the locals are 100% right to want to keep it contained and keep interlopers well away from it, and the unrated version of the film gets that point across beyond the shadow of a doubt. Trimming the gore and violence in order to secure an R-rating robs the film of a significant amount of its hopeless gut-punch power, and exactly who the fuck were the censors protecting, anyway? Grownups are the ones paying to see films clearly marked as being for consumption by an adult audience, so why remove the nastiness from a film whose very purpose is to be scary and viscerally horrifying? The MPAA's criteria for what is or is not acceptable varies from movie to movie, thus making their determinations completely arbitrary, so they can go eat a shopping cart full of medical waste.

THE RUINS comes off Pertwee-era DOCTOR WHO story for adults, and coming me that's a strong recommendation indeed. I know I have not given away exactly what it's about, but please trust me when I tell you that the unrated version of the film is very strong meat that will delight horror fans who appreciate movies that are not afraid to truly go there with hardcore unpleasantness. Absolutely not recommended for beginners or the squeamish, but everyone else should check this one out immediately. An instant classic.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Monday, October 15, 2018

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 15: WAXWORK (1988)

If David Warner invites you to attend a private midnight showing at his just-appeared-from-out-of-nowhere wax museum, DO. NOT. ACCEPT.

A group of vapid, affluent teens are invited to a private midnight showing at a wax museum curated by a creepy Englishman (David Warner), and each display depicts a scene of gruesome mayhem and horror featuring "the most evil souls that have ever been." Despite the fact that the museum just popped up one day in their suburban neighborhood from literally out of nowhere, the teenagers accept the invitation and are amazed at the ultra-lifelike quality of the wax figures. The friends separate and check out the displays on their own and some of them notice that a number of the setups are missing a key figure to complete the composition. One by one, some the teens step over the threshold of the displays and find themselves transported into the worlds of the settings for real, physically altered to possess period-appropriate clothing and hair, and with no way to get back to their 20th century reality. Once inside the scenarios, horrific fates are inevitable and the waxwork gains a figure. Some of the kids are smart enough to get the hell out of there before the wax museum can claim them, but while attempting to figure out what became of their friends, the police become involved and the simultaneous investigations of the cops and the remaining kids reveal the secrets of the waxwork and its proprietor...

As noted numerous times on this blog, the 1980's were years when the silver screen was dominated by a slew of assembly line slasher movies that seldom displayed any sort of imagination in the bloody horrors they presented. It was all about the tits and gore, and that was that, so when a horror movie came along that offered something more than just endless scenes of cutlery and garden tools penetrating nubile young flesh, it was a real treat. Such was the case when WAXWORK was released, and I was quite happy with what it gave me.

The makers of WAXWORK clearly created it as a love letter to the horror genre, and it shows affectionate (and humorous) respect to the form's archetypes. We get werewolves, Count Dracula (Miles O'Keefe) and his brides, a vengeful mummy, zombies, even the Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell), and the scenarios featuring each perfectly evokes the individual flavors of their sources.

The brides of Count Dracula: Reminding us in no uncertain terms that vampires should be terrifying.

The assorted horror scenarios are all a lot of fun, with the sequence at Dracula's castle being such a standout that it made me want to see an entire Dracula movie crafted by these filmmakers. 

It all works just great as a horror anthology in disguise. and it's especially fun for those of us with a deep grounding in horror movie history and lore. It was released in R-rated and unrated versions, and I'm betting the version available on home video is the unrated one, because the violence and gore sometimes veers into seriously nasty territory, particularly in the bits involving the werewolf and Dracula. There are also adult themes involving sexuality (but no nudity), so I'd advise discretion before letting your under-twelves to see it, unless you're ready for a very interesting discussion of exactly what the Marquis de Sade was all about. Personally, I can't wait to sit my niece Aurora through it, but I'm pretty sure Dracula's feast with his minions would freak her the fuck out, so WAXWORK will have to sit on the back burner until she's just a couple of years older. That said, it's a very good little comedy-shocker, with the emphasis more on chills than laughs. RECOMMENDED.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

40 YEARS AGO TODAY: MY "BEATLES ON SULLIVAN" MOMENT

The night I discovered my personal Beatles.

On this night forty years ago, I was a miserable thirteen-year-old caught between being stuck in a hostile hometown filled mostly with hostile, affluent morons, and the nightmare of torturous adolescence. It was also toward the ass-end of the years-long plague that was disco, but that pandemic of largely brainless booty-shaking tunes was not yet ready to give up the ghost, so pop music radio was a fucking nightmare. (Little did I know that it would only get worse, far worse, with the dawn of the 1980's, over-saturation thanks to the newly-minted MTV, and the total domination of the airwaves by corporate "product" music.) 

Anyone who knows me in the world outside of the internet will tell you that one of the first things most people come to understand about me is that I am a huge music buff whose interests cover just about every known genre of works Euterpean, and then some. I'd grown up with a steady diet of musicals, big band and other pre-rock forms, early rock and country, per and post-Beatles '60's fare, and classic '70's pop, but by the late 1970's the dominance of disco pretty much amounted to aural fascism, while the rest of the pop music heard on the radio began to degenerate into overplayed, trite little ditties that wound up sounding like TV commercial jingles. (And in many cases would later become used as such.) Those were the days just before I discovered the joys of punk, "new wave," and heavy metal, so my young mind was starving for something, anything different that would set my sensibilities ablaze.

On the night of Saturday, October 14, 1978, I settled in to watch SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, just as I had every Saturday night for just over a year upon being clued in on the show by some peers during wilderness camp in 1977, and while I was used to the program providing a live showcase for unknown musical acts, I was in no way prepared for that evening's band. When host Fred Willard announced some group called "Devo," I expected another disposable place-holder until the next comedy sketch came on. What I got instead was unquestionable one of the most seismic shifts in my musical and pop culture sensibilities, and definitely a life-changing moment.

On the stage stood four hasmat-suited white guys and a seated drummer, all of whom looked like an assortment of clones or androids straight out of a 1950's sci-fi movie, and when they began to perform, their movements were bizarrely herky-jerky as they made their way through... No. Wait a minute... That can't possibly be... The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction?!!?" But sure enough, it was the old Stones chestnut, only as warped and filtered through an even more frustrated and fraught way of communicating its lyrical intent than the original could ever have been allowed to get away with some thirteen years earlier. It jabbed at my nerve endings and truly connected me with what it was all about for the first time. I'd known the song well since I was old enough to remember anything beyond the confines of my crib, and I had even seen my dad sing along with a local band's live performance of it while he was drunk during a family trip to Martinique when I was nine, but it too the blank gaze and escalating tension in the voice of frontman Mark Mothersbaugh to drive home the "no-matter-what-I-do-I-lose" futility and denied fulfillment expressed by the song's words. To the adolescent me, it was a moment of someone  saying, "I get you, man, and you are NOT alone," and I swear to god it moved me to the core. That, and the sheer bizarre incongruity of seeing this particular band on a stage where I had seen Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Leon Redbone (who I always felt was criminally underrated), Elvis Costello (who two years later emerged as a personal Top 10 favorite), Billy Joel, and even the Rolling Stones perform made my mouth hang open in disbelief, and I actually uttered aloud "WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST SEE???" when the song came to its  abrupt end.

After that, I knew there would be another number from the guest band toward the end of the show, and I impatiently waited to see what this weird-assed Devo had up their sleeves that could match or even best their singular take on the Stones' classic. What I got was a short introductory film with a musical claxon punctuating footage of a jumpsuited adult figure running into an industrial building while wearing a full-head mask with the visage of a wide-eyed baby.

Booji Boy, making haste to spread the word about de-evolution.

I would later find out that this disturbing person was Booji (pronounced "boogie") Boy, the "immature spirit of de-evolution," the more-or-less mascot of Devo and their theories about mankind's sorry de-evolved state, but as I sat there watching him deliver vital papers to a seemingly-military figure, later found out to be one "General Boy," I was utterly hooked by the film's surreal weirdness as it segued into the live band performing "Jocko Homo," an anthem citing how we, humanity, are all Devo, while also citing that "God made made man/But he used a monkey to do it/Apes in the plan/And we're all here to prove it," which was capped off with the brilliant line, "God made man/But a monkey supplied the glue!" Mind. Fucking. BLOWN.

When I and my peers went back to school that Monday and discussed the events of that weekend's SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE installment, everyone was perplexed by what they had seen when Devo took the stage, though few found it to be the "come to Jesus" moment that I did. And since that was about four years before my mom bought a VCR for the house, I resorted to taping audio recordings of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE each week and editing them down to just the highlights, and the only bits I kept from the Fred Willard show were the two Devo performances. I listened to that tape over and over again until the Christmas of two years later, by which point Devo had released three albums, with their then-current LP, FREEDOM OF CHOICE, yielding Top 40 hit and definitive anthem for both new wave as perceived by the general public and for the dawn of the 1980's as a decade, "Whip It." That Christmas I asked for, and got, the first three Devo albums, and by the end of that week I had committed every word and every note on them to memory and, emboldened by the different, utterly bizarro flavor they introduced me to, the door was fully opened to my never-ending quest to find and devour as much off-the wall music as I could get my hands on. It's now forty years later, and I fondly reflect on that night the way the now-senior citizen kids in 1964 felt when the Beatles won their hearts and minds with their American TV debut.

So, thank you, Devo, from the bottom of my heart. You provided a much-needed window of mental freedom and enlightenment to this very unhappy adolescent misfit, and for that I owe you a debt that I can never properly repay. Since that night and until the day when my time on this unforgiving rock comes to its inevitable end, I shall always remember that I am and that we are all Devo.

Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO! (1978) The first and arguably best album by my favorite band of all time. An era-defining masterpiece in every way, if you do not already own a copy of this record, GET IT IMMEDIATELY.

2014: With Devo co-founder and frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. Don't let my goofy expression fool you. I was utterly kvelling.

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 14: HELLDRIVER (2010)

Fun with the zombie apocalypse!

I can't speak for you, but the glut of zombie movies over the last twenty years or so just leaves me baffled, and the majority of those films (and other media involving zombies) largely leaves me cold. Most of it is content to simply be cookie-cutter rehashings of the same old "living refugees versus hordes of undead flesh-eaters in an isolated location" scenario, and more often than not little or no imagination is put into what's being crapped out for the audience. Exceptions like the superb TRAIN TO BUSAN are as rare as tits on a trout, and that's proof that the genre is not bereft of life, especially if talented filmmakers with imagination are at the helm. Such is the case of director Yoshihiro Nishimura's delirious HELLDRIVER.

The plot in a nutshell: A symbiotic extra-terrestrial life form sets off a cannibalistic zombie apocalypse that's localized to Japan, causing the country to be divided by a wall separating those who are infected and those who aren't. After her extra-terrestrially-possessed mom literally rips out her heart to replace her own that was blown out during the alien's arrival, schoolgirl Kika (Yumiko Hara) is reborn as a swordfighting badass with a chainsaw katana powered by her artificial heart. 

A maternal nightmare writ large.

Pressed into military service and tasked with tagging her now deity-level mother, Kika and a ragtag band of unlikely heroes are sent into the infected half of the country on a roaring rampage of virtually non-stop carnage, gore, and generally hilarious over-the-top live-action cartoon mayhem. It's a tad over-long with its nearly two-hour running time, but it is the most wall-to-wall series of ultra-gory set pieces I've ever witnessed, due to the film piling ultra-violence upon gore atop more ultra-violence. Plus it's an intentional laugh-riot from start to finish! In short, it's the Japanese answer to Peter Jackson's hilarious gore-orgy, DEADALIVE (which I have to get around to covering, possibly next year).

Just another splattery day for Kika (Yumiko Hara).

HELLDRIVER is an exercise in gory, utterly over-the-top madness in the flavor that only the Japanese can bring, and I, for one, welcome films of its level of sheer insanity with open arms. The cornucopia of geysering arterial spray, severed limbs, flesh-devouring undead, and other mayhem on display here is truly jaw-dropping, and I would be doing you a grave disservice by giving away any of its crazy specifics. It's something that must be seen to be believed and appreciated, so I strongly advise you to check this one out immediately. Seriously, this is an absolute must-see.

Kika rides the wasteland on a muscle car composed of severed human limbs. No, seriously.

When HELLDRIVER had its American premiere at NYC's Japan Society in 2010, my dear buddy Gil Sonic invited me along, and I was delighted by what I got. And as if my first exposure to the film being seeing it in its fully uncut version wasn't sweet enough, the director and some of the cast were on hand as well for a spirited meet and greet with the audience.

(L-R) Gil Sonic, director Yoshihiro Nishimura (with the film's hilarious/disturbing zombie baby, that I did not mention in the review), and me.

Me with Eihi Shiina, who played Kika's zombified mother. She's best known in the U.S. for her terrifying role in Takashi Miike's 1999 instant classic of horror, AUDITION. If you've seen that film, you know EXACTLY who she is.

 Gil finds love in all the wrong places while I look on in horror.

Me with one of the film's prop zombie heads, complete with alien antenna.

 Poster for the limited American theatrical release.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 13: GINGER SNAPS 2: UNLEASHED (2004)

Filing down one's werewolf teeth is a stone-cold bitch.

Picking up shortly after the events of the first film, we find Brigette Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) living  in a cheap Canadian hotel, where she staves off the symptoms of her lycanthropic curse with injections of monkshood (aka wolfsbane, the presumed cure found in the previous installment) while keeping a journal on her progress with her condition. The monkshood is losing its efficacy and while regularly attempting suicide by slashing her wrists, her werewolf-style healing factor shows clear evidence of growing stronger by the day. Her dead werewolf sister, Ginger (Catherine Isabelle), appears to her as an apparition, trying to offer a measure of comfort while pointing out the fact that the monkshood is not the cure it was presumed to be and it's only a matter of time until the wolf wins out. Ginger also notes that a male werewolf who has apparently been stalking Brigette has caught up with her...

Brigette haunts the local library and studies up on aspects of her condition during late-night hours when other members are gone, and her serial presence attracts the attentions of a young librarian who feebly attempts to put the moves on her and is rebuffed. He tracks her back to her hotel room and finds her in the midst of suffering an anaphylactic reaction to having shot up too much monkshood within one day, and as he attempts to drive her to get medical help, he is attacked and killed by the aforementioned male werewolf. Brigette escapes but loses consciousness, only to awaken and find herself in a psychiatric lockdown's female wing. Held against her will under the assumption that she's an addict (due to the telltale injection marks on her arms) and denied monkshood, Brigitte's wolfish traits begin to accelerate and she realizes it's only a matter of time until she turns supernaturally murderous and begins killing the staff and her fellow inmates. 

There are few scenarios worse than when a sexed-up werewolf wants to mate with you.

Befriended by Ghost (Tatiana Maslany), a creepy horror comics fan who figures out her secret, Brigette must navigate the unstable girls she's trapped amongst while dealing with the unwanted attentions of Tyler (Eric Johnson), a power-tripping hospital staffer who extorts sexual favors from the girls in exchange for providing them with the drugs they're supposed to be detoxing from. And as if all of that wasn't bad enough, her lupine stalker has followed her to the hospital with mating on his mind, so Brigette must escape in order to save herself and every other human in the place, and yet her own wolfish side fights to break free... 

Considering the high quality of the original GINGER SNAPS (2000), any sequel that followed would have a hell of a lot to live up to. While not in the same league as its predecessor, GINGER SNAPS 2: UNLEASHED is pretty solid, as sequels go, and it's a tight little thriller in its own right. Though not as focused on the specifically female aspects of the lycanthropic experience as the first chapter, the sequel does return to the allegory of burgeoning female sexuality while melding its pubertal torments with the tropes of psychiatric hospital horror.  The tight script is bolstered by great performances from the entire cast, with the standouts being Emily Perkins, reprising her role as the tortured Brigette, and Tatiana Maslany as Ghost, one of the creepiest kids to grace a horror movie in ages.

Ghost (Tatiana Maslany), twigging to Brigitte's werewolfism via good ol' horror comics.

Though it received a theatrical release in its native Canada, GINGER SNAPS 2: UNLEASHED was released direct to video in the United States and I would like to know why. Like I said, it's a good flick, and there's no reason for it not to have been shown on the big screen here while shitty horror sequels are cranked out and projected at multiplexes nationwide multiple times per year. Once again, the werewolf gets the shaft...

Teaser poster for the Canadian theatrical release.

Friday, October 12, 2018

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 12: GOING TO PIECES: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

Those of us who came of age in the 1980's can tell you all about the era's generation-defining explosion of slasher films, but there's a lot of ground to cover and it's sometimes difficult to get across  to today's younger horror fans just how impactful the craze was on American culture and world cinema. This documentary takes a very good stab (pun intended) at providing a comprehensive history and overview of the fascination with graphic violence as an entertainment form, going back as far as France's live Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol stage productions staring at the end of the 19th century, and rightfully citing PEEPING TOM and PSYCHO, both released in 1960, as the progenitors of the cinematic slasher genre. It then skips ahead to the impact of HALLOWEEN in 1978, which inspired the making of the surprise hit that was FRIDAY THE 13th (1980), the film whose success was what truly opened the bloody floodgates of the slasher genre as we came to know it.

Featuring commentary and observances by filmmakers and cast members of the iconic films from the genre, the documentary does as much as it can examine slasher movies both as populist entertainment and suss out exactly why they were so big during their heyday. It traces the deluge that began with FRIDAY THE 13th, calls bullshit on the parental watchdog controversy over SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984), marks the end of the first wave with the release of FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984) and the start of the second wave with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1985), notes the decline and dormancy leading into the 1990's and the rekindling of the general public's interest in horror with the mainstream acclaim and success of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) before the rebirth of the genre proper with the knowing and comedic meta-commentary of SCREAM (1996). So, what we have here is an attempt to dissect a genre that contains  seemingly hundreds of films spanning a nearly three-decade period, and for the most part it does the job quite nicely, but due to the sheer volume of content, it at times reads as a Crib Notes version of what could easily fill out a whole semester in a college film studies course. Even so, it's a fun trip down Memory lane for those of us who were there, and it's definitely recommended as a good starting point/primer for curious newcomers. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2018-Day 11: HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961)

The sybil speaks.

Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo), the lover of the mighty Hercules (Reg Park), is inexplicably driven mad and her people are consequently miserable. The only thing that can restore her sanity is a stone found in Hades, Greek mythology's land of the dead, so Herc and his pals, priapic ladies' man Theseus (George Ardisson) and woefully unfunny comic relief Telemachus (Franco Giacobini) set off on a quest to snag the magic rock and save the princess. But what our heroes don't realize is that Deianira's madness has been orchestrated by her guardian, the evil Lico (Christopher Lee), who has used her insanity as an excuse to install himself as king of her land. 

Christopher Lee as Lico. Not Dracula this time, but still evil as fuck.

Lico is in league with unspecified dark gods (presumably not of the Greek pantheon) and wields assorted baleful powers, so our heroes must first endure a number of potentially deadly trials in their quest for the stone before returning home to settle Lico's hash. And as if all of that wasn't enough to deal with, things are further complicated when the walking erection that is Thesues meets and instantly falls in love with a nameless beauty (Ida Galli) in the underworld and sneaks her out to make her his bride. Unfortunately for him, she turns out to be Persephone (look up her story in literally any book on Greek mythology), so Pluto, the unseen lord of the dead, is none too pleased by her departure, thus bringing the displeasure of one of the most powerful gods down upon Deianira's land in the form of crop and livestock blight and natural disasters. And as a coming eclipse looms, Lico must drink the blood of Deianira to ensure that he rules her kingdom for eternity. In other words, just another week at the office for Hercules.

HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (originally titled HERCULES AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH in its native Italy) is one of the best-looking and most visually imaginative of the hundreds of tits & togas flicks released during the 1960's, and it overflows with mood and atmosphere. Writer/director/co-cinematographer/special effects artist Mario Bava was a legendary and prolific filmmaker who more or less codified the tropes of the peplum genre as we know it with the back-to-back international box office hits HERCULES (1957) and HERCULES UNCHAINED (1958) starring Steve Reeves, and those films spawned a slew of imitators that glutted the screen for the next decade. (I'd love to know exactly how many Italian peplum movies were released in the wake of the Reeves flicks, but good luck counting all of them. There have to be literally hundreds.) Bava's work on HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD was pretty much the last word when it came to genuine quality creative filmmaking for this sort of film during its heyday, and his other notable contributions to cinema form an impressive roster that includes genre-redefining classics such as THE MASK OF SATAN (1960), BLACK SABBATH (1963), BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965), and DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)

As for the movie itself, the true virtues of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD lie in its visual presentation. It's low on actual scares, but its depiction of the underworld is memorable and lit with colors that border on psychedelic. Reg Park, possibly the most physically jacked of the actors to essay the role of Hercules until Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, is himself a living special effect, looking like an animated slab of well-muscled beef, and therefore making a perfect Hercules.

Reg Park, kicking ass and hefting styrofoam boulders as Hercules.

The Hercules films of the peplum boom did not exactly require an Olivier or a Brando to portray the legendary hero, so Park's thespic chops were irrelevant when compared to his ability to look good in a one-strapped leather toga. And who cares if the guy can act when all that's really required is for him to take on the likes of rock monster Procrustes, 

Procrustes, looking like a guest monster on LOST IN SPACE.

vines containing the souls of the dead that scream and bleed when cut, and a pack of web-encrusted flying zombies that crawl up from the tomb? And let me tell you that it's not every day when you get to see Hercules squash Christopher Lee to death with a huge styrofoam monolith, so what's not to love?

Just one of the sights found in the underworld.

HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD is a fun way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon and is a must for all fans of Greek mythology-based movies, even though it plays fast and loose with the actual stories (which have been reinterpreted numerous times and with numerous variations for centuries, so why quibble?). Too bad Bava didn't rope Ray Harryhausen into the mix to provide some of his signature stop-motion animated monsters to add some more spice...

Poster from the American theatrical release.