Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fallen Angels (2007)

Fallen Angels falls under the category of the worst type of horror films – one that starts with a great premise but squanders its potential in the execution. Fallen Angels had plenty of promise, but it is riddled with bad story writing and poor pacing, which leads to a very dull movie.

An old and foreboding prison is slated for demolition to make way for a shopping mall, but construction is halted when a secret sub-chamber containing the remains of many long-dead children is discovered. A special forensic team from the FBI is called in to investigate the bodies and perhaps find their killer. Meanwhile, a local teen is found dead while another girl is missing. The investigative team finds that strange murders have plagued the small town for 150 years. They soon discover that seven demons, or fallen angels, each representing the 7 Deadly Sins, hold dominion over that particular town and are responsible for the town’s gruesome and grisly deaths. Can the FBI team, along with the mother of the missing girl, stop the killings?

Like mentioned before, the premise for Fallen Angels sounded very promising, but unfortunately its execution made for a very dull horror film. Not even the familiar faces of Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Kane Hodder, Reggie Bannister (Phantasm), Ruth Buzzi or David Hess (Last House on the Left) in lead to cameo roles could help this floundering flick.

The film starts off weakly by not laying some kind of groundwork for what we are about to witness. The characters and story are not introduced clearly enough, which starts the film off on the wrong foot. The narrative is disjointed, confusing and leaves the viewer bored instead of intrigued. Things go downhill from there with unnecessary characters, too many plot points and not enough time spent on the real mystery at hand.

I will say that it is refreshing to see something other than the usual hack ‘n’ slash flick, but the story (written by Jeff Thomas, who also directs) is just poorly crafted. I did enjoy how the religion aspect was presented and how it really gives viewers something to think about. The ending of the film will be a let down for most genre fans, though I enjoyed its exploration of faith and religion. Still, it seems an easy and far too tidy way of wrapping things up. The rest of the script just seemed convoluted and cluttered. There are a few glimmers of greatness, but unfortunately it is too dull to really sparkle.

The wonderfully creepy setting of the film also felt misused to me. The prison where the film was shot is the supposedly haunted Mansfield State Reformatory in Ohio, which is spooky without the benefit of set dressing. Its cobwebbed cells and long, dark hallways make the Reformatory a very foreboding place. Yet, in Fallen Angels the prison setting doesn’t come alive as much as I’d hoped. The atmosphere just doesn’t drip dread like in other haunted institution flicks such as the spooky Session 9.

The acting was not bad for a low budget film. I especially enjoyed seeing Bill Moseley in the role of a crime scene investigator. Genre fans out there will be disappointed if they expect to see much of anyone else of note, though. Hodder, Bannister and Hess are in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos, while Berryman, McCarthy and Buzzi are relegated to one scene each. The rest of the actors, including reality “star” Adrianne Curry, Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Michael Dorn, Daniel Zacapa and Farah White, do a decent job as well.

The special FX, done by Bob Keen (who has worked on makeup and special FX for Hellraiser, Candyman, Isolation and Dog Soldiers), are very well done. The demons do look a bit silly at times and don’t seem to really fit their 7 Deadly Sins alter egos. Besides that, the gore looks great! There is one terrifically terrifying teeth pulling scene and a few inventive kills, but those didn’t make up for the lackluster storyline. I was expecting to see more of the seven demons and learn more about them, but they were never properly introduced or given much screen time. The story behind the seven demons isn’t even explored that much. Instead we focus on far too many investigators tramping around the prison looking for answers. Besides these unnecessary characters, we also have the mother (played by Farah White) searching for her missing daughter. She doesn’t add anything except dead weight to an already precariously overburdened storyline.

Despite a few moments that seemingly shine in Fallen Angels, all that sparkles is not gold. If you are searching for a creepy horror flick of the demon persuasion, Fallen Angels is unfortunately not your best pick. It is a poorly written, lackluster and dull. Despite claims that it has an intelligent, solid story, the only intelligent thing about this film is that they cast a bunch of genre favorites so that eager horror fans like you and me would be tricked into dumping our money in this poorly executed film.

Available from Amazon!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1982)

The horror and film communities are all a-twitter over the eagerly awaited, Tim Burton-helmed Sweeney Todd movie. With director like Tim Burton and a cast that is lead by Johnny Depp, who wouldn’t be excited over this new Demon Barber of Fleet Street? I, too, have high hopes for this film, wishing it is something akin to a mix of music from Nightmare Before Christmas and visuals ala Sleepy Hollow.

Before watching Burton’s take on the famous tale, I decided to get a sneak peak by watching Stephen Sondheim’s televised Los Angeles production of the Broadway play. For the uninitiated, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is set in the grimy streets of 1846 London. Benjamin Barker (George Hearn) was shipped off to prison by Judge Turpin (Edmund Lyndeck) 15 years ago on a trumped up charge. You see, the Judge has nefarious plans for Barker’s beautiful wife and infant daughter. Now, Barker has returned to what he sings is: “…a hole in the world/Like a great black pit/And the vermin of the world/Inhabit it/And its morals aren’t worth/What a pig can spit/And it goes by the name of London.” He has changed his name to Sweeney Todd and plans on reuniting with his wife and child. All seems lost when he runs into the jovial Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury), who runs a meat pie eatery below his long-abandoned barber shop. Mrs. Lovett tells him that his wife poisoned herself and that his daughter Johanna (Betsy Joslyn) is now under the guardianship of the nefarious judge. With this tragic news, Sweeney Todd snaps and vows revenge on all who have wronged him. He re-opens his barber shop, and when his enemies come knocking for “the closest shave” that’s what they get! To dispose of the bodies, Mrs. Lovett starts using them in her pies, which start selling like hot cakes! The Judge continues to elude Todd’s vengeful plans, but not for long…

Sondheim’s play is one of the most celebrated on Broadway and it’s not hard to see why it won eight Tony Awards. The powerful story, strong characterizations, the grimy and sinister mood, the themes of revenge and double-cross, not to mention the macabre material all make for a thoroughly entertaining musical. Sondheim avoids the gimmicky pop of certain musicals, instead choosing very dark lyrics and songs tailor-made for characters. The razor-sharp and lurid lyrics will most certainly be a treat for any horror fan! The musical is almost operatic, because there is sparse dialogue and it is mostly all sung. Those horror fans that do not appreciate a good stage musical are most certainly missing out, as Sweeney Todd delivers marvelous musical mayhem.

This is a stage play, so the set is one stage very sparsely decorated with a few movable set pieces. There are a few scaffolds that are wheeled about, along with Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop and, upstairs, Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. There are no grand, lavish sets in this play, but the sets are enough to convey the mood of a bleak, grimy, post-industrial London.

The acting is also wonderful. Those only familiar with Angela Lansbury through her television show Murder, She Wrote will be quite surprised and satisfied by her performance here. Her Mrs. Lovett is a perfect mix of caring, comedic and crazy! George Hearn (replacing Broadway’s Len Cariou) plays the tragic, bitter and determined Sweeney Todd. His vindictive resolve is made plain upon his first appearance on stage. He really makes the audience really feel and sympathize with his character, despite the heinous acts he is committing. The rest of the cast do a wondrous job as well, from Ken Jennings playing ragamuffin Tobias Ragg to the Judge’s henchman The Beadle, played by Calvin Remsberg. My only dissatisfaction came from Betsy Joslyn’s performance as Johanna, which made me cringe more than clap. Thank goodness we didn’t have to hear her sing more than she did, because her screechy vocals grated my nerves more than chalk on a blackboard!

Despite the one awkward performance, the stage version of Sweeney Todd holds up after all these years. It’s a timeless tale of rabid revenge and murderous mayhem that horror fans should love. If you can get past the “musical” aspect of it (we horror fans can be a pretty persnickety bunch!), Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd does have much to offer, especially a shocking and surprising ending, one I’m not sure they’ll keep for Burton’s version.

To see Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street come alive on stage was quite a treat. Until Burton’s version, make sure to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again. He trod a path that few have trod, Did Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Available on Amazon!

The Mist (2007)

After a long history with the Stephen King novella The Mist, Frank Darabont has finally seen his dream of making it into a feature film realized. Darabont had planned on adapting it into a feature in the early 1980’s, just after it had been published, but other projects, like his adaptation of King’s Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, took precedent. After years of waiting for one of King’s fans’ favorite short stories to make it onto the big screen, has Darabont succeeded with The Mist?

After a particularly destructive storm, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son (Nathan Gamble) head into town to stock up on supplies. While in the local grocery store with a good number of other townsfolk, a thick mist quickly rolls into town, heralded by a bloody man that runs into the store and warns everyone that there are “things” in the mist…things that kill. After everyone is witness to the mist’s destructive nature when a lone man runs to get to his car just as it descends on the town, they lock down the grocery store until they can figure out the situation. When all attempts at escape or calling for help fail, the local “fire and brimstone” woman, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), takes it upon herself to warn everyone that the end of times has come. Soon, the people in the store are not only threatened by monsters in the mist, but the human monsters in their midst.

Going into The Mist, I really wasn’t expecting much more than a CGI monsterfest. When I came out, I was pleasantly shocked. Darabont has created a tense and frightening film that will leave you stunned. Like his non-horror King adaptations of Shawshank and Green Mile, The Mist is a classy affair that boasts impressive acting and classic chills and thrills.

From the dramatic opening the film will have you hooked. Once the characters make it to the relative safety of the grocery store, the tension only mounts. After the mist hits the town, the chaos and confusion within the store feels extremely realistic and you can’t help but be as shocked as the townspeople are. To assist in the realistic feel, Darabont utilizes hand-held cameras to give a sense of immediacy to the dramatic proceedings. I found this to be a bit too “television crime drama” for my tastes, but it does give you the feeling you are right alongside the panicked patrons.

The characters trapped in the store are all strongly characterized. From the unlikely hero of Ollie (scene-stealer Toby Jones), a grocery store clerk, to the reluctant leader David and the zealous and hateful Mrs. Carmody, you can’t help but feel for all the characters. Each character is flawed and therefore made more human and easily relatable because of that. My only problem with the characterization was the portrayal of Mrs. Carmody, which quickly turned into an exaggerated caricature. She was a bit too over the top for me.

The acting was very well done from everyone involved. Thomas Jane proved himself as a very capable leading man. Marcia Gay Harden gave Mrs. Carmody some much needed humanity, though her character did come off as a bad caricature at times. All of the supporting actors, including Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Jim Grondin, Chris Owen and many more, did a fantastic job as well.

The special FX in The Mist are impressive as well. I don’t understand the naysayers who have said that the CGI work is shoddy; from where I was sitting, it looked great! The monsters in the mist are vicious, and include a creature with blood-sucking, barbed tentacles, pterodactyl-like monsters, huge spiders that shoot acidic webs and have large spines on their backs, crab-like creatures that are several stories tall and a truly behemoth creature straight out of Lovecraft’s stories. Besides great creature effects, the film also boasts several nasty gore scenes, my favorite being when a man, who’s become a spider snack, bursts forth hundreds upon thousands of baby spiders.

These scintillating special FX aren’t just thrown in there to keep the audience awake because the rest of the film is just as good! The pacing is excellent and kept my attention the entire time, even though the run-time is over two hours. Between the threat of the monsters lurking in the mist and the growing threat of the fascist Mrs. Carmody, the tension is certainly kept taut. The action just keeps coming up until the end as David and a few others try to find a way out of their desperate predicament. The ending, which Darabont changed from King’s ambiguous one, is one that people will be talking about for a long time to come. It is appropriately tragic and dramatic, and will knock the wind right out of you!

Despite such glowing words over the film, I did have one other problem besides the caricaturization of Mrs. Carmody. The fade-to-black transitions used between scenes make The Mist look like another made-for-TV Stephen King flick. The awkward transitions were horribly out of place with the film’s otherwise high production values. These annoying fade-to-black transitions (I expected a commercial to come on each time they were used) chopped up The Mist and diminished my enjoyment a tad.

Of the horror films that have been theatrically released recently (30 Days of Night, Saw IV, etc.) the one I would recommend seeing the most would have to be The Mist. Despite the few problems I had with it, The Mist is an excellent monster movie and one of the best horror releases of the year. Its tense atmosphere, great creature design, wonderful acting and classic monster movie feel make it a very frightening and enjoyable horror film. It doesn’t have to rely on gore for entertainment (though it has its nasty bits), but instead frightens us with what is hidden – the monsters in the mist as well as the monsters within ourselves.

Available from Amazon!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Gory Gear: Gold Label Goods

We take pride in bringing you the latest horror reviews, telling you what is worth your time and what needs to be avoided at all costs! That not only applies to film, but also to books, comics, and now, horror-related products!

We’ll be featuring a product spotlight here on Fatally-Yours.com, introducing you to quality companies that carry horror-related merchandise and letting you know what’s hot (and not) in horror products.

Our first product spotlight features Gold Label Goods, a new online shop featuring designs from the hottest new films, TV shows and more! What caught our eye at Gold Label is that YOU, the customer, chose the design and product you want it on. You can get licensed designs from Saw, 30 Days of Night, Dexter and more on a wide selection of shirt styles, mugs, pins, mouse pads, notepads and more! It’s totally customizable!

Another great thing about Gold Label is that it is totally geared towards the fans. Besides being able to choose from a wide variety of designs and products, customers are encouraged to suggest other designs that they believe Gold Label should carry. Gold Label is a movement away from the limitations of old Internet shopping, instead offering many choices and possibilities to the fans.

Gold Label not only offers customers the ability to choose specific designs, colors, size and shapes for each of their purchases, but they also offer only the highest quality of product. Their designs are printed on thick, 100% cotton Anvil shirts and the rest of their merchandise are also very high-quality. Their mouse pads are very thick and not at all flimsy, while their mugs are perfectly suited for my manic coffee drinking habit.

If you want a wide selection of totally customizable products geared towards horror fans, Gold Label offers and excellent shopping experience you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Their site is very easy to use, with (again) a HUGE selection of high-quality products, colors, sizes, etc. to choose from! Also, their prices won’t break the bank and any of their products would make great Christmas and holiday gifts for your resident horroraholic!

Most of all, though, we love Gold Label because it stays committed to those that count – the fans! What store do you know that actually encourages its customers to speak up and speak out about designs they want to see?!

This hectic holiday season, we here at Fatally-Yours.com recommend taking a break from the overcrowded malls and hitting up Gold Label Goods online. Whether you’re looking for a Dexter wall clock, a Saw hoodie, or a 30 Days of Night mouse pad, you will definitely find some very unique products for yourself or fellow horror lovers!

Gold Label Goods also carries designs from cable show Weeds, Heavy Metal Magazine and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
Check ‘em out!

Summer School (2006)

Ah, summertime! When balmy days are spent sunning on the beach or lounging around the pool…unless, of course, you are like Summer School’s teenage Charlie (Simon Wallace), who prefers blocking the bright sunlight out and having horror movie marathons that go for days. Hmmm…that sounds much better than being out in the sweltering summer sun!

Charlie runs a horror movie review site and has been staying up late into the night to try to catch up on his movie viewing before he has to start summer school. His lack of sleep catches up to him on the first day of summer school. While waiting for his teacher and other students to arrive, Charlie dozes off…Only to find himself stuck in very realistic nightmares that resemble his revered horror flicks! Every time he thinks he has woken up, he is plunged back into horrifying situations that test his sense of reality and his own sanity! As Charlie tries to escape his nightmares, he quickly loses his grip on reality…

Summer School is a wonderfully clever low-budget horror film that pays homage to several subgenres of horror including satanic cults, vampires, monsters, hillbillies, slashers, Nazis and exploitation! The film is based on the experiences of writer/director Ben Trandem, who took a summer school class back in high school and spent his evenings and weekends watching B-horror films. Trandem enlisted the help of four other writers/directors – Lance Hendrickson, Steven Rhoden, Troy McCall and Mike P. Nelson – to write and direct each segment of the film. With so many “cooks in the kitchen,” Summer School should be a mess of differing storytelling styles, but surprisingly it holds up very well and doesn’t fail to entertain!

Each segment of the film is true to the subgenre that it is paying homage to. From the lighting, to the colors, to the mood and the characters it feels like a slice of horror heaven pie! I was very impressed that each filmmaker was able to keep the mood and look of the particular subgenre they were using. For example, in the vampire segment the lighting is very dark and rich, with lots of dark blues and reds used. The backwoods hillbilly segment used a bleached-out look similar to the look of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Not only did the filmmakers stay true to the look and feel of the original subgenres, but they managed to cohesively tie together all the segments in a believable way.

The stories are all written quite well. Each segment really kept me guessing and wondering, is Charlie awake? Is this really happening? The nightmarish quality of the film and the different storylines really kept me interested, both visually and cerebrally.

Besides the stellar writing and direction by each of the filmmakers, the acting was also top notch. In low budget films it is easy for one (or more) bad actors to bring the whole production value down. In Summer School I couldn’t find ANY bad acting! Lead Simon Wallace does a wonderful job playing Charlie. His portrayal of a normal, intelligent kid under a lot of duress who eventually loses his grip on reality was engaging and entirely believable. Keep your eyes on Wallace; if he wants to, he will go far! The rest of the cast did a spectacular job as well. I enjoyed watching Amy Cocchiarella, who played Charlie’s love interest Lindsey, as well as Tony D. Czech and Lance Hendrickson (no, not THAT one) as Charlie’s goofy friends. Ty Richardson was also great as the school’s police man/Nazi!

Each of the segments were perfect, 15 minute examples of their particular subgenres with the special FX to back ‘em up. For a movie that was shot on an $8,000 budget, I’d say the special FX were impressive. Steven Rhoden and Ben Trandem (who both wrote and directed) handled the special FX. While not a gorefest, there are some excellent and realistic shots of blood and other nasties! I particularly enjoyed the brutal Nazisploitation segment.

Summer School is a film that schools most high-budget Hollywood horror flicks and is a film made by horror fans for horror fans (that’s actually good!!). Heck, if you’re a true horror fan, I don’t see how you couldn’t enjoy Summer School!

Summer SchoolOfficial Website

Friday, November 16, 2007

Driftwood (2007)

Tim Sullivan, director or 2001 Maniacs, follows up that 2005 gorefest with the much more subdued ghost/coming-of-age tale Driftwood. Driftwood is Sullivan’s deeply personal and very heartfelt film and, at its best, shows he is no one-trick pony good for only raucous and bloody horror comedies. At worst, though, it’s a mediocre ghost tale that plays more like a dramatic after-school special than a horror film.

David Forrester (Ricky Ullman) finds himself placed in Driftwood, a detention center for troubled male youths after his parents (the familiar faces of Lin Shayne and Marc McClure) read a blog he’d written about death, which leads them to think he would harm himself. David just lost his older brother to an overdose, but his parents just don’t understand his fixation with his death. They think that Captain Kennedy (Diamond Dallas Page) can straighten him out and teach him how to be “a man” within his youth rehabilitation compound (aka prison). David is immediately branded a smart-ass and heckled by the Captain and his underlings. He is even forced to run “the gauntlet,” a military-style course, while his Level 1 bunk mates beat him. David keeps his cool and a stiff upper lip and earns the respect of the others. Meanwhile, David keeps seeing a ghostly presence and learns that the Captain’s nephew, Jonathan, who was also interned there, mysteriously disappeared. As he gets closer to solving the mystery, he may very well put his own life and the lives of those around him in peril.

Tim Sullivan is a sweetheart and I really wanted to like this film. No matter how much I like the director personally, though, a review is ultimately about the FILM itself and shouldn’t be biased. Not to worry, I’ll be as honest with my review as I normally am. While Driftwood would have functioned perfectly fine as a drama or coming-of-age story, its horror aspects fall disappointingly short. And I’m not talking just blood and guts here. While I absolutely loved 2001 Maniacs, I went into Driftwood knowing it would be tonally different. I didn’t want a hilarious gorefest. I wanted a smart, thrilling ghost story. Instead, I got a well-directed, well-acted teen movie about overcoming opposition and staying true to one’s self. Hmmmm…not exactly what I signed on for…

As just mentioned, Driftwood is directed and acted very well. Tim Sullivan creates a brooding, morose atmosphere within the prison of Driftwood. The stark and sterile place is the LAST place people should want to place their “troubled” kids. Driftwood’s ruined grounds, dark corners and unused rooms create a forlorn and lonely atmosphere. The atmosphere is reflected in the characters, all who have been condemned for being “different” and “troubled” when really they are just normal kids on their way to growing up. The actors do a wonderful job portraying their individual characters, especially Ricky Ullman as David. His eyes convey such deep and violent emotion that immediately reminded me of my own teenage angst days. On the flip side, you have a terrifically terrifying Diamond Dallas Page as the mean Captain. His performance is probably the best of all, bringing an all-too-real horror to the screen.

Still, despite the creepy direction, depressing atmosphere and great performances, I found the “ghost” aspect of the story to be sadly lacking. While the film starts off like the Thai film Dorm or Guerillmo del Toro’s masterful The Devil’s Backbone, it quickly devolves into silly jump scares and flashes of the ghost. There is no feeling of dread and definitely no good scares. The ghost himself looks like an Insane Clown Posse member when we first get a good glimpse of him. His eyes and mouth are ringed in black makeup in stark contrast against his white face, making him look more comical than anything else. There are no scenes that sent chills down my spine and the “mystery” surrounding the ghost was pretty obvious. Everything involving the ghost just seemed very amateur. I will say that the only creepy scene, involving David trying to convince his visiting parents what is really going on, a locked door and a disturbing image on a security camera, was done very effectively. I just wish there were more scenes like that throughout the film, because the rest of it plays like a bunch of misfits learning that there is nothing wrong with being themselves, solving a mystery and sticking it to The Man…kinda like a darker John Hughes movie with a Scooby Doo twist.

Tim Sullivan’s heartfelt tale comes off as a little too much drama, not enough horror. While it certainly doesn’t lack solid direction or acting, its story just didn’t focus on enough thrilling or horrifying elements to keep my attention, and I am a reviewer in the horror genre that actually LIKES movies with a slow burn.
Ultimately, Driftwood is a disappointing and, yes, boring film. Good for a rental if you want to see a very different style from director Tim Sullivan.

Available from Amazon!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reeker (2005)

You know, when I first espied the movie Reeker, I immediately assumed it would be a cheesy monster romp, only good for a laugh or two. The plot seemed awfully familiar, as a group of college kids are stuck in the middle of nowhere while someTHING picks them off. So when I finally sat down to watch it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Reeker is a much more entertaining and clever flick than I initially gave it credit for.

Five strangers all pile into a rickety car to share a ride to a desert rave. Everything is fine and dandy until the appropriately named Trip (Scott Whyte) brags that he’s got enough E (which he stole from maniacal drug dealer Radford [Ugly Betty’s Eric Mabius], who just happens to be following the unsuspecting kids) to keep the five of them, plus a few hundred of their closest friends, pretty happy. The driver of the ragtag bunch, Gretchen (Tina Illman, who looks an awfully lot like Beetlejuice’s Lydia) isn’t taking any chances and insists on leaving Trip at the last highway diner-gas station-hotel combo they stopped at not 30 minutes before. When they arrive back at the diner, Gretchen’s old car decides to call it quits so they all troop inside to ask for help. One problem – the place is deserted. Half-eaten meals, overturned chairs and smoldering cigarette butts are all that remain to prove that just a little while ago, the joint was jumping. The hotel and gas station are also devoid of anyone and the kids can’t get anyone on the phone, much less on their signal-less cell phones. As nighttime settles on the stranded strangers, things get even more eerie. A creepy, and especially putridly pungent, specter appears and begins picking them off one by one…

I may not have had high hopes for Reeker, but I definitely got my money’s worth. Writer/director David Payne may have started with the stereotypical, kids-stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-with-the-boogeyman-killing-them-off storyline, but by avoiding character clich├ęs, throwing in some genuinely funny moments and creating a spooky, engaging mystery, he has created a pretty engaging flick!

First off, the characters are very believable. They aren’t caricatures of college students nor are they the stereotypical jocks and bimbos that seem to populate horror films. No, every character feels real, like you might know someone like them in real life. The actors do a decent job of bringing their characters to life, and you’ll even notice a few of them from other films and television, like Michael Ironside, playing a fellow stranded traveler and Derek Richardson from Hostel.

Secondly, the mystery they find themselves wrapped up in (has some catastrophic terrorist attack occurred? a natural disaster? something more sinister?) is entirely engaging. You might be able to guess the ending, but you’ll still enjoy sitting through the rest of the movie to see if you are right. Payne keeps the pace moving along with some additional characters that pop up, like the previously mentioned Ironside as an RV-driving vacationer and Mabius as the crazed drug dealer.

Reeker pays off again in the gore department. While blood isn’t generously splashed across the screen every second, there are some pretty shocking moments throughout the film. For example, the opening scene shows a family driving down a deserted bit of road, only to hit a deer and splatter their entire front windshield in grue. That’s not all…the family stops to inspect the damage and the family dog runs off to explore. A few minutes later the father goes off in search of the dog while the mom and son wait by the car. The whimpering dog emerges a few minutes later…dragging its broken and bloody body behind it. While the wife tries to help, the husband stumbles out of the brush, the whole half of his head missing! This opening scene is quite a lot to live up to, but Reeker delivers the blood ‘n’ guts in more than a few surprise scenes that’ll have you jumping out of your seat.

Unfortunately, this film does have its share of negatives. The one thing that bugged me the most was the overall appearance of the Reeker creature. The creature itself was pretty wicked and scary looking, but every time it was about to appear, hazy fumes, like the kind you see reflected off the pavement on a really hot day, would announce its arrival. I think the filmmaker’s aim was to produce something akin to the stink lines that wafted off of the dirty Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic, but here it just looked plain silly. Also, it’s never quite specified whether the Reeker is solid or amorphous in nature. In one scene, it appears that the Reeker can move through walls and be invisible, but in another it is affected by bullets. Bullets? Against a rotting and putrescent corpse-like creature? Seemed more than a little far-fetched…

All in all, though, Reeker is a rather solid effort that features an interesting premise, realistic characters, good performances, a nice twist and good-lookin’ gore. And thankfully, it doesn’t live up to its own name!

Available from Amazon!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Bad Seed (1956)

For those of you following along at home, you know I’m not a big fan of kids or the whole “parenting” experience. Kids just creep me out and imagining one growing inside of me…ugh…it gives me the willies. Other people can reproduce all they want (though it would probably be a better place if most of the population DIDN’T), but you won’t see me cradling a newborn anytime soon.

My repulsion of children is probably why I love evil kid movies so much. There’s just something so inherently EVIL about kids – their grubby and germ-infested hands, drooling mouths and overall utter lack of hygiene are one thing, but the fact that kids are supposed to be these angelic innocents and, in fact, usually AREN’T is what is so disturbing about them. So, naturally I couldn’t wait to check out 1956’s The Bad Seed, which features Patty McCormack as an 8 year old who is rotten to the core!

Little Miss Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) is the picture of 1950’s perfection. She always minds her P’s and Q’s, curtsies to teachers and guests, always keeps her room tidy, her prim and proper dresses are always spot-free and her tightly braided pigtails never have a hair out of place. She is the perfect little lady and is adored by everyone. Well, almost everyone. When her doting military father, Colonel Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper), must go away to Washington D.C. for a while, Rhoda and her mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly), are left to their own devices. Christine begins to suspect that Rhoda is not the supposed innocent that she pretends to be. When fatal “accidents” start occurring, Christine becomes more suspicious of Rhoda, until she is torn between her love of her daughter and her moral obligation.

I found that The Bad Seed has definitely held up all the years since its release, though it may not be for everyone. Before being turned into a movie, it was originally adapted for stage from a book. The whole film does have a very “play-like” feel to it, like how the actors enter and exit and how it is mostly set in the Penmark’s living room. Yet, it wasn’t until AFTER I watched the film that I learned of its roots in theater and I hadn’t noticed any of the similarities to a stage play while watching the movie, so this certainly didn’t affect my view of the film.

Even though the film is over two hours long, it had more than enough story to keep me interested the entire time. To some it might seem to drag on, but I found it to be a delightful and engaging film. It is dialogue heavy, and it being 1956 when it was released, doesn’t feature any bloody deaths. Still, the increasingly strained relationship between mother and daughter, the escalating criminal behavior of Rhoda and a few twists and turns on “nature vs. nurture” kept me glued to the screen.

The intriguing story was supported by excellent acting. Patty McCormack does an amazing job as the blond-haired, blue-eyed but truly evil Rhoda. At first I thought she was overplaying the sugary sweetness of her character, but as the film continued I could see that the saccharine performance only helped to more clearly juxtapose her character’s black and rotten core. I would not want to get on this child’s wrong side! Nancy Kelly as Rhoda’s mother, Christine, also does an amazing job. Her portrayal of Christine’s mental deterioration is impressive. Her range of emotions, starting at happy at the beginning of the film and nose-diving toward depressive towards the end, is quite a spectacle to watch. You can really sympathize with her increasingly desperate situation. She definitely convinced me not to have kids (as if I needed convincing!).

If you don’t mind dialogue-heavy, black and white films, The Bad Seed is a delightful film in the “evil child” subgenre of horror. If you’ve ever found yourself carefully avoiding playgrounds and edging away from beaming parents and their newborns, you’ll find a lot to love with The Bad Seed.

Available from Amazon!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Witchfinder General (1968)

Known as one of the best British horror films, Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) was recently re-released stateside by MGM on DVD. Though I don’t think it lives up to the title as one of the best British horror films, it certainly showcases the evil, cruel and sadistic nature of man during England’s infamous witch trials.

In civil-war torn England circa 1645, Cromwell’s Roundheads are fighting against King Charles’ royalist troops. The land is in upheaval, full of lawlessness, distrust, religious persecution and superstition. It is in this unpredictable atmosphere that Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), otherwise known as the Witchfinder General, travels from town to town along with his assistant Stearne (Robert Russell). The two men obtain confessions from accused “witches” (usually just unpopular townsfolk) by viciously torturing them. Hopkins and Stearne do this for money, but also for the pleasure of watching others’ displeasure. If they cannot obtain a confession by torture alone, the two perform “tests” (such as seeing if the accused will float or sink in water) to prove they are the Devil’s servants.

Meanwhile, a young soldier named Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is planning on marrying Sarah (Hilary Dwyer), niece to a Catholic priest (Rupert Davies) in quaint Brandeston. On a short leave from duty, he visits the two and receives the uncle’s blessing for the marriage. He happily takes his leave to go back to his post, but unbeknownst to him he gives directions to the Witchfinder General, who is on his way to Brandeston to condemn the Catholic priest!

After gathering the mob who accused the unpopular priest (he is Catholic while most of the townsfolk are Protestant) of working for the Devil, Hopkins and his assistant invade the priest’s home and brutally beat and stab him. Sarah pretends to be but a lowly servant girl and offers herself to Hopkins to save her uncle’s life. The torture stops, but the priest is thrown in prison to rot. When Hopkins’ bloodthirsty assistant learns of the “understanding” between the Witchfinder and Sarah, he violently rapes her. After Hopkins finds out about this, he wants nothing more to do with her and the torture of the priest reconvenes. The priest is eventually hung, leaving Sarah distraught and dishonored.

Richard soon discovers what has occurred and hoofs it back to Brandeston. There, he and Sarah have an impromptu wedding before he sets out to track down the Witchfinder General for revenge!

There is no question that Witchfinder General is full of sadism and brutality. Its depictions of unjust and unfair witch trials are appalling and extremely hard to watch, especially if you keep in mind that these things actually happened. Still, despite its cult status as one of the best British horror films ever made, it still has several flaws that dampened my enjoyment of this film.

The pacing is probably the number one problem, and the film feels like it starts and stops, starts and stops one too many times. Scenes seem to drag on and on as the film meanders to its maddening end. There are several instances that I was overwhelmed with boredom and just wished the film would get on with it already! The script (based on a book by Ronald Bassett and written by Tom Baker) should have been considerably tightened up to flow more smoothly and tell the story better.

Witchfinder General is not all bad, though. Fans of British horror films will probably eat it right up. It also features great acting, especially by the usually (marvelously) over-the-top Vincent Price, who puts on a very subtle and cruel performance as the Witchfinder General. The rest of the cast does a marvelous job as well, including Ian Ogilvy as the heroic Richard, Hilary Dwyer as a strong but very frightened Sarah and of course Robert Russell as the reprehensible and sadistic Stearne.

Another positive of the film is the unabashed cruelty portrayed. The film looks unflinchingly at the horrors experienced by accused witches and, to this day, it’s quite hard to watch. The ludicrous tests for witchcraft (including the sink or float theory mentioned above), along with the vicious torture of the accused all culminated in hanging, being burned at the stake, or some other unthinkable act. This film really explores the evils people are capable of inflicting on their fellow human beings, which, in the realistic setting of witch trials, is truly terrifying.

Also worth mentioning is that this was director Michael Reeves last picture before his drug overdose (a reputed suicide) at age 26. He had only made two films before Witchfinder (The She-Beast with Barbara Steele and The Sorcerers with Boris Karloff). It was reported that he had some fantastical arguments with Vincent Price while shooting the picture!

Witchfinder General may not be the best British horror movie ever, but if you are a big fan of British horror films or a witch trial history buff it will definitely deliver. As for the rest of us, a rental will probably suffice to view Price’s sadistic portrayal and the brutal (and all too real) torture of innocents.

Available from Amazon!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book Review: Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

I’m going to have to agree with great author Chuck Palahniuk (and about a bazillion critics) when he says, “With Gretchen Lowell, Chelsea Cain gives us the most compelling, most original serial killer since Hannibal Lecter.” Not only does Cain create an iconic serial killer (who, by the way, is only a subplot), but with Heartsick she weaves an engaging and exciting story populated by memorable main characters, a gloomy setting and enough twists and turns to satisfy any fan of thriller fiction.

Detective Archie Sheridan is a damaged man. For ten years he was part of a Beauty Killer Task Force, obsessively hunting down a notorious serial killer. Well, the tables were turned when the killer, Gretchen Lowell, finally tracked and trapped him. She lovingly tortured Archie for very long ten days, leaving him physically and emotionally broken. After carving him up, breaking all his ribs, stabbing him, cutting out his spleen, pumping him full of hallucinogens, slowly killing him with drain cleaner and stopping his heart, Gretchen, for no apparent reason, called an ambulance on the tenth day and allowed herself to be arrested. After pushing away all that used to be important to him (his family, his career), Archie is now addicted to pain killers and to his visits with Gretchen every Sunday in hopes she’ll give up the location of her more than 200 victims as well as for some twisted comfort.

After a two year leave of absence, Archie is called back as the old members of his task force are reassigned to a new serial killer case. Young girls from the Portland area’s high schools have been disappearing, only to be found naked, dead and, strangely of all, bleached days after their abductions. While on the case, Archie asks that Susan Ward, a young, pink-haired newspaper reporter for the Oregon Herald, to document the case and get his story out, hoping to purge himself from Gretchen. Susan’s got some past secrets of her own, though, that may tie into the After School Strangler case…Will the spunky reporter and the tortured detective be able to solve the case before more teenage girls die?

The main focus of the book is the current After School Strangler case at hand. Between the perspectives of main characters Susan and Archie, Cain also takes us back in time to show us the gruesome torture Archie suffered at the hands of Gretchen Lowell. This back and forth between characters and time periods is done skillfully by Cain, and really keeps the reader engaged and the pace moving along at a fast clip.

The characters are one of the strongest aspects of the book. From the horrifyingly intriguing serial killer Gretchen Lowell to the tormented Archie Sheridan and the determined but flawed Susan Ward, Cain gives us well-developed and realistic characters. Even the secondary characters, like FBI profiler Anne Boyd and Archie’s boss, Henry Sobol, are fleshed out to the point where we feel like we know them. I genuinely liked all the characters and cared what happened to them. Even the evil ones like Gretchen Lowell and the After School Strangler, whom I didn’t necessarily root for, were made morbidly fascinating by Cain.

As for the story, Heartsick is definitely not your typical serial killer novel. It’s not some noirish tale of gumshoes going after the bad guys and saving the damsels in distress. Those hardboiled novels are all well and good, but Heartsick takes a different, more terrifying look at serial killers, and, even more so, at our own flawed psyche’s.

Cain, with her luridly vivid descriptions of Archie’s torture and the washed-up bodies of the After School Strangler’s victims, definitely knows how to paint a nausea-inducing picture, but also knows how to tell a whole-heartedly engaging story. Once I started reading Heartsick, I found it almost impossible to put down! Hopefully Cain will write more books about Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan, because she already has a fan of her books right here!

If you are looking for a fast-paced, gruesome and fresh serial killer story complete with interesting characters and a new iconic serial killer, look no further than Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick.

Available from Amazon!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Death Race 2000 (1975)

In preparation for its upcoming remake, helmed by the Paul W.S. Anderson, I decided to finally get around to seeing Death Race 2000, the Roger Corman produced, Peter Bartel directed cult classic.

The film is set in the futuristic “United Provinces of America” where the most popular sport is the ultra-violent Death Race 2000, a cross-country car race where mowing over unsuspecting pedestrians is a quick way to rack up extra points. The five contestants include the fan favorite (and S&M-clad) Frankenstein (David Carradine), his #1 competition the macho Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), cowgirl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Nazi Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) and conceited Nero the Hero (Martin Kove). All the racers also have a navigator riding alongside them, and Frankenstein’s new navigator, Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), might be harboring a few secrets.

Meanwhile, the anti-race resistance will stop at nothing to see that the race is canceled…for good! They plan to overthrow Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) and cancel the extremely gratuitous and gory national sport, even if it means killing off the racers.

Will anyone be left ALIVE to cross the finish line in Death Race 2000?

I cannot believe I hadn’t seen this spectacularly entertaining B-movie until just recently! It just goes to show that even though you may think you’ve seen it all, something will always pop up to prove you wrong! Death Race 2000 was an absolute delight to watch. Sure it could be cheesy and lame in parts, but it was riotous nonetheless!

The film is a bombastic piece of trash cinema treasure, lewd and crude, large and in charge! While it is not as gory as I thought it would be, some of the special FX are particularly satisfying. Cars plow through pedestrians, smashing, smooshing, squishing and squashing any annoying body parts that get in the way. And, of course, who can forget the high-octane action of the actual car race? Yes, fiends, there are good times to be had watching this flick.

And of course you wouldn’t watch this for Oscar-worthy performances (you won’t find any here), but there are some very fun, recognizable faces that put on, ahem, memorable performances! Of course you’ve got Stallone here throwing his hissy man-fits, gunning down crowds and running over people with gusto as Machine Gun Joe, but the show truly belongs to David Carradine and his stoic, mysterious Frankenstein character. Of course, the woman drivers, Mary Woronov as Calamity Jane and Roberta Collins as Matilda the Hun, do a bang-up job and have their fair share of the fun as well.

The underlying message of rebellion against a big bad government was a little too Star Wars for me, but I think the simplistic and silly approach to the subject was what the film was going for in the first place, so I can’t really complain. The film was well-paced, and kept my attention throughout, except for maybe the love scenes, which I giggled through.

Fans of outrageous and over-the-top B-movies will definitely love this film…don’t wait for the remake, check this film out NOW!

Death Race 2000 is fast, furious and finishes first in my book.

Available on Amazon!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Closet Space (2008)

A group of researchers has found an inter-dimensional portal whose entrance just happens to be in a closet…in a house…in the middle of the Texas countryside! When the researchers, including revered Professor Polanco (Tim Wrobel) don’t return, a group of grad students arrive to investigate what happened to their friends and colleagues.

This group isn’t an inexperienced bunch of sissies like most college students in horror flicks, though. They are not only intelligent, but they’ve also traveled the world exploring isolated, dangerous and undiscovered places. So when leader Jack (James LaMarr) tells them they’ll be entering the long and dark tunnel that leads into the closet, everyone is well prepared.

No matter how many gadgets, flashlights, handy firearms and rope they may have, the group could never have prepared for the Lovecraftian monsters they find within the Closet Space. Creatures that will stop at nothing to infiltrate our world to slowly take it over…

Despite some low-budget challenges, Closet Space is an intelligent, fun and engrossing horror film from director Mel House and writer Jason Stewart. I really enjoyed how this was an atypical horror film. Instead of a boring, derivative plot, Closet Space tries for something new, fresh and intelligent. The story is such a good mix of Lovecraft, sci-fi and horror that fans from all three genres will enjoy the film.

The acting is excellent, especially given that this is a low-budget film. Besides James LaMarr who plays the leader Jack, Melanie Donihoo, Jovan Jackson, Morgan McCarthy, Evan Scott and Peyton Wetzel are excellent as the thrill-seeking grad students. None of there characters are stereotypical horror fodder, but strong, intelligent and independent-thinking. Tim Wrobel as Professor Polanco must also be mentioned for his great (and slimy!) performance as well!

With an original story, a great cast and wonderful characterization, what could go wrong with Closet Space? Well, low-budget limitations are a problem in this film. There are several instances where the picture becomes fuzzy, blurry and out of focus. The lighting is inconsistent and doesn’t match up within scenes. On the plus side, the special FX are handled by Oddtopsy FX and look awesome! There are some very bloody scenes, including a horrifyingly funny vagina dentata scene and numerous slimy tentacles.

Even through some low-budget obstacles, Closet Space still shines. Director Mel House gives us a very claustrophobic feeling as the grad students find their way through the cave-like terrain of the closet space and wisely keeps most of the tentacled creatures in the dark until the finale. He keeps the tension taut with a few good scares thrown in before the creatures begin to attack and everything really does go to hell!

Closet Space is a very original film that’s different from the usual brainless horror film. It gives us smart and believable characters, a perfectly blended Lovecraftian/sci-fi/horror tale and is filled with tension and more than a few scares. Look past its production flaws and you’ll enjoy this unique indie film!

Closet SpaceOfficial Site

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Crawl Space (2007)

There are few films that make my jaw drop anymore. Or whose conclusions make me so grin wide. Or, for that matter, who make me want to give a standing ovation.

Crawl Space, an 11 ½ minute short from writer/director Michael Tiddes and Jury-Rig Films, made me do all three of the above in consecutive order.

A young married woman (Erin Ross) wakes up trapped in a crawl space under a house. After a frantic search to find out where she is, we see in a flashback exactly how she got there. While trying to figure a way out, she becomes witness to her darkest fears coming true. What she does in response will shock, horrify and satisfy you.

Writer/director Michael Tiddes wastes no time creating a tense atmosphere in the cramped and dirty crawl space. He and Director of Photography Steven Bernstein create a nail-biting atmosphere with extreme close-ups to magnify the terror of the lead character. The intense atmosphere is also heightened by the terrific score, composed by Sam Zeines. The result is a very foreboding atmosphere within just the first few minutes that continues to build as the short progresses.

The story, written by director Michael Tiddes, is told in a very engaging way and how it unfolds on-screen will keep your eyes glued to the action. The story twists and turns, leading to a surprising, bloody and satisfying ending. There isn’t much dialogue, as the focus is on the situation the lead finds herself trapped in, but when there is dialogue it flows realistically. The characters are developed just enough so that we know them and the actors do a wonderful job of bringing them to life.

The standout actress is Erin Ross, who packs a plethora of emotions into an 11 ½ minute short film. Her spectrum of emotions is very believable and the audience can readily sympathize with her character. Brad Schmidt and Lindsay Lorraine Jones are also excellent in their roles and manage to show us who their characters are, even with a short screen time.

The story and the acting aren’t the only things that shine in the film. Besides those two very important aspects of the film, the production values are also very high in Crawl Space. Everything, from the lighting, the direction, and to the cinematography, only adds to the polished look. All of these factors, including the script and acting, give Crawl Space a very professional feel.

I can honestly say that Crawl Space is one of the best short horror films I’ve seen in quite some time…perhaps ever! I eagerly look forward to what Michael Tiddes has in store for us, as both a writer and director, in the future. With this much talent behind the lens, Tiddes is one to watch!

If you want a jaw-dropping, grin-inducing, clever horror film that’ll have you clapping for more at the end of its 11 ½ minute running time, Crawl Space is for you!

The Creek (2007)

The Creek is a low-budget feature written and directed by Erik Soulliard. Fans of low budget horror thrillers will be glad to know that The Creek is a competent ghost movie with solid acting, a great score and excellent direction. Unfortunately, the overly-familiar story makes the film falter and it never truly becomes “scary.”

On the fifth year anniversary of their friend’s “accidental” death, a group of friends begin seeing his ghost. They all decide to return to the scene of his death, a secluded cabin in the middle of the woods, to find out why he has started haunting them. When they start violently dying one by one, they must figure out who, or what, is killing them off and why.

The standout performance in the film is by Kathryn Merry, who plays the smart and strong Angel character. Her performance pushed the film and the other actors to the next level, giving the movie a professional feel. The other actors all did a good job, but their reactions to friends’ deaths and the ghostly appearances seemed a bit wooden and unbelievable at times.

The story was pretty simplistic – a bunch of 20-somethings stuck in the woods while a ghost seeks revenge. Story-wise, The Creek brings nothing new to the horror genre. We’ve all seen this story many times in its many reincarnations. Still, the familiar storyline doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film…it just prevents it from being anything great or memorable.

The execution of the film is probably its most impressive feature. This low-budget film was shot entirely between sundown and sunrise. Shooting in the dark is a challenge, especially for low-budget films, but The Creek’s director Erik Soulliard and Director of Photographer Jason Contino managed to pull it off. With the exception of a few murky scenes, the audience can actually tell what’s going on. The lighting is realistic and unobtrusive. Most low-budget productions either under-light or over-light nighttime scenes, but most of The Creek’s scenes look spot on!

Another positive aspect of the film is the score, done by Andrew C. Strauss and Tim Jesiolowski, which lends a very professional and polished feel to the finished film. Even though the film is never scary, the score helps create an eerie, foreboding atmosphere in some of the scenes.

This is not a low brow horror movie filled with blood and boobs (thank God…haven’t we had enough of those lately?), so there’s not much gore to speak of, not that it needs much in the first place. The Creek does have many stabbings, with lots of bloody wounds shown, and these effects are done competently. Everything looks properly realistic and we even get a very cool impalement toward the end of the movie!

The Creek is a solid effort for a low-budget film. It has higher production values and better acting than most low-budget horror films, but I wish it would have aimed higher with its storyline.

Check out The Creek at www.thecreekmovie.com.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Spider Baby (1964)

Spider Baby has been a long sought after, but extremely rare film to find. If you were lucky enough to see it, it was probably on a horribly transferred, scratchy VHS bootleg. Luckily, the good folks over at Dark Sky Films, bless their souls, have restored, remastered (under supervision from director Jack Hill) and released a special edition of this fantastic film.

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is about the Merrye clan, who live in isolation in the middle of nowhere in a large and creepy mansion. The Merrye children, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Ralph (Sid Haig) all suffer from a rare genetic disease that makes its victims regress, first to a childlike state, but ultimately to a cannibalistic and savage state. They are cared for by the loyal chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The children like to play games, but it seems all who enter their gates ends up dead. When greedy distant relatives and their slimy lawyer descend upon the Merrye house, they get more than they bargain for as they realize the Merrye family will stop at nothing to protect their secret.

This 1964 film is one that definitely deserved to be given a special release. Everything from the fantastical story to the stellar acting makes this a cult classic with good reason. I couldn’t put it better than Dark Sky Films’ when they describe the film as “Luis Bunuel meets The Addams Family meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The surreal atmosphere combined with the morbid comedic relief and the few shocking scenes of brutality tie in very nicely with the overarching theme of family loyalty.

The story, written by director Jack Hill, is fantastical and entirely engaging. Hill creates memorable characters set amidst a very gothic setting (cob-web filled, derelict mansion complete with hidden passages). Throw in a tragic disease, evil relatives and multiple murders and you’ve got quite a story! Everything works in this film!

The actors must be given due credit for imbuing their characters with life. The legendary Lon Chaney, Jr. is amazing as the loyal and steadfast caregiver, Bruno. Any fans of his will delight in seeing him in this, dare I say, sweet role. It is also a treat to see Sid Haig in his early years as the child-like Ralph. Jill Banner as Virginia and Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth also do an amazing jobs as the young Merrye women. There is one creepy scene where Elizabeth plays “Spider” with her Uncle Peter and then attempts to seduce him…if that scene doesn’t give you the willies, then there is something seriously wrong with you!!

The film’s black and white print looks amazing and its restoration was carefully supervised by Jack Hill. The special features aren’t too shabby either and include a feature-length commentary with writer/director Hill and actor Sid Haig, a slew of featurettes including “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” “Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein,” and “The Merrye House Revisited,” a still gallery, an alternate opening sequence and extended scenes. All this makes the special edition of Spider Baby one to definitely buy.

I must disagree with those that call this a “B-movie.” There is absolutely nothing subpar in Spider Baby. This was even my first time seeing this film, and I was blown away at how engaging it is and how much I liked it! From the delightful animated opening scenes (complete with Lon Chaney, Jr. singing the theme song) through to the explosive end, this Spider certainly had me wrapped up in its web!

Buy it on Amazon!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Murder Party (2007)

If I had to describe Murder Party in one word, it would have to be…disappointing. Perhaps I was expecting to much – I heard all the hype making Murder Party sound like a mix of the quirky Napoleon Dynamite and the Roger Corman art satire film Bucket of Blood, I was expecting a funny, weird, whip-smart and viciously satirical film. Instead, I got this dull movie with only one running joke that failed to entertain or amuse.

A nebbish, middle-aged man finds an invitation to a “Murder Party” on the sidewalk. Having no plans except to stay home and watch movies with his cat, he comes up with an impromptu knight costume made out of silver masking tape and cardboard, bakes a pumpkin loaf, and is on his way to the mysterious party. After taking the subway to the far side of the city and walking quite a ways, he finally finds the “party,” which is little more than a few artists sitting around doing drugs. Pretty soon he is tied up in a chair and finds out that they intend to murder him for their “art.” As the night drags on, the artists try and figure out the most artistically shocking way of killing him and which medium is best for capturing his last moments.

The sad thing is, I was really looking forward to this film, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the hype that has built up around it since its Slamdance Film Festival premiere. Director and writer Jeffery Saulnier had a great idea to satirize the art scene, but the, ahem, execution is poorly done. The film is a one-trick pony that sucks everything it can out of the joke anything can be art. Sure, the concept of the film is clever and quirky, but the actual film is anything but.

The characters are very poorly developed, and the supposed “hero” of the piece, the nerdy man we meet at the beginning, spends the majority of the film gagged and tied to a chair as he watches the artists argue, lust after each other, do drugs, dance and try to impress a potential grant donor. It sounds like much more fun than it actually IS, because we don’t care about any of the characters and quickly get bored with what little they do.

The dialogue, jokes and gags get old fast, too, and I couldn’t help but look at the clock every two seconds to see when the movie would be over. Some of you might bitch and moan and point fingers saying I didn’t pick up on the subtleties of the extremely dry humor, but to you I say…I tried to pick up on ANYTHNG funny, but it just WASN’T there. How this movie got so many positive reviews is beyond me. It’s like the critics were so in love with the concept of the film that they overlooked just how bad the ACTUAL film was.

After we endure ¾ of the film where the artists share their deepest, darkest secrets, hide the body of one of their friends who accidentally dies, do copious amounts of coke, screw, bop around and finally turn on each other, our “hero” escapes and runs from one of the artists who has suddenly snapped and turned into a killer. They end up at another (much larger) artists’ party where the killer massacres a group, only for the rest of the partygoers to think it is art. Ah, how ironic and clever! This is by far the best scene in the film (also because it means the movie is almost over), however obvious it might be.

Murder Party was a great concept for a film, but unfortunately the concept wasn’t expanded upon enough to fill an entire feature film. Instead of a quirky, clever horror-comedy, Murder Party becomes monotonous and trite. If you’re looking for a horror flick that satirizes the pompous artist community, I’d stick with Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood from 1959.

Available from Amazon!

Book Review: Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth

Dying to Live is a different type of zombie novel, one that takes a more humanitarian and philosophical approach to the popular zombie genre. Though there are some brutal gore scenes described in the book, author Kim Paffenroth focuses more on the interactions between people than the zombies. This different perspective in a zombie novel is wholeheartedly welcomed and is very refreshing.

After an apocalypse that has destroyed the world’s population and turned most people into the living dead, Jonah Caine continues to wander alone as he struggles to come to terms with what has happened. He kills the occasional zombie when he has to, but for the most part tries to avoid them. He comes to believe he is the only survivor until he finds a group of living people holed up in a museum. Among them are two leaders – Jack, the logical and practical military man, and Milton, a kind of spiritual leader to the people who has a special power over the undead. Jonah is welcomed into the community but also asked to prove his worth as the group tries to rebuild a civilization with what little they have left. Soon, though, they come to discover that they aren’t the only survivors and zombies, when compared with the brutality of mankind, may be the least of their worries.

From the first page of Dying to Live, I knew this was going to be an excellent book. Author Kim Paffenroth writes intelligently and immediately engages you in the story. Even though the book is very intellectually engaging and asks you to (gasp!) think, it doesn’t suffer any slow spots. The action keeps moving at a fast clip, whether it’s Jonah fighting off zombies, the community coming together to rebuild and share their experiences, a raid for supplies in the zombie-infested city, a daring rescue of a baby and her father, or the ugly side of the human condition, there is never a dull moment in Dying to Live.

The characters themselves are exquisitely developed and it is truly heartbreaking to watch them go through some of their hardships. The last few chapters are very hard to read because of the cruelty and brutality that is inflicted on some the characters. The character of Jonah, along with others, feels very realistic. It seems that in a post-apocalyptic world, people would really act, talk and think like the characters in Dying to Live. After their families, friends and acquaintances have died and returned as flesh-eating ghouls (whom they have had to kill), it seems that some very profound thinking is bound to take place! The interactions between characters feels very accurate as well, with Jonah even falling in love with one of the fellow survivors.

Author Kim Paffenroth is also a professor of religious studies, and it definitely shows in the novel. He makes reference to Dante’s Inferno, Nietzsche, The Bible, Paradise Lost and a dozen other philosophies. Don’t misunderstand and think this novel is at all preachy or stuffy…it is most definitely not. Paffenroth writes in a very accessible way that’ll make you think as well as squirm.

Critics and other authors are spot-on when they call Kim Paffenroth’s Dying to Live a “thinking man’s” novel. This is a zombie novel with plenty of heart, guts and brains (mmmmmm…brains) to satisfy any horror fan that’s looking for a more intellectually stimulating book. Dying to Live is highly recommended reading.

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Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007)

I remember when I first saw the remake of House on Haunted Hill in 1999. Sure, the original with Vincent Price is a classic, but I hold a special place in my heart for the one starring a very hammy Geoffrey Rush and some very creepy ghosts. The night I saw it was a dark and stormy Halloween. I was still in high school and my friend and I decided to ditch everyone else and go to the movies. We had to drive a very curvy and treacherous road to get to the theater (we lived in the boonies back then), so we were already kinda on edge. THEN we saw the movie, which scared the pants off of both of us. And THEN we had to drive BACK on that dark and desolate country road, with ominous trees on either side of us and curves hiding whatever might be lurking ahead…

So, since I enjoyed the experience of watching House on Haunted Hill and still count it as a guilty pleasure, I was eager to check out Return to House on Haunted Hill when it came out this October. Although it didn’t leave the impression that its predecessor did, Return to House on Haunted Hill was still a pretty fun and entertaining haunted asylum movie.

The film picks up a few years after the events that transpired in the first film. One of the only survivors, Sarah, apparently commits suicide and her sister Ariel (Amanda Righetti) is thrust into her sister’s world. It seems that Sarah was in the possession of a valuable journal that told of the location of a priceless statue of Baphomet. Ariel ends up with the journal, but soon a gang of goons kidnap her, her boyfriend (Tom Riley) and the journal and set out for the house. Meanwhile, a professor (Steven Pacey) who has been searching for the statue his entire life and his two assistants (Cerina Vincent and Andrew Lee Potts) also go to the house. The two groups run into each other, and the group of goons, led by Desmond (Erik Palladino), one of the professor’s old students, takes everyone hostage while they search for the statue. The labyrinth house used to be an asylum headed by the evil Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs), who performed terrible experiments on the patients. The house and its unrestful inhabitants don’t particularly take to these new intruders, and soon goes into lockdown mode, effectively locking everyone within the cavernous structure. Can Ariel, the professor and the rest of the “good guys” get away from Desmond and his goons and retrieve the statue first? A better question to ask would be, can anyone get out alive?

Let’s get one thing straight before proceeding…this movie doesn’t have the same spooky atmosphere as the House on Haunted Hill, and it isn’t anywhere near as frightening, but I still found it pretty entertaining. The spooks that haunt the place are pretty creepy, and I especially loved Jeffrey Combs’ reprisal of his role as the scary Dr. Vannacutt. The vibe and monsters felt very much like Silent Hill, even with a few ghosts of those that were burned alive, like the ember babies in Silent Hill.

For direct to video, the special FX were handled quite well, though there were a few instances of shoddy CGI. I found the best scene to be when a few people fell into the murky hydrotherapy pool and a few very creepy things were waiting in the depths. Talk about tense! There are a few gory scenes, like a guy getting drawn and quartered so his body is completely pulled apart, a head splattering scene involving a very heavy fridge and a few others. While none of these feature any groundbreaking special FX, they are all done well and look great!

The acting is also strong (with a few exceptions) for a direct-to-video flick. These movie is blessed by the lovely Cerina Vincent (Cabin Fever, It Waits), sexy Erik Palladino (Dead & Breakfast, The Thirst) and who can forget Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator)!? Combs doesn’t have a lick of dialogue, but his presence and menacing performance are enough! We also get a strong female lead, played by Amanda Righetti, who comes off very realistically. The rest of the cast (though they may only survive a few minutes) also does a commendable job.

On the negative side, the movie drags toward the beginning and feels like more of a heist movie than a horror movie. It takes the main characters about 30 minutes to get inside the house, and even when they are exploring its depths, there are several moments where the action is lulled and even brought to a standstill. The good news is that the movie is only about 80 minutes long, so these lulls don’t last long. I also thought the characters were under-developed and pretty generic. I did enjoy the storyline of the Baphomet relic, even though the storyline (and dialogue) got a little ridiculous at times. Still, I was able to overlook these negatives and sit back and enjoy the film.

Return to House on Haunted Hill doesn’t live up to its predecessor or the original Vincent Price House on Haunted Hill film, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it a shot. This is not the greatest movie out there, but I don’t think it is trying to be. If you just want to shut your brain off and relax with a movie, Return to House on Haunted Hill is a good choice.

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