Thursday, July 30, 2009

Acolytes (2009)

Hailing from Australia, Acolytes is a slow-paced yet thrilling film that has quite a few surprises. Though the synopsis might make it seem like a straightforward story of kids blackmailing a serial killer to get revenge on a bully, the film is much more than that. It takes its time building up the tension for an explosive and bloody finale, all the while commenting on how evil can live behind the white picket fence just next door.

Our story opens with three teens – Mark (Sebastian Gregory), Chasely (Hannah Morgan Lawrence), and James (Joshua Payne) hanging out after school. Mark and James have been friends since they were little kids, but there is friction between them now that James is going out with Chasely, whom Mark is obviously infatuated with. When James and Chasely start to get into some heavy petting, Mark wanders off into the woods, where he comes across a man burying something. After getting a glimpse of the man’s distinctive SUV (it has a butterfly design on the back of the spare tire cover), Mark runs back to tell James and Chasely. The three return to the woods with shovels to see what the man was burying and discover a body in the shallow hole. When the cops don’t believe them, they track down the killer (Joel Edgerton) and try to blackmail him into helping them kill a bully (Michael Dorman) who caused them irreparable harm when they were kids. What they don’t count on is the killer’s truly sadistic nature as he quickly turns the tables on them.

Acolytes is quite a chilling, thrilling film from Down Under. The most chilling aspect of it was its suggestion that evil can live right next door with the seemingly pleasant married couple who have just had a baby. If you really think about it, our society is so distant from one another that it is not hard to believe you would ignore screams if they were coming from next door. Or is you saw your neighbor carrying what looked like a body bag into his house. Chances are, you would just ignore what you saw, mentally brushing it off as none of your business. So, living next door or in the same town as a serial killer really isn’t that hard to imagine. Neither is it hard to believe that if pushed far enough, you could also become a killer…

Director Jon Hewitt filmed Acolytes on a relatively low budget, but from looking at the picture you’d never be able to tell. There are some truly gorgeous shots in the film, like a panning shot of a blue-tinged dawn in the beginning of the film. The film on a whole looks great, from bright, wide-open shots at the beginning of the story to more dark and claustrophobic shots as the film nears its end. Though it does take a while to get doing, I thought the slow burn approach was appropriate as we get to know the characters and their pasts. Some viewers might find it a bit languid, but I felt the pacing was near perfect.

The story, written by Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause and Jon Hewitt, is intriguing and surprising. Even if the synopsis seems straightforward, it really isn’t and the story takes you dark places you didn’t think the film would go. While the first half of the film focuses on the teens, the latter half focuses more on the killer as he turns the tables on them. The characters are all realistically portrayed and even the bad decisions the teens make seem entirely plausible. Plus, there is a wicked twist towards the end that explains the whole “acolyte” (meaning a “devoted follower or attendant”) title.

Most of the violence is reserved until the last half of the film, but there is a jarring opening sequence that shows a young, half-naked girl being terrorized in the woods. As for the rest of the action, we get lots of exciting car chases (and crashes), cross-bow hunting, a head getting repeatedly bashed in by a large rock, stabbings, kidnappings and so on. While the first half of the film has a tense, ominous feel to it, the last half revels in the release of pent-up aggression.

I’m not sure what I expected out of Acolytes (perhaps a standard slash ‘n’ hack movie) but what I saw far exceeded my expectations. It’s moody, atmospheric beginning slowly gives way to bloody violence that eventually leads to a grim conclusion.

Buy it on Amazon!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: Under by Bradd Quinn

Growing up in the country, I’m no stranger to the nighttime sounds of wildlife crunching and skittering through the undergrowth. There is something deeply unsettling about something moving around in the dark that you can’t see…but you feel like it is watching you. Though I now live in the city, there are still those strange nocturnal noises, whether they come from the bushes or the dumpsters, that make my heart skip a beat. Who knows what could be lurking in the inky black shadows, watching you? I certainly don’t want to stick around to find out! Author Bradd Quinn’s debut novel, Under, explores the these very fears of what lurks in the darkness just out of your eyesight…something that very well may be watching YOU!

When the rural town of Gaston is the location of a gruesome massacre, the authorities are quick to blame the viciousness of the attacks on a pack of wild dogs or coyotes. The numerous victims were attacked in their homes and appeared to have been partially devoured, causing skeptics to point out that wild animals generally don’t enter homes to attack, especially multiple homes. Their concerns are ignored by the authorities, who insist the massacre was the work of wild animals.

Weeks later, in the nearby town of Jennisville, Jacob Drake has begun finding an abnormally large amount of dead birds, rodents and other small animals in his yard. He then discovers a large hole that leads underneath his deck, which the family’s black lab Samantha can’t leave well enough alone. Pretty soon, pets in the neighborhood are missing and neighbors find one of their dogs ripped apart, like it had been eaten.

Jacob begins to see similarities between the events leading up to the tragedy in Gaston and the warning signs popping up in his neighborhood. He begins to think that whatever killed the animals and pets is living under his deck and is too close to his family for comfort. In an effort to protect his wife Christine and five-year-old daughter Genna, Jacob decides to peer into the darkness and finds something so terrifying, so unknown, that no one else will believe that it’s real. It’s up to Jacob and his friend and next-door neighbor Rod to try and convince the town that something evil is lurking…before it’s too late for everyone.

Under is a fast-paced novel that had me so engrossed I couldn’t put it down! I usually do my reading at night, but with Under I kept stealing away to read a few more chapters whenever I could! Author Bradd Quinn really did an excellent job at getting me invested in all the characters. I really enjoyed the character of Jacob Drake, especially the smartass humor he used throughout the book. It really made Jacob likable and made me give a damn about him and his family.

I am just astounded that this is Quinn’s debut novel. The fast pace, great characterizations, perfectly-timed “reveal” moments and a suspenseful finale all make Quinn appear like a seasoned writer. While there are typos throughout the novel, you have to remember it is self-published and Quinn even included a cute disclaimer telling the reader to “Think of them as easter eggs”, so they are forgivable. Plus, it’s easy to skim over typos when you are so engrossed in the story!

The creatures (yes, there are more than one) that Quinn has dreamed up are nightmarish creations that screech and howl in an unearthly manner and whose appearance is shocking. I’ve never seen or read about these creatures in any horror film or book, so kudos again to Quinn for picking something refreshing rather than the standard vampire/werewolf/zombie-like creatures we are so used to seeing in the horror genre. From the way they move to the way they communicate to just how they look unsettled me and yet left me craving more. Quinn gives us just enough towards the beginning of the novel to keep us reading and keeps giving us more and more tidbits on the nature of the crafty creatures until the slam-bam finale. And what a finale it is! I thought the first half of the book was tense, but the last half really puts you through the wringer! You’ll find it nearly impossible to put Under down once you’re reading the nail-bitingly suspenseful conclusion!

For those that have wondered just what is hiding under the dark, dank spaces beneath their homes or what the strange nocturnal scratching noises coming from their basements are, Under, the debut novel from Bradd Quinn, is definitely for you!

Buy it on Amazon!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Beyond the Door (1974)

Feeling very much like a mix of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Beyond the Door (aka Chi Sei? and The Devil Within Her) tells the story of Jessica Barrett (Juliet Mills), a seemingly happy ‘70s housewife with two bratty, potty-mouthed kids and husband Robert (Gabriele Lavia) who is a successful music producer. Things take a turn for the worse when Jessica discovers she is pregnant. When Robert finds her in the bathroom puking up blood, Jessica swears that the baby is trying to kill her. She begins hearing strange, guttural voices and laughter and acting strangely. Upon visiting the doctor, she is shocked to find out that the fetus is developing at an accelerated rate. There is also a strange man named Dimitri (Richard Johnson) hanging around, who is either intends to help or harm Jessica. It all comes to a head when Jessica becomes possessed by the devil inside of her, spewing bile and threats to all around her. Can she be helped or will she give birth to the damned thing inside of her?

Beyond the Door is a great Satanic possession film form 1974. It probably isn’t a must-see for all horror fans, but those that enjoy films in this particular sub-genre should definitely give it a look. Though it sometimes has an unintentionally funny feel to it, it has a great atmosphere, a few nice scares and enough gross-out puke to give The Exorcist a run for its money!

Beyond the Door came out just a year after The Exorcist, and though it is similar I wouldn’t call it a direct rip-off. Though, like Regan in The Exorcist, Jessica takes on a whole new, unflattering look, spews a lot of groddy greenish-brown puke and turns her head all the way around, the similarities don’t make the film any less engrossing. The film also shares some close similarities with Rosemary’s Baby, like when Jessica eats a rotten banana peel off the street just like Rosemary eats raw meat in Rosemary’s Baby. Even though Beyond the Door has been called a “rip-off” of earlier horror flicks, I still found it to be an enjoyable film and worth seeing.

One thing that makes it such a treat is the crazy kid characters. The little boy, Ken (David Colin Jr.) loves to say curse words and his older sister, Gail (Barbara Fiorini), loves to talk like a hep cat and has fifteen copies of the same book she always lugs around with her. I’m not really sure what the point of making these kids so weird was, but it sure kept me entertained!! The characters of the parents, Jessica and Robert, were a little more normal, but they certainly didn’t act like normal parents!

Besides the quirky characters, the narrative of the story flowed pretty normally. I loved how it opened upon this candlelit church with an eerie voiceover of the “star” of the story! Though there were some plot holes and things that were never quite tied up, overall I enjoyed the story the film presented. The story was engaging, the characters were unique, the situation was scary and the location was visually arresting.

Speaking of locations, Beyond the Door’s location of sunny San Francisco, with additional scenes filmed in Italy, gave the film a beautiful, dreamlike quality that juxtaposed well with the horror later in the film. The protagonists’ apartment and surroundings are all beautiful…but things start to take a sinister turn as Jessica becomes possessed by the devil inside her. The children’s toys take on a sinister look, cupboards slam on their own, plates are hurled against the walls before breaking into hundreds of pieces and Jessica herself becomes menacing as the demon takes over her body. The contrast between the airy apartment before the possession and the dark, isolated apartment it becomes during the possession really heightens the tension and illustrates the dramatic change Jessica has gone through.

Beyond the Door is a forgotten possession film that really should be seen by fans of the sub-genre. Though it obviously “borrowed” heavily from The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, it is still a pretty good film that deserves to be seen!

Buy it on Amazon!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Insatiable (2007)

Bumbling Harry Balbo (Sean Patrick Flanery) is a pretty big loser. He dresses like the nerds you picked on in high school, doesn’t have a gratifying job, gets bullied at work, doesn’t have a girlfriend and doesn’t have any friends except for a clerk at a convenience store.Yet, when Harry witnesses a beautiful vampire ripping the head off of one of her victims, his life gets a bit more interesting.

When the police don’t believe his vampire story, he becomes obsessed with catching the vampire and stopping her gruesome killing. After getting scratched by the vampire, Harry turns to a vampire site to get some answers and discovers the site’s paraplegic administrator (Michael Biehn) actually lives in his building. The two hatch a plan to stake the vamp, but when Harry has his opportunity he turns into a big softie and lets the vamp live. He then lures her to his basement, where he has built a steel cage, and traps her inside. He then begins to build a strange relationship with the vampire, named Tatiana (Charlotte Ayanna), bringing her bunnies to drain. Tatiana soon becomes insatiable, though, and Harry must decide who to sacrifice next for her needs…

The Insatiable is a quirky, different kind of vampire film. It doesn’t rely on glamorizing vampires and making them “hip”, instead focusing on their seductively feral nature. Plus, the film spends most of its time on Harry instead of Tatiana. Even though Harry is pretty much a dweeb, I still found myself rooting for the guy. Writers Cary Solomon, Chuck Konzelman (both co-directing) and J.R. McGarrity did a great job arousing sympathy for the awkward Harry. I really hoped that all those that wronged them got their just desserts!

Speaking of Harry, Sean Patrick Flanery put on a very memorable performance! I loved all the odd twitches and forced interactions he had with people! I never though I would see Sean Patrick Flanery in the role of a weakling who is always picked on, but he totally nailed his role and made it believable. His performance and character were the best things about the film! Also, Charlotte Ayanna as the vamp Tatiana was equally wonderful as well, carefully balancing her predatory seductiveness with an innocent sweetness.

The film had its slow moments, but overall it was well-paced. It’s more of a dark comedy than straight-up horror flick, so don’t go into it expecting a lot of gore or bloodshed. One guy gets his throat ripped out, another gets an arm ripped off and there are lots of bloody aftermaths, but it definitely keeps any violence on the light side. There are also lots of quirky, humorous scenes that keep the film pretty breezy.

The direction by Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman was pretty solid; the only things I had complaints about were some shoddy CGI shots, but those are easily overlooked in sight the rest of the film. The film probably had a small budget, but besides the bad CGI you really won’t be able to tell. Everything looks crisp, clean and glossed to a professional sheen. Kudos to Solomon and Konzelman for sticking within their means!

The Insatiable is a pretty fun, eccentric vampire film. It’s definitely different than your typical glossy Hollywood vampire picture and is populated by an odd smattering of characters that’ll hold your attention until the very satisfying ending. Many haven’t heard of The Insatiable, but more people should definitely take a bite out of this vampire movie!

Buy it on Amazon!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Sell the Dead (2009)

I have always loved the evocative atmosphere of old horror films. You know the ones – they always seem to feature fog-shrouded cemeteries, an ominous score, stark trees silhouetted against an October moon and just a deliciously macabre feel to them. So when I heard about I Sell the Dead, a film that promised the same kind of spooky atmosphere combined with a morbid buddy comedy, I was definitely eager to see it.

The tongue-in-cheek horror comedy definitely lived up to my expectations, even surpassing them at times. Not only is the romantically macabre atmosphere of old horror films perfectly captured, but the story is gleefully unique with a good heaping of gallows humor thrown in for good measure!

The film is told in flashback form, but opens in the present 1800’s Ireland with convicted grave robber Willy Grimes (Larry Fessenden) meeting an unkindly end at the guillotine. His partner, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), is awaiting a similar fate when he is visited by Father Duffy (Ron Perlman), a rather odd priest who seems to take unusual delight in hearing all about Blake and Grime’s misdeeds. For five hours before his scheduled execution, Blake recounts how he fell into the corpse snatching business with Grimes, their ghoulish client Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm) who always needed fresh corpses for his mysterious experiments, the many unusual “undead” things he and Grimes were paid to dig up and their unfortunate run-ins with the House of Murphy, a rival grave robbing gang.

I Sell the Dead is no doubt one of the best horror films I’ve seen all year! I really think 19th century Ireland, with its bawdy bars, decrepit old cemeteries, moon-lit back alleys, desolated moors and strange isles populated by the undead, was the perfect setting for the film. It definitely captured that old Hammer horror atmosphere, giving the film a nostalgic feel. What’s even more amazing is because of a small budget the movie was filmed in New York! When there wasn’t enough money to construct elaborate sets, existing locations were used (such as for the pub used in the film) and backgrounds and such were added in by computer effects and mixed art media like photography, painting and illustration. Yet, when you watch the film, it is absolutely seamless!

Besides the nostalgic look of the film, the story, written by Glenn McQuaid (who also directed) is also absolutely delightful. As I watched the story unfold, I was just as gleeful as a kid on Christmas morning! When was the last time you saw a film that made you want to crow its praises from rooftops? Besides the fact that the story keeps popping up with surprises as to what Grimes and Blake would dig up next, the whole repartee between Grimes and Blake reminded me of Abbott and Costello-style shenanigans. There is some slapstick, but most of it is witty banter. Even the dialogue between other characters, especially Blake and Father Duffy, is very playful. The whole story has this irreverent, imaginative feel to it, but it is not without its moments of horror. Though the undead they encounter are more cartoonish than serious, there are several nice jolts throughout the film. I especially enjoyed a discovery of a vampire, though the two main characters had no idea what they had dug up and proceeded to remove the garlic around the undead’s neck as well as removing a stake through her heart. As a result, hilarity and horror ensues. Even the addition of the not-undead-but-still-damn-scary House of Murphy gang was pleasurable and added another dimension to an already colorful film!

The characters are fancifully drawn, with even the lesser characters being fully fleshed out. Besides the main characters of Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), Willy Grimes (Larry Fessenden) and Father Duffy (Ron Perlman), I loved the menacing members of the House of Murphy, including Cornelius Murphy (John Speredakos) with his grim childhood at the hands of the cruel Murphy senior, Valentine Kelly (Heather Bullock) whose face was so disfigured by a fire that she now wears a blank, white mask that she only removes when she is about to kill someone and Bulger (Alisdair Stewart) whose toothy maw is full of razor-sharp dog teeth. Then, of course, is the sinister Dr. Quint (Angus Scrimm), who keeps demanding more and more bodies from Grimes and Blake and corpulent barkeep Ronnie (Joel Garland), among the many memorable faces! Plus, all of the actors delivered stellar performances. I have to make special mention of Daniel Manche, who played the young Arthur Blake! Hats off to the rest of the excellent cast, including a rather gleeful performance from the “Tall Man” himself, Angus Scrimm!

I really cannot speak highly enough of I Sell the Dead. It is a whimsically macabre film that will delight and entertain all horror fans. So far, I Sell the Dead is one of my favorite films from 2009!

Available from Amazon!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Alice Jacobs is Dead (2009)

How far would you go for an ill loved one? Would you endanger yourself to keep them alive? Would you endanger the entire world’s population if it meant that a cure for their disease might be found?

In Alice Jacobs is Dead, the world has long been overtaken by the Z-virus, but one scientist, Dr. Ben Jacobs (John La Zar), has created a drug that actually slows down the development of the virus. A cure hasn’t been found, but Dr. Jacobs is tirelessly working on finding one, especially since the life of his infected wife, Alice (Adrienne Barbeau), hangs in the balance.

Written and directed by Alex Horwitz, this 20-minute short film is a subtle, slow burn as the audience anxiously waits to see if Dr. Jacobs will find a cure before his wife turns into a full-fledged zombie. While the horror isn’t graphic, the film’s true strength lies in the anticipation of what might happen. Dr. Jacobs is willing to sacrifice his own safety, as well as the world’s, to find the cure for his wife. We get a glimpse of the destruction the Z-virus caused in the opening scene of a destroyed Golden Gate Bridge, but the rest of the film is limited to the locations of Dr. Jacobs’ lab and his home. The claustrophobic, isolated atmosphere works well in the film because the audience can imagine the destruction that is just beyond the Doctor’s walls.

Another strength of the film lies in the interaction between actors John La Zar (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Creepshow, Carnivale, etc.). The two have a wonderful chemistry that really makes us believe they are a married couple fighting a degenerative disease. From loving moments to when they argue, their relationship rings true. It also doesn’t hurt that they are both highly accomplished actors! Rounding out the cast as Dr. Jacobs’ lab assistant George is Peter Cambor, whose credits include television shows Pushing Daisies, Numb3rs and Notes from the Underbelly, who also does a fantastic job in his role.

The film’s tone is somber, and if it weren’t for the zombie virus, it could just be another drama about a husband taking care of his sick wife. The zombie angle is what gives the film an edge, though, and makes it unique! There aren’t too many zombie films that give such humanity to turning into a member of the undead, and on the flip side there aren’t that many dramas that deal with the degenerative effects of a zombie virus!

There isn’t much gore in the film, but if you’ve been paying attention you’d know that wasn’t the aim or the focus of this short. We do get a bit of gut-munching towards the end of the film, but don’t come into Alice Jacobs is Dead expecting much blood-letting! To be honest, this film doesn’t need the gore and works just fine as a quiet study of a man going to great lengths to try to save the one he loves.

If you were in Dr. Jacobs’ place would you do any different?

Alice Jacobs is Dead may be a more subdued short film, but it will definitely get you thinking about what you would do if you were in the same place. My bet is that most people would indeed risk their own lives as well as the worldwide population’s if there was a chance they could save a loved one.

Alice Jacobs is Dead will be premiering at the San Diego Comic-Con on July 23rd, 2009 at 1:45pm in Room 26AB! Definitely don’t miss your opportunity to view this short!

Visit Alice Jacobs is Dead’s Official Site!

Book Review: Dark Lullaby by Mayra Calvani

Dark Lullaby is a modern-day dark fairy tale, but not like your typical Disney happily-ever-after BS. Instead, this dark tale is like traditional folklore from Eastern Europe, dark, unsettling, mysterious and shocking. The supernatural villain in this book is unlike anything I’ve ever heard of or seen before in the horror genre, creating an aura of exotic mystery along with the distant setting of Turkey.

The tale starts with Gabriel fresh out of a three year relationship with Liz. The two remain close friends and have met up at a local bar for drinks and philosophical discussion of good vs. evil. The alluring and mysterious Kamilah soon joins them, and Gabriel is entranced by her beauty as well as her discussions on human nature. Liz gets a bad feeling about Kamilah, but Gabriel soon falls head over heels in love with her. Though he can’t deny there is something unsettling about her, he just can’t seem to get her out of his mind.

Though his twin sister, Elena, is having a stressful pregnancy across the pond in Europe and Gabriel is supposed to be at the birth in a week, he agrees to go with Kamilah to her home land of Turkey for a little R and R at her family’s cottage deep in the woods. When he arrives with Kamilah in Turkey, he feels cut off from both his sister and Liz and begins to feel more unsettled by Kamilah’s petulant child-like behavior and unnerved by several strange occurrences. Gabriel begins to believe that Kamilah wants harm to come to both Elena’s unborn child and Liz. Is Kamilah someone…or something…truly evil and what are her true intentions?

Though author Mayra Calvani has written many books over a wide span of genres, this was my first encounter with the woman’s writing. Though I felt that the opening pages of the book, where Liz and Gabriel are having a philosophical debate, were a bit weak, I was soon transported into a frightening story that had a tendency to crawl under my skin and squirm long after I put the book down.

The foreboding atmosphere of the novel was really helped by the location of exotic Turkey. It really felt like the family cottage of Kamilah, surrounded by primordial forest, was straight out of an enchanted fairy tale. Then there were the quaint, cobblestone streets of the local town and the dazzling blue of the Black Sea in the distance to add to the location’s mystique. All the supernatural events that occurred to Gabriel after their arrival in Turkey felt very apropos in such a mysterious locale.

I also thought the intriguing characters added a lot to the story. Gabriel, with all his talk of reason, is a very emotional man at heart and during his trip with Kamilah his emotions are used against him to draw him further into her tangled web. Kamilah, though a whiny brat, knows how to get her way and has a very dangerous presence. I also liked the subplots involving Elena, suffering anxiety and a sense of dread during her last few weeks of pregnancy, and Liz, suffering psychological torment at the hands of an unseen assailant. Other characters stood out as well, including a Turkish witch that tries to warn Gabriel what Kamilah really is and a young boy and his abusive father whom Gabriel feels a special connection to.

As for the scares, there are many scenes that will give you chills! One that hits you hard is close to the beginning of the story where Gabriel thinks he sees something horribly strange…Kamilah’s feet on backwards! Other favorites include creepy scenes in the Turkish woods when Gabriel follows the sounds of babies crying to some very disturbing trees, an unexpected attack from a swarm of bees and a stunning finale.

Dark Lullaby is a quick-paced, fun summer read for when you need a good chill! Its basis in Turkish mythology makes it unique and the splendid setting of Turkey doesn’t get much more exotic! The supernatural tale has plenty of nightmarish imagery to keep you up at night, but the “thriller” aspects of the story make it a good read for horror fans and non-horror fans alike! There is just enough romance and intrigue to interest those who aren’t necessarily horror fans, but also enough supernatural elements and scares to keep the spooky kids entertained.

Buy it on Amazon!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jack Be Nimble (1993)

Jack Be Nimble is a pretty obscure 1993 New Zealand horror film starring Alexis Arquette (back when “she” was a “he”) that deals with evil foster families, deaths by hypnosis and a psychic sister who has a rather icky relationship with an older, equally psychically-gifted man. It is a very dark and solemn film that really doesn’t have much of a strong plot, instead focusing on the odd characters scattered throughout and its somber atmosphere.

The film begins with two young siblings witnessing their mother have a nervous breakdown. When their father comes home, the mother has split, and the children are placed in an orphan’s home. Soon the siblings are separated as the little girl, named Dora, is adopted by doting parents, while little Jack is adopted by a cruel farming family. As Dora grows up with kisses, presents and lots of love, Jack grows up being mercilessly abused by his foster father, mother and four sisters, both mentally and physically. The two never stop thinking about each other, and eventually Jack builds a kind of hypnosis machine and dispatches of his cruel family, setting out on the road to find his sister. His sister has also developed psychic abilities and is able to pinpoint where Jack is. With the help of an older psychic, whom I suppose becomes her boyfriend (such awkward sex scenes…), she finds Jack and the two set out to find their biological parents. Yet, Jack harbors a lot of hatred for them, and Dora fears what he might do with his hypnosis machine. Also, Jack is being trailed by his four sisters, who are out for revenge for what he did to their parents.

Where to even begin with this odd little flick? I suppose the first thing I noticed was the somber mood throughout. This is a dark film that unflinchingly deals with child abuse and the ensuing psychological damage that occurs. It could also be seen as a study of nurture vs. nature, with two siblings being reared in extremely different circumstances. It is definitely not a “fun” horror flick and carries its grim tone throughout. The tone is almost otherworldly, like it was lifted straight out of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale.

Adding to the fairy tale-like atmosphere are the almost-caricatured characters of Jack’s evil family – from brutish father to uptight and cruel mother to the silent yet menacing four sisters. I also liked the use of chiaroscuro throughout the film. Deep, dark shadows dominated the first part of the film, only to be juxtaposed with lighter, brighter colors later in the film. Most of the film carried with it a bleak atmosphere, though, and utilized the contrast of light and dark to show just how black the darkness really was.

Story-wise, the plot wasn’t that developed, and it felt like writer Garth Maxwell (who also directed) was a bit all over the place with the psychic/telekinetic/hypnotic powers of the lead characters. Nonetheless, the result was intense interactions between the two siblings. Actors Alexis Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, who played Jack and Dora respectively, had a great chemistry and really gave the roles their all. I was surprised at how intense and serious Arquette could act, considering I only remember him from The Wedding Singer and Bride of Chucky. And Smuts-Kennedy (poor girl, doesn’t she have a separate stage name?) was equally good as Dora, even in the intensely awkward sex scenes she had to do with the creepy older guy.

The film isn’t that gory or bloody, but the deaths were very satisfying to watch, especially since most of the victims deserved it. Jack’s hypnosis machine was especially intriguing, but it wasn’t explained much. I think he, like his sister, had certain telepathic abilities but needed the machine he built to channel them. Anyways, I really enjoyed seeing him getting payback against his family in rather satisfying ways. The ending when they must face the four sisters was pretty tense, with someone’s grisly death being somewhat unexpected and a bit of a letdown. And the strange last scene just seemed really unnecessary, like out-of-nowhere unnecessary!

Jack Be Nimble is a very odd, off-kilter horror film that feels more of like a twisted fairy tale rather than a straight-forward horror film. Despite its flimsy story, I was nonetheless intrigued by the characters and their abilities. Add in some evil people you can enjoy watching die via hypnosis and telekinesis and you’ve got yourself an overall satisfying, if not weird, horror flick! If you are looking for something completely different with a grim, somber feel to it, you should give Jack Be Nimble a look!

Buy on Amazon!

The Ugly File (2009)

When a woman becomes pregnant, isn’t it always her and the father’s greatest fear that the child will come out abnormal or deformed? What would you do if you learned that your unborn child was going to be mentally retarded or be physically deformed so that they could never have a normal life?

The short film The Ugly File, director Mark Steensland most recent film, deals with this very subject, but in a disturbingly skewed way that creates a heartbreakingly horrific film.

Photographer Roy Hubbard (Mike Lechner) visits a woman’s home to take pictures of her baby girl…except there is something terribly wrong with the baby. Back at the studio, Roy adds the photographs to his “ugly file” and delivers said package to a rich man on the outskirts of town who has his own sadly disturbing use for the photographs.

The Ugly File is a subtle film that has a heavy, sad feeling throughout the proceedings. Based on the story by Ed Gorman with a screenplay by Rick Hautala, The Ugly File is a subdued, downbeat horror film that’ll leave you counting your blessings…and your toes!

This 10 minute short starts with a feeling of dread as the photographer drives under overcast skies to a woman’s home to take pictures of her baby, which she says most people can’t even look at. We never see the baby, as Steensland uses clever camera angles to obscure its face, but this only heightens the tension and makes the final “reveal” in the film that much more shocking. The special FX at the end are pretty horrific, even with the limited budget the film was made on. Special FX makeup artist Mark Kosobucki did a fantastic job with creating the look of the baby. I was also surprised to learn that the story by Ed Gorman is actually based on a woman’s true story, which just makes the film even more tragic and horrifying.

The Ugly File works on subtle suspense and pronounced creepiness, so there isn’t any blood or gore contained within the short, but the overall dark atmosphere of the film is what really sells the film. The fear of having a child born with deformities will resonate with many people, even if they don’t have kids of their own (like myself), so check The Ugly File out when it comes to a film festival near you!

Visit Mark Steensland’s Official Site!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Peekers (2008)

Filmmakers often rely on short films as a jumping off point before they go on to make longer, feature-length films. Short films allow them to “test the waters” and gain hands-on experience with filmmaking without having to break the bank. For other filmmakers, though, the short film is an art form and much of their careers are spent crafting precise and effective shorts.

I believe that shorts have a very important place in the film business, not just for showcasing what a filmmaker can do or for a filmmaker to gain experience, but as an effective, bite-sized piece of entertainment. When done effectively, short films can pack quite the punch!

Case in point is director Mark Steensland’s (Dead @ 17 and the Beyond the Pale short film collection) short Peekers, based on the story by Kealan Patrick Burke and written by Rick Hautala. This 8-minute film may not be that long, but, boy, did it ever rock the socks off of me! It is a suburban nightmare, beginning with the seemingly mundane task of our main character, Larry Morgan (Mike Lechner), making breakfast. Just as he sits down to eat, he is interrupted by a knock at the door by his neighbor, the elderly Zach (Albert Braun), who pleads with Larry to come check something out at his house. What follows is the creepiest of scenes and a finale that will leave you shaken for days! You’ll never be the same after you hear “Play with me” from one of the characters!

Peekers is an extremely effective short that definitely left me with a case of the heebie jeebies. In addition to its lasting impact, it is also precisely constructed and well-acted. The pacing is perfect, accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack that starts off on a light note before delving into darker territory to mirror the mounting dread of the film. I also have to note that for a short film it has a remarkable high production value to it. Each shot is carefully composed and in no way does it feel like an amateur undertaking like some short films do. Of course, director Mark Steensland has been in the business for quite some time and really excels at creating taut short films (see our reviews of his earlier works above).

I absolutely love the creepy visuals that will cause you to do a double take and give the film its title. There is no violence, blood or gore, but the pervading creepiness of the film will put you off your rocker for sure. The menacing “peekers” are a sight to behold and their pleas to play with them are even more disturbing.

Peekers is a short film that just MUST be seen! In our busy world, short films will soon play an important, bigger role in entertainment. We will be watching them even more on our phones, in between meetings at the office, online and many other places. Peekers is a prime example of what high quality, well-constructed short films SHOULD look like! Mark Steensland continues to treat the short film genre as an art form, not just as the first step on the road to feature filmmaking. In doing so, he has creating a hauntingly memorable short with Peekers!

Visit Mark Steensland’s Official Site!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Unseen (1980)

You know the feeling you get when you discover a hidden gem of a movie? When you are incredulous that it never garnered that much attention and want to yell from the rooftops about the underappreciated genius of the film?! Well, I had never heard of the 1980 film The Unseen before and the premise made it sound exactly like a diamond in the rough whose virtues I could extol to the masses…errrr, well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way, but at the same time I still kind of liked the film!

The Unseen starts with a reporter named Jennifer (Barbara Bach) storming out of the Los Angeles apartment she shares with her injured ex-football star boyfriend Tony (Douglas Barr). It seems that Tony’s unrealistic drive to get back into football after a knee injury is driving Jennifer batty. She leaves on assignment and heads to north to Solvang with her camera woman Karen (Karen Lamm) and gal pal Vicki (Lois Young) to cover the Dutch settlement’s annual parade. The hotel apparently lost their reservation and since all the other hotels in town are booked, they are forced to look for lodging a tiny city 30 or so miles from Solvang. A seemingly kind museum owner, Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick) offers them rooms in his large home, where they meet his “wife”, the nerve-wracked Virginia (Lelia Goldoni). After getting settled, Jennifer and Karen head back into town to cover the parade while an ill Vicki stays at the Keller’s to rest up. Unfortunately for her, something or someone that lives in the basement crawls up through the heating vents and tries to drag her down to “play”…but her head gets crushed in the process.

Meanwhile, Tony has followed Jennifer to Solvang, intent on resolving their issues. As they hash it out over dinner, Karen heads back to the Keller house and ends up much like Vicki did before her. We also learn about Ernest’s upbringing and that he takes “keeping it all in the family” a little too literally. By the time Jennifer arrives back at the Keller’s, they are more than ready for her to meet little Junior (Stephen Furst) in the basement.

The Unseen started out on a positive note, with three gung-ho, smart and likable ladies who will stop at nothing to get the story of the century about the little Dutch settlement that could! The first half of the film moves at a quick clip, with likable characters and their unfortunate decision to stay with the creepy Keller’s. There is a sense of unease around the couple, their home and what lurks in the basement. The first “kill” scene is entertaining, if a little over-the-top in how Vicki wildly reacts as she desperately tries to claw her way to safety as “something” drags her down an old-fashioned heating grate. The second kill is even better, as it involves a scarf tantalizingly dangling over another heating grate, just waiting for someone from below to grab hold of it and yank. Be warned, though, there is hardly any bloodshed and a very paltry body count, so don’t go looking for a gorefest with this one or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

While the first half of the film has an excellent set-up, the second half just doesn’t pack the same punch. By the time Jennifer arrives back to find a seemingly empty Keller house, the pacing starts to slow down and the last half of the film feels dragged out. It’s like they only had 10 minutes worth of story but dragged it out to 40 minutes. These last 40 minutes are spent in the basement while our heroine is lorded over by the overgrown, inbred lovechild of the Keller family. Of those 40 minutes, at least 15 are spent on showing the man-child gleefully clapping his hands and stuffing his teddybear down his soiled and no longer tight or white tighty-whities, all the while his chubby man-boobs peak through the remains of a tattered T-shirt. You gotta wonder how the heck he actually fit into the heating ducts in the first place! I also didn’t like the fact that he lost all scariness as soon as they decided to show him. It’s like all of a sudden, despite the fact that he’s already killed two people, we are supposed to feel sorry for the “special” guy. From then on the movie looses any momentum and tension it might have had as it presents its most menacing foe to be the tubby man of the house, Ernest. Plus, I can’t really feel sorry for the Final Girl because upon escaping the basement she didn’t even bother to lock the loony family in with the huge padlock that was hanging by the door. Instead, she went and hid in the chicken coop!! Obviously, she’s not the brightest bulb in the bunch…

The best scenes in the film featured the disturbing interactions between Ernest and Virginia. Right off the bat you know something ain’t right with the pair…and in a creepy scene featuring Ernest and the disembodied voice of his dead father you learn why. From then on it is just uncomfortable to watch the two together! The acting by Sydney Lassick as the over-eager Ernest and Lelia Goldoni as the unstable Virginia was certainly the best in the film. They played extremely well off one another and really made you squirm in your seat!

I wouldn’t call The Unseen a “gem” of a horror film, but despite its flaws it is still a neat little film that horror fans may enjoy. One the plus side, the presentation of the taboo subjects of incest and inbreeding is downright creepy, but on the negative side the tame killer and kills are mediocre and drag the film down. Overall, though, I’d say The Unseen is at least worth a rental!

Buy it on Amazon!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Maniac Cop 2 (1990)

Released two years after Maniac Cop, the second installment ups the ante with a higher body count, more explosions, more crashes and even more killers. It’s bigger, it’s badder, but is it better than the first Maniac Cop?

Maniac Cop 2 starts off exactly where Maniac Cop left us hanging…after a spectacular crash into the harbor, undead police officer Matt Cordell is still at large. A few weeks later, Officers Forrest (Bruce Campbell) and Malloy (Laurene Landon) are still trying to convince those in charge that Cordell is not dead. Unfortunately, he gets to them before long, and it’s up to Lieutenant Sean McKinney (Robert Davi) and police psychologist Officer Susan Riley, to try and find out the truth about Cordell and the new rash of killings that have been occurring.

Meanwhile, the disfigured Cordell is befriended by New York City’s serial killer of the week, Turkell (Leo Rossi), who is being hunted by the police for killing strippers.

Can Lieutenant McKinney and Riley stop both Cordell and Turkell as well as getting to the bottom of why Cordell is so intent on revenge?

Writer/producer Larry Cohen and director William Lustig return again to bring fans Maniac Cop 2, the sequel to 1988’s Maniac Cop. Instead of the genre-bender that the first film was, part two takes things in a more straightforward “crime-thriller” direction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we loose some of the levity and humor from the first film by doing this. In return though, we get the action turned up to 11! Car chases, explosions, people on fire and 10 more deaths than the last film are what round out Maniac Cop 2!

While the kill scenes aren’t nearly as gory as the first film, there are still some pretty sweet ones in there, including an epic scene where Cordell breaks into the station and bloodily guns down a bunch of cops in order to break Turkell out of jail. The jail-break scene is probably the most memorable and bad-ass in Maniac Cop 2, with good reason! There is also a breaking into prison scene where Cordell gets revenge on the prisoners that originally killed him…as he is on fire! There’s still some of that silly tone from the first film to be found as well, including a scene where Cordell handcuffs Riley to a steering wheel of a car, while she is still outside of the car, and puts the car in drive as Riley dodges oncoming cars, walls and traffic cones! Maybe this scene wasn’t exactly meant to be funny, but I found it hilarious!

The only thing that didn’t really feel right within the film was the subplot of Turkell, the stripper strangler. While it certainly made the story more interesting and it was fun to watch the crazy character, it just felt out of place. You’re never quite sure why Cordell befriends the killer as well – does he really need his help? Is he just lonely? Does he relate to another serial killer? I was just never quite sure about that part of the script, which isn’t even really focused on until the last half of the movie.

Other than that, though, Maniac Cop 2 is an action-packed spectacle that really must be seen to be believed! It may sacrifice many of its horror elements for a more straightforward action flick, but the result is well worth it! You get more of everything – explosions, car chases, shoot-outs, people on fire, run-away cars and so on! If you are looking for a film that packs a punch, take a gander at Maniac Cop 2! Just make sure you’ve seen the equally excellent Maniac Cop first!

Buy it on Amazon!

Maniac Cop (1988)

With one of the best taglines ever committed to a film (“You have the right to remain silent…FOREVER”), Maniac Cop is one of those action-packed popcorn flicks that are always a pleasure to watch when you need to shut your brain off for a bit. Written and produced by Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, God Told Me To, etc.) and directed by William Lustig (Maniac), Maniac Cop is one of those movies that unfortunately not too many people know about, but those that are in the know can’t stop (maniacally) singing its praises.

In New York City, innocent people are being brutally butchered by a hulking man dressed as a cop. Lieutenant Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) is on the case and evidence soon suggests that the killer is one of the police’s own. When philandering Officer Jack Forrest’s (Bruce Campbell) wife is found dead in a hotel room, he is fingered as who the media have dubbed the “Maniac Cop”. His girlfriend, Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon) who is also a cop, must convince Lieutenant McCrae that Jack didn’t commit the crimes, and together they must find out who the real killer is…before it’s too late.

Maniac Cop is a mish-mash of B-movie genres, spanning horror, action and cop-thriller to create an all-around entertaining film! You’ve got car chases, great action sequences, a solid mystery as to who the killer is and why he’s killing, a good smattering of gore as the “Maniac Cop” dispatches his victims and plenty of smart-ass cop-talk (“Whole city’s goin’ to hell. You can’t take a pee anywhere anymore.”).

Maniac Cop’s ability to encompass several different genres and make it all work is what really sells the flick for me. As mentioned earlier, this genre-bender takes an action-packed cop film, throws in a bit of mystery and intrigue along with a whiff of the supernatural, and blends it all with horror, all the while never taking itself too seriously. Things never get too heavy and things are kept light by the characters’ tossing about classic lines like, “Look at the size of those hematomas!” or “You always take a leak with a gun in your hand? That’s a good way to blow your balls off!”

The film also has an amazing cast. Besides the obvious bad-ass contribution of Tom Atkins, we also get Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, as grumpy Commissioner Pike and Robert Z’Dar as the title character, whose chin rivals that of the film’s other star, Bruce Campbell. Campbell does a great job as well as the wrongly convicted cop – this film is a definite must-see for all Campbell fans! I also enjoyed performances from Laurene Landon as the tough female cop and Sheree North as the cop with something to hide.

The direction by Lustig features New York at its grittiest and dirtiest – similar to what we saw in his Maniac. The city has a grimy feel to it, from oil-slick puddles to dim streetlights, lurking hoodlums, discarded trash and dingy neon signs. This is the sleazy New York when 42nd street was king of grindhouse and exploitation films, before Time Squares was deemed “family friendly” and overrun by MTV tween fans. This is the perfect setting in which to imagine Cohen’s rogue cop creation murdering innocent people in dark alleys while neighbors shut their windows to the screams! The nitty-gritty atmosphere of the flick just fits so well and I really couldn’t imagine any other place where the story could have been set.

Maniac Cop is something of a cult favorite, but I’m not sure why it hasn’t quite broken out of its shell and garnered a wider audience. Its mix of cop-thriller, horror and action seems like it would catch on with a variety of movie fans, but I find it surprising how few people have checked out (or even heard of) this film! If you haven’t checked this film out yet, what are you waiting for?! Maniac Cop orders you out of the house with your hands up…to go grab a copy of this classic flick now!

Buy it on Amazon!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Nature's Grave (2009)

Australia has always captivated me. “The land down under” just seems so wild, untamed and dangerous, featuring some of the world’s most venomous/poisonous animals, insects, reptiles and plants known to man. I’ve always wanted to visit there, but the thought of adding to the destruction of its unique ecosystem just turns my stomach. I don’t want to be just another one of those disrespectful tourists that go tramping through nature, spoiling the region’s natural beauty and tranquility! Not to mention that I might come face to face with some of its more deadly inhabitants!

So, when I received the film Nature’s Grave (releasing August 4th, 2009 from Screen Media Films), which just so happens to be set in breathtaking Australia and shows how Mother Nature can strike back against careless humans, I was eager to check it out! The film opens right away on some jaw-droppingly beautiful shots of Australia’s north coast before cutting to bickering couple Peter (James Caviezel) and Carla (Claudia Karvan), who are taking a long weekend and leaving on a camping trip to try to patch up their disintegrating marriage. Of course, some stormy weather keeps them on the road longer than they expected, so they don’t arrive to the isolated, hidden beach they are planning to camp on until very late at night. Right away Carla gets a strange feeling about the place, but stubborn Peter seems more interested in getting drunk, going surfing and spending time with his dog, Cricket, than working through any of their problems (one of which is that he is a selfish prick).

The couple is supposed to meet some friends there, but they never show. As Peter kills and terrorizes the local wildlife, throws beer bottles into the ocean, hacks away at trees and Carla sprays bug spray over everything and tries to spend most of the time as far away from nature as possible, the surrounding wilderness takes on an ominous feeling. It seems that Mother Nature isn’t taking too kindly to their intrusion. They hear strange crying noises at night, Peter is attacked by an eagle, animals break into their food and something very large lurks in the water just off shore. Carla insists they leave, but Peter can’t be bothered by her warnings and just wants to stick it out.

When they realize just how much danger they are in, it’s already too late and it’s time for Mother Nature to get even…

I wasn’t aware of this before watching Nature’s Grave, but it is actually a remake of a 1978 Australian film titled Long Weekend. From what I hear it has a bit of a cult following and is definitely worth a look. As for Nature’s Grave…eh, not so much, I’m afraid. It is supposedly a shot-for-shot remake of Long Weekend, but I’m guessing it is missing A LOT of the previous film’s subtleties and nuances.

Nature’s Grave is directed by Jamie Blank, who directed the awful Storm Warning and the mediocre Valentine and Urban Legend. Often times the film feels flat, and feels like it’s missing any kind of emotional connection with the audience. There are some beautiful shots of the Australian wilderness and wildlife, but at times it just didn’t feel like there was enough. I also thought the film’s creepy moments lacked punch and could have used with a few more scares.

The story, written by Everett De Roche (he also wrote the original Long Weekend), moves at a slow-but-sure pace, and I actually enjoyed the slowly-building dread. However, the characters are highly unlikable, with an over-the-top performance by Caviezel that feels like he’s never taking his character seriously to Karvan’s strangely reserved character that doesn’t even fight back when her husband tells her to “go fuck yourself”. Neither character is interesting and you don’t want to root for either, which kills any kind of tension that De Roche tried to build in his story. Without anyone to root for to survive, I found myself waiting for Mother Nature to extract her revenge on these two characters.

Though there are a few creepy scenes – one where something is lurking in the ocean’s crystal blue waters, another where a dead animal is seemingly moving of its own accord and, towards the end, another where Peter finds some other “campers”, most of the “revenge” that happens occurs because of the two characters’ doing. In the end, it’s really their own stupidity that catches up with them as opposed to Mother Nature. This really is a pity, because I was really hoping to see the characters ripped apart by animals or plants after how disrespectfully they treated nature.

Nature’s Grave isn’t that memorable of an affair. Though it has a few spooky scenes, the performances of the two actors and the way their characters are written are just grating and make the film hard to sit through. And when their final curtain finally comes, it just doesn’t feel vicious enough for what you’ve had to put up with the last hour and a half. My advice? Seek the original Long Weekend out…it has to be infinitely better than its remake, Nature’s Grave.

Buy it on Amazon!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Frightmare (1983)

Not to be confused with the 1974 English cannibal film of the same name, Frightmare (aka The Horror Star) is the story of recently deceased horror veteran Conrad Radzoff (Ferdinand Mayne) who claims that death will be his best performance yet! The night after he is entombed into his specially constructed mausoleum (complete with a blinking neon star), a group of drama students break into the crypt and decide to take old Conrad back to their place for some partying! After a creepy dinner with the diners all wearing masks, they each take turns dancing with the corpse and one girl even goes to far as to smooch him! They put Conrad back into his coffin, but are too tuckered out to take him back to his final resting place, so they just put him in their attic and call it a night.

The next morning the cops discover Conrad is missing from the mausoleum and his widow enlists the help of a psychic medium to find out where he is. Turns out he’s in hell, but is hellbent on returning and getting revenge on the young whippersnappers that disturbed his slumber. His widow heartily agrees, saying, “Burn them! Burn them! BURN THEM!”

Having been summoned, Conrad rises from the dead and stalks the kids in the house, killing them one by one.

What is so interesting about Frightmare is that it tries to bridge the gap from Gothic-tinged Hammer horror (think fog-shrouded cemeteries, genteel-looking old men in Dracula capes, damsels in distress) with the kids-being-stalked-by-an-unstoppable-killer slasher formula. I liked the “classic horror” atmosphere of the film, but the slasher aspect felt a bit off. The story had some holes (a cop, who looks more like a mafia don, keeps popping up but doesn’t add anything to the story), pacing problems, awful dialogue (“We did something BAD!”) and the kills left a lot to be desired. Even though the result is a mixed bag, this seemingly strange combination of old and new horror styles makes Frightmare worth a look anyway.

The film was written and directed by Norman Thaddeus Vane and one good thing about his script is that he spent more time developing the character of Conrad Ragzoff than he did the kids’ characters. I felt much more empathy for Conrad than I did any of the annoying college kids, who exist mostly to get picked off. Conrad is one of the best things about the film, and the character is obviously an homage to Christopher Lee. Actor Ferdinand Mayne even resembles Lee and has the same kind of aristocratic air as he does.

Speaking of Mayne, he was truly a joy to watch in this role, especially in the opening scenes when he is still alive and in the videos he leaves behind for the funeral and those that appear to greet visitors to his crypt. Another actor to note in the film is Jeffrey Combs, who plays one of the clueless kids in one of his earlier roles. Most of the actors who play the college drama students don’t have much to do, but they all do a pretty good job of playing stupid and dying horribly. Even the “Final Girl”, just sits around and whimpers and only survives because she faints dead away at the sight of the resurrected Conrad.

As for the deaths, Conrad kills most of the kids with telekinetic powers rather than with his bare hands. One girl spontaneously combusts into a fireball, another girl gets squashed by a flying coffin, a guy gets locked in Conrad’s crypt as it fills with poisonous gas, another guy gets decapitated by a flying sword, and so on. The only “hands-on” deaths occur when a guy gets his tongue/jaw ripped out and then strangled, a woman gets her mouth stuffed with a wad of cash and another guy gets stuffed into a coffin and burnt alive in the crematorium. It was disappointing that the deaths weren’t at all gory (especially since at least half of the film was trying for that slasher vibe), but it wasn’t a deal-breaker. Instead, the film treated the deaths in the more restrained, classic horror tradition instead of going all-out like a slasher flick.

Still, there are some pretty silly scenes throughout the film besides the previously mentioned death scenes. One was the partying scene where the kids pass around Conrad’s corpse like he’s a party favor, which is so disturbing it borders on ludicrous! Another more “laugh-out-loud” scene is the over-the-top séance scene where Conrad’s widow and psychic medium are trying to contact the dead Conrad. The ladies put on such hysterical performances here that I dare you not to laugh! The film also features some god-awful music and sound effects that sound just like one of those cheap Halloween party CD’s, complete with howling and growling.

Frightmare has a lot of issues and I think it would have a lot of problems connecting with horror fans today. Still, it is an interesting little movie that tries to combine old-school horror with the slasher formula. Sometimes it doesn’t succeed, but it is still interesting enough to check out, especially if you love Gothic-tinged horror movies. Though Frightmare isn’t a “must-see” for all horror fans, those that appreciate both the old and new aspects of horror filmmaking may just find themselves enjoying it like I did!

Buy it on Amazon!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Chopping Mall (1986)

The ‘80s gave us a large number of cheesy horror movies, but only a precious few gave us killer robots running amuck…and perhaps only one gave us killer rent-a-cop robots running rampant in a mall! That movie, of course, would be 1986’s Chopping Mall (aka Killbots)! Love it or hate it, you can’t deny Chopping Mall’s high cheese and big hair factor, making it the perfect flick to watch when you don’t want to strain your brain!

Our tale starts with a mall employing three robots as their after hours crime fighting team. They are supposed to offer non-lethal protection from intruders (as evidenced by an infomercial-type film shown to the mall tenants in the first few minutes of the film), but when lighting strikes and fries their control unit, the robots begin killing people with their super-duper lasers, clamping claws and various other robotic implements.

That same night, a group of young mall employees have decided to spend the night inside the mall in a furniture store and PAR-TAY! When the killbots get loose, though, the slowly dwindling group must find a way to escape from the robots’ metallic clutches.

Chopping Mall has all the standards of an ‘80s horror flick – boobs, gratuitous sex (ewwww, I wouldn’t wanna be the person that ends up buying that sofa!), poofy hair, bodysuits, ‘80s dancing (to music from a gen-u-ine boombox!) and crappy special FX, including the pinkish-red lasers the robots shoot. It lacks much of a story (it IS only 70 minutes long) and the gore is almost nonexistent, but besides its low budget and high cheese factor, I found myself giddily enjoying Chopping Mall!

This feature’s claim to fame is an impressive exploding head shot that’s right up there with Scanners. Courtesy of one of the robots laser beams, an unfortunate’s head explodes just like the watermelons in Gallagher’s act do. Besides that, there sadly isn’t much gore in the rest of the film. We get a few necks slit open, a guy gets electrocuted, a girl is lit on fire, and so on. There is even one extremely weak death where a robot pushes the guy over the railing and he falls three stories to his death. Talk about anticlimactic…

Besides the disappointing deaths, the film’s plot is almost nonexistent and relies on the horny kids running through the mall and trying to get away from the killbots. And I still don’t understand how the robots moved from level to level. How the heck did they fit on the escalators? Still, when you just want to turn your brain off and enjoy some robot mayhem, Chopping Mall fits the bill perfectly.

It’s nice that writers Steve Mitchell and Jim Wynorski (who also directed) tried to give us a bit of character development in the beginning (ooooh new girl and nerdy boy really hit it off! How cute!), but this is all pretty much lost on the audience when the robots come out to play. The stereotypical asshole and bitch (who are also a couple…who says opposites attract?) die first, which was nice just so they would shut up, but the rest of the couples are just kinda “meh,” just leaving us to wonder who’s gonna be short circuited next.

Despite these detractors, if you have low expectations you can totally enjoy this cheesy ’80s film. I couldn’t very well take a film too seriously that featured Casio synths throughout the entire film! The fun part IS in its cheesiness, though!

So sit back, turn off your brain and enjoy! Don’t forget to “Have a nice day”!

Available from Amazon!

Night of the Creeps (1986)

There are few alien slug/zombie movies that work well, but the cult classic Night of the Creeps is one of the best, if not THE best at mashing together sci-fi thrills with horror movie spills! It even inspired James Gunn’s under-appreciated film Slither!

With the official release DVD release of Night of the Creeps scheduled for October 20th, 2009, it was high time to revisit this horror comedy from 1986!

After a brief intro featuring midget aliens chasing a rogue alien as it releases a tube containing some kind of “experiment” into space, the film opens in the black and white ‘50s, looking all Pleasantville-esque. Sweethearts Johnny and Pam, students at Corman University, drive up to The Point for a little necking, but when they see a meteor streak across the sky and crash not too far from where they are parked Johnny decides to investigate. While he’s tramping through the woods, Pam hears a news report on the radio about a psychotic mental patient who has escaped and is going around killing people with an ax. Pretty soon, Pam gets forty whacks (and then some) and Johnny discovers that the “meteor” is the tube those aliens didn’t want released, which holds a gross slug that quickly jumps into Johnny’s gaping mouth.

Cut to the 80’s, where Chris Romero (Jason Lively) and J.C. Hooper (Steve Marshall) are now students at Corman U. They aren’t the most popular guys around, but Chris falls for seemingly unattainable sorority babe Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow). Deciding that the only way to get her attention is by joining a frat, the two friends decide to take part in a hazing prank to gain entry into a fraternity. They must steal a cadaver from one of the college’s labs, but the only body they can find is the cryogenically frozen body of 1950’s Johnny. They release him from his chamber, but soon realize that Johnny isn’t quite as dead as they hoped and they run away, “screaming like banshees.” The undead Johnny, incubating a host of slugs in his brain that infected him in the ‘50s, kills a scientist (David Paymer) and shambles into town until his head explodes…from which a horde of creepy crawlies is unleashed. Meanwhile, Detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins) is called to investigate the murder of the scientist and several strange murders around town.

Soon enough, Chris discovers that the alien slugs infect victims through their mouths and burrow into their brains to lay eggs. While the eggs incubate, their host is turned into a zombie, searching for more victims to infect with the slugs until said victim’s head explodes, releasing even more parasitic slugs. Can Chris, with the help of Detective Ray, stop the undead menace before it overwhelms the entire town? And will Chris ever get the girl of his dreams? Well, “I’ve got good news and bad news…”

Night of the Creeps is a delightful romp that mixes Revenge of the Nerds-type jock vs. nerd scenes with a ‘50s sci-fi feel and some excellent zombie action to satiate your inner Romero. It’s a perfect silly, goofy movie that also offers up a few good scares and gore scenes. The film was written and directed by Fred Dekker, who brought us the amazing The Monster Club, and of course he pays homage to all his favorite horror flicks here. From the characters’ names (Romero, Hooper, J.C. = John Carpenter, Cronenberg, Cameron, Raimi, Landis, etc., etc.!) to the name of the university to the gratuitous boob shots and ample blood spillage, Night of the Creeps definitely wears its influences on its sleeve!

The two main characters of Chris and J.C., played by Jason Lively and Steve Marshall also give us someone to root for the entire time. The nerdiness and shyness of Chris and the got-nothing-to-lose bombast of crippled J.C. perfectly compliment each other and the two have the perfect best-buddy chemistry, making their performances seem natural and effortless. We really do want to see Chris get the girl and towards the end we want them to succeed against the slugs! Another fantastic character is the unforgettable Detective Ray Cameron, played with unabashed bravado by Tom Atkins! From the memorable delivery of his quote-tastic lines (“Thrill me!”) to his bad ass attitude (“Get the 12 gauge out of my car!”) Detective Ray is one of the most memorable characters ever witnessed in a horror movie.

Besides the awesomeness of its script, characters and corny, yet funny, moments, Night of the Creeps also boasts some great special FX work. I loved the decomposing look of the zombies, especially the near-skeletal corpse of the long-dead ax killer! The super-fast, super-slimy slugs are pretty impressive as well, especially when they jump out unexpectedly. When the heroes figure out that fire kills the slugs there are lots of fun scenes of slugs fried to extra crispiness with a flamethrower! And you just can’t beat a zombie vs. lawnmower scene. While some effects still have a certain campy charm to them, most of them work in creating a fun, inventive horror flick.

Many people haven’t yet had the pleasure to see Night of the Creeps, especially since it has never been released on DVD. Well, hopefully that will change when the film is released by Sony this coming October. Fans will also have the opportunity to see never-before-seen extras and special features on the disc, including deleted scenes, commentary, a special featurette on Tom Atkins called Tom Atkins: Man of Action, a few making-of featurettes and much more, not to mention the original director’s cut, which features a different ending than most versions.

Night of the Creeps is a movie that will take you back to the ’80s style geek-wants-to-get-the-popular-girl comedies while also adding in some super-duper alien slug/zombie action! It’s got corny jokes, likable protagonists, a bad ass Lieutenant, slithering slugs and stumbling zombies galore. Add a flamethrower, a lawnmower and some fire-power and what more could you ask for?!

Check out Night of the Creeps when it arrives on DVD…in the meantime, “Thrill Me!”

Available from Amazon!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Book Review: Garden of Ghosts by Scott Thomas

I am absolutely enthralled by the Victorian time period. The whole gothic mystique of the period – from the aesthetic of the clothing and architecture to the morbid mourning photography and the ever-present obsession with death – just feels so morbidly romantic! So it was with pure delight that I delved into Scott Thomas’ The Garden of Ghosts, a collection of short ghost stories set in the Victorian era. Thomas has crafted an eerie, unsettling tome that perfectly captures the time period’s interest in the supernatural, not to mention that the romantically mysterious Victorian era seems like a perfect place to set ghost stories!

All of the stories are written in Victorian style and feel as if they were plucked right out of someone’s diary. From fog-shrouded London streets to the snowy New England countryside featuring haunted houses, murderous apparitions, fearsome expanses of fields and gardens, vengeful ghosts and more, Thomas creates subtly frightening tales in the vein of Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe. Thomas’ stories creep under your skin, linger with you for days and follow you into many deep, dark nights.

My favorites in this collection include Rush-bearing, a startling tale whose horror sneaks up on you, the poetic and lyrical Pressed Flowers, the eye-opening Syringa Vulgaris, the Jack the Ripper tale Mr. Pickergill’s Unusual Oak-wood Box, the amusing The Haunted Tobacco, the disturbing story of suicidal sisters in In the Long, Weed-Haunted Summer and Winterberry, about unsettled ghosts of soldiers from the Revolutionary War. The rest of the stories are all equally enjoyable and I didn’t find one that disagreed with me. They all offer something different, and to my surprise each contains a different tone and voice so that no two are alike.

The stories have a delicate, polite way about them, but underneath their seemingly tame exteriors lies something chilling and shocking. Thomas usually waits until the end of a story to shock you with some ghastly revelation, but all the stories have an underlying sense of dread that run throughout them. Make no mistake, these stories will stay with you long after you’ve read them and will haunt your waking and dreaming moments! On more than one occasion I had nightmares about spectral spooks after indulging in Thomas’ tales before bedtime!

The Garden of Ghosts is a very limited edition (only 100 books were printed) published by Dark Regions Press, so I urge you to get your copy…before it’s too late! It is truly a hauntingly beautiful collection of ghost stories and is unlike anything out there today!

The Garden of Ghosts is now available on Amazon!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Rock N Roll Nightmare (1987)

In the cheesy headbangin’ horror movie Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare (aka The Edge of Hell) we get to see Jon Mikl Thor in all his Aqua Net glory as lead singer Triton in an 80s hair band (see their #1 hit “We Live to Rock!”) They’ve rented a creepy Canadian (apparently Canada is “where it’s happening, man”!) farmhouse to get away from it all and focus on their music. Their record label even converted the old barn out back into a recording studio! Except, instead of headbanging the band members just want to bang their girlfriends/wives/groupies/each other. Well, we all know that when people go their separate ways in horror flicks it’s an invitation to trouble…sure enough, out pop some demons to take over the band members’ bodies…Why? Cuz that’s how they roll, that’s why. Soon, the only one left standing is Triton himself, who must face the big baddie of all demons…Satan himself. Triton’s got a hidden secret, though…plus, he distracts Satan by rockin’ nothing more than a studded speedo!

Fiends, I will admit to you (if you haven’t figured it out from the synopsis alone) that this is one pretty awful movie, but you just aren’t living until you’ve seen the pure ridiculousness of the epic final battle between Triton and puppets! The barely-there plot, meandering scenes and semi-annoying characters are all forgotten when Triton throws down in front of Satan. Of course, it looks like he is just fighting himself because he has to react to puppets, but that’s all part of this film’s charm!

There is just too much cheesiness to discuss in so short a time. While it’s nowhere near as zany as Hard Rock Zombies, it still has plenty of so-bad-they’re-good moments. Where do I even start? Well, first there’s the 10 minute long intro that consists of watching the band’s van drive up and down country roads. And if to reemphasize that they are hard rockin’ bad boys, they’ve got handcuffs attached to the rear view mirror…that way you know they’re hardcore! Next, I could go on and on about Triton’s ridiculous wardrobe – from a sparkly, metallic tuxedo coat to a polka dot blouse that’s about 10 sizes too small…but fashion doesn’t really make the movie, but it does give you something extra to laugh at!

As for what happens the whole hour or so before the epic final battle? People wander off and have boring sex, the band plays a few songs, more annoying songs are played throughout the film on the radios throughout the farmhouse, a gaggle of groupies shows up for five seconds (not sure what happened to them, but pretty sure they got eaten…hopefully) and, oh yeah, there are a few demon attacks here and there. There is definitely not much of a plot here, and most of the film just seems to aimlessly meander from one scene to the next.

As for the demons, though there are a few cool skeletal ones, the rest are mostly little puppets that look like one-eyed monsters (ya, THAT kind of one-eyed monster…this movie really takes the phrase “rock out with your cock out” a little TOO literally!). They don’t really look all that menacing, but more like adult Sesame Street rejects. As for Satan’s creature effects – he basically looks like he’s pieced together from discarded remnants of the ants in THEM! It also appears that he likes to fight dirty by hurling one-eyed puppet starfish at our hero (whose reaction to them is priceless!). The ensuing “epic” battle makes the performances in pro-wrestling look Oscar-worthy!

Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is a fun movie if you don’t expect too much. It doesn’t deliver much except a few good laughs, but sometimes that’s all you need for a good time! It is so ridiculous that it begs to be seen at least once by every horror fan.


Available from Amazon!

Hard Rock Zombies (1985)

Where can you find horrible 80’s ballads, a rock star that is a pedophile, Nazis, deformed midgets, zombies, a grandma that transforms into a werewolf, bad 80’s metal hair, music video montages, Adolf Hitler and limber but evil groupies? Hard Rock Zombies, that’s where, one of the worst films ever made!

In the opening scene, a dirty-looking blond hitchhiker (Lisa Toothman), who looks like she’s wearing nothing but a scrap of shower curtain, gets picked up by two skeevy lamebrains. Two seconds later they’ve pulled off for a bit of skinny dipping in a scum-encrusted pond where Dirty Blond drowns both dudes. Who knew drowning produced so much blood? A weird guy who was taking pictures the whole time and his pet midgets (one with a patch over one eye and the other looking more like a creature from Ghoulies) join Dirty Blond in disposing of the bodies…but not before Dirty Blond cuts one of the victim’s hands off and croons, “I wanna hold your hand!”

After this preposterous opening scene we join “the band” onstage as they perform for their 12 groupies. After the long and drawn-out song, they head backstage, strip to their skivvies and pose for pics with more groupies! Lead singer and perv Jessie (E.J. Curcio) becomes enamored of the very young-looking Cassie (Jennifer Coe), who not only looks like she’s 12, but also looks like she’s got caterpillars glued over her already bushy Groucho Marx-like eyebrows. Cassie tries to warn Jessie that his band shouldn’t play their next gig in her podunk town, but Jessie is too smitten to pay attention.

On the way to Cassie’s town Jessie practices his newest song, which he’s borrowed from a medieval incantation that was used to raise the dead. Great idea, bonehead!

The band picks up Dirty Blond, who is out hitchhiking again (what a strange pastime…) and she tells them to stay at her family’s spacious Southern-style mansion. Once they arrive they meet with the creepy midgets and the rest of Dirty Blond’s strange family, including her grandparents who let the creepy midgets watch while they have geriatric sex, a hulking, bald man who is either her brother or the gardener (he’s quite handy with the weed whacker) and the paparazzo-in-training from the pond.

After they’ve stashed all their equipment, the band heads into town and we are forced to suffer another horrible musical number – and, hey, this one’s a montage complete with band members skateboarding, scaring kids by spraying them with shaken cans of beer, dancing like idiots, posing in a gigantic wood cut-out of themselves and hamming it up while disapproving townsfolk look on. The band gets thrown in jail for being so lame, but Dirty Blond bails them out.

After almost getting electrocuted while playing another horrible song in front of their hosts, the band eats it for real at the hands of Dirty Blond’s psycho family. Dirty Blond herself takes out a guy in the shower, while grandma turns into a werewolf(!) and mauls two other band members and Jessie is taken out by baldy with the weed whacker, but not before he gives Cassie his tape for his new dead-raising single!

After the funeral, it is revealed that the members of Dirty Blond’s family are all Nazis in hiding and that her grandpa is actually the Grand Fuhrer himself, Adolf Hitler! Hitler has a hidden bunker well-stocked with poisonous gas and plans to take out the entire U.S.!

Meanwhile, Cassie is visiting the band’s grave. She plays the tape Jessie left her and – sho ‘nuff – the band comes back to life as zombies – stiff, Robot-dancin’ zombies that look like a bad KISS cover band that is.

They kill Dirty Blond and her Nazi family (who return as zombies), then drive (yup, zombies can drive) across town so they can play a showcase and impress a record executive. While we are forced to listen to another god-awful song (the third time we hear it in the film), zombies are slowly overtaking the town. The remaining townsfolk think they can repel zombies by holding out huge posters of famous people…buuuut that idea doesn’t work too well and more people become the zombies’ lunch.

One old guy suggests offering the ghouls the town’s virgin, who just happens to be Cassie. Something about the zombies not attacking the town for another 100 years if they can screw and eat a virgin. Anywho, the townspeople haul Cassie up the mountain like a sacrificial lamb and offer her to the zombies.

It’s up to Jessie and the rest of the zombified band to save his jailbait lady love and to put a stop to the zombie nonsense once and for all…but not until we suffer through yet another musical number.

Whew! Apologies for such a long synopsis, but really I wanted you to get a complete gist of the insanity of this movie! And believe me, you haven’t heard anything yet! I have yet to mention the self-cannibalizing midget or the freaky dance montages that feature Dirty Blond. In case you haven’t noticed, this movie is all over the place and you’ll be asking yourself WTF did I just watch when you are through (if you can bear and get all the way to the end, that is).

First off, the puke-inducing music is not what anyone would call “hard rock.” It just sounds like the most generic, Monster Ballad-esque sap you’ve ever heard. And they just keep playing the same damn songs over and over. Plus, they’ve got the whole pedophile angle covered even in the lyrics, which actually say “I’m so in love, but you’re so young.” Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww! Totally groddy! Someone call Chris Hansen with To Catch a Predator!

Considering this was at one point just supposed to be a 20 minute short movie I understand all the padding used, but did they really have to keep showing such cheesy montages? First with the band “running wild” (errrr, if “wild” means consorting with a bunch of pudgy schoolkids, riding skateboards and doing a Beatle-esque type dance down the middle of a street) through the redneck town and later on with Jessie and Cassie running at each other in slow-mo both dressed in white! And who can forget Dirty Blond doing some kind of weird 80’s dancing, first randomly in the desert then as a slinky zombie minx (who knew zombies were so flexible?). You could fill 20 bottles of Cheez-Whiz with the cheesiness coming out of just these montage scenes alone!

Then there was the whole “what were they smoking?” plot addition of Nazis and werewolves! Seriously, did they think that a strictly zombie movie would be that boring and they needed a little extra Third Reich pizazz? I really don’t know what writer/director Krishna Shah and co-writer David Allen Ball (and no, they haven’t done all that much since this, ahem, “film”) were thinking when they unleashed this horribly bad movie on an unsuspecting audience, but if they were doing drugs while dreaming this film up then it would make for a perfect “this is your brain on drugs” PSA. Just say no, kids!

You’d think with such vivid imaginations some great gore would come out of all this, but sadly the only “gore” we get is blood that looks like it was squirted right out of a Heinz ketchup bottle. The kill scenes are pretty hysterical, though, especially when geysers of blood erupt during a drowning scene and that the zombiefied band kills Hitler by what looks like a ring-around-the-rosies game gone wrong.

The craziness of the Hard Rock Zombies makes some parts entertaining, but for the most part it’s a real snoozefest. The film looses what little momentum it had at about the one hour mark and all those musical numbers certainly make it seem much longer than it actually is. I might have even fallen asleep had the music not been so gratingly bad. Yet, this film is so bad that like Troll 2 it certainly deserves to be seen at least once…but once will definitely be enough. After that you’ll want to bury Hard Rock Zombies for good.

Available from Amazon!
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