Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Force of Evil (1977)


William Conrad’s stentorian, gravel-and-whiskey voice intones, “In everyone, it is said, there is a spark of the divine.”  The POV camera pulls up on a traffic accident, and our omniscient narrator opines that this spark can as easily be a force of good as it can a (dun Dun DUUNNN!) force of evil.  We cut to Dr. Yale Carrington (Lloyd Bridges), fresh out of surgery, and regretting (in a “can’t see the forest for the trees” moment) that they had to amputate a limb (NOTE: None of this has any bearing on the rest of the film).  Returning to his office, he is met by Teddy Jakes (William Watson), fresh out of jail for rape and murder, who wants his old job in the hospital crematorium back.  After being denied (I suspect he never actually wanted to get re-hired, don’t you?), Teddy sets forth on a campaign of terrorism and revenge against Yale and his family.

Richard Lang’s The Force of Evil is a television movie that was aired on the NBC network under the banner of Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected, an anthology series of eight programs that focused on genre stories, primarily of the horror/science fiction bent.  Of the eight, this is the only one that was feature length.  At this time in America, violence was a big seller (honestly, though, was it ever not?), but the restrictions on television producers forced them to be roundabout in its on-air depictions.   Today, a story like this would be too tame for even the most common episode of something like Law & Order or Criminal Minds.  For as much as it can, this film fulfills the promise of violence, just in a more suggestive (and I would argue more effective) manner.  Television was also taking chances with stories that, while still being formulaic and imitative of their big budget brethren, were still somewhat unconventional in their content.  

The Force of Evil is, for all intents and purposes, a remake of 1962’s Cape Fear.  A psychopath menaces a family as an act of vengeance, and the family is pushed to extremes to end the threat.  Teddy is untouchable by the law (up to a point), and like Max Cady, is bold and smug at every turn (Teddy also has a habit of smacking his chewing gum which only augments his easygoing arrogance, and he is positively gleeful when he reminds Yale that he’s a rapist, which he does often).  Yale is frustrated by the system (the same one that he aided in getting Teddy incarcerated, ironically), and has to go outside it to save his loved ones.  Ostensibly “good” people are forced to do bad in order to combat malevolence.  They are brought down to the level of Jakes, because that primal arena is the only one in which he can be combatted and defeated.  It’s so similar to J. Lee Thompson’s film, in fact, that there is even a climactic confrontation on a houseboat.  

The twist in Lang’s film is that Teddy Jakes is implied as being the literal embodiment of the title’s namesake.  Diabetic Teddy’s insulin is spiked by Yale (why we’re not shown the scene of him sneaking into Teddy’s room to do it is a mystery, since the suspense of such a sequence could have worked liked gangbusters), and his dead body (we’re also cleverly never shown Yale verifying this) is dumped down an old well (the single moment of the film I remembered from my youth, and the impetus for my rewatching of it for this review, is when they haul the body back up) by Yale and wife Maggie (Pat Crowley).  But Teddy returns and ups the ante on the Carringtons.  After being drowned by Yale’s own hands, Teddy’s body disappears.  Further is the insinuation that young Cindy Carrington (Eve Plumb) has a quasi-psychic rapport with Jakes or maybe just psychic abilities in general.  She has a dream about Teddy throwing an amputated leg into a ring of fire, though she doesn’t meet him until later (and somehow doesn’t recognize him), and doesn’t  know anything about his former job and seamy background.  But these supernatural elements are never addressed explicitly.  They are simply presented as they happen and then are left there for the audience to decide.  This is the sort of storytelling I enjoy, because the lack of confirmation enhances the uneasy feeling of the narrative.  The explanations could be extraordinary or mundane, and we’re credited with enough brainpower to not need to have the answers spoonfed to us (another difference between television programming then and now, in my opinion [yes, there are and will always be exceptions to this, but let’s not nitpick too much, shall we?]).

The filmmakers also keep the viewer off-kilter through the cinematography.  Much of the film is shot at low angles, making the characters loom in the frame and creating a sinister atmosphere.  Ultra-wide fisheye lenses are also employed, further emphasizing the unsettled feel of the world these character inhabit (and in which, oftentimes, massive hands are all but punched out of the screen into the audience’s eyes, a sly form of violent metaphor by “invading” the viewer’s space).  A few split diopter shots add to the ambience, as well (has that murky middle ground in this type of shot ever been used as anything other than a hothouse for suspense to blossom?  I would suggest no).

As with the intimation of the paranormal, and knowing the boundaries of television standards on violence, the film’s producers filled every moment of The Force of Evil with (sometimes overwrought) tension, even between characters who supposedly care about each other.  Yale goes to his sheriff brother Floyd (John Anderson) for help, and here we learn that the older brother resents the success of his younger, doctor sibling.  Their exchanges are terse and loaded with verbal jabs at each other.  Yale seems to merely tolerate his son and daughter, and his relationship with his wife feels like it’s just dying to explode in emotional violence at any minute.  

After explaining to Maggie that Teddy is “a sick man,” she wants him dead (“I’ve never been this close to evil before”), and that’s before Teddy freaks her out by sending her a box with an amputated arm wearing a ring similar to that of her son John’s (William Kirby Cullen).  This scene is crucial for this film to work, for two reasons.  One, it makes the danger very, very real while wringing every ounce of anxiety out of the situation.  Two, it is returned to at the film’s end as a final sting that manages to be both open-ended and also fittingly grim and terrifying.  While the high-strung disquiet of the film does go a little into the area of histrionics at times, I found it works more often than not, and it manages to do what its producers wanted it to: namely, keep the watchers’ asses in their seats through the commercials.  Granted, I watched it sans commercials, but I don’t think I would have moved even if there had been any. 

MVT:  Lang and company do a marvelous job creating and maintaining the tension of the film from its opening prologue to its chilling denouement.  

Make or Break:  I love the ending minute or two of the film.  I can’t say that the narration over it works as well as the actual moment, but I believe it to be a wonderful summation and a bit of punctuation on a story that’s both familiar and a little offbeat.

Score: 6.75/10           

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Deadly Eyes (1982)

After a very dry, but stern, lecture from the amiable Professor Louis Spencer (Cec Linder), high school (?) teacher Paul (Sam Groom) plays dumb (it’s actually more like he’s simply disingenuously oblivious) to the amorous advances of student Trudy (Lisa Langlois).  Off to a good start.  Meanwhile, Department of Health worker Kelly (Sara Botsford) condemns tons of corn contaminated with steroids (she doesn’t need to test it to know there’s ‘roids in there) and sets it all on fire at night (maybe because she hasn’t been to a bonfire in years and wants to relive some of her youth?).  What does this all have to do with mutant rats?  Well, the rodents were living in the corn (surely they realized this gravy train wouldn’t last forever) and now they have to move on and find different accommodations.  And food.

I have never read James Herbert’s The Rats, the novel on which Robert Clouse’s Deadly Eyes (aka Night Eyes) is ostensibly based, though it has been on my list of things to do for some time.  Truth be told, I have never read any of James Herbert’s work, but from what little I know of him, I imagine his style and approach to horror is similar to that of Guy N. Smith, an author whom I have read.  As I was watching this film, I was put in mind of Smith, and I believe that his pulpy, exploitive approach (and I can only assume Herbert’s by extension, because these are the sort of tenuous connections that partially ameliorate my existential angst, and, to be fair, exploitation in pop culture has been around about as long as pop culture, so…) is what informs much of its appeal.  In a Smith novel, there is a bland protagonist.  Said protagonist has at least one child (almost invariably one child) who will be placed in harm’s way.  The protagonist has marital troubles.  The protagonist is seduced by another woman and, at least in Smith’s world, succumbs.  There’s some torrid sex (with the temptress or not, but usually with).  There are graphic scenes of violence wherein background characters are ripped to shreds by whatever beastie is the antagonist.  This extends to the idea that absolutely no character, young or old, man or woman, is safe (one of the more interesting aspects of things like this).  The protagonist does something mildly heroic to defeat whatever malevolence he confronts.  Life returns to some semblance of normality, though it’s still pretty bleak, all things considered.  All of these elements are represented in Deadly Eyes, if not specifically, then at least in as much as they can be in a mainstream horror film.  Let’s take them one at a time.

Paul is dispassionate.  He’s as go-along-to-get-along as a person can be.  The main excitement in his life is deciphering the instructions on a Hungry Man frozen dinner.  He is an Everyman to the nth degree, and rather than allow us to empathize with his workaday life, his monotonous existence simply bores (Paul, all you have to do is look at the photo on the box to determine which compartment on a frozen dinner tray houses the dessert).  Paul has a son, Tim (Lee-Max Walton), who is just as uninteresting as his old man, but Paul needs a direct reason to get involved in what’s going on in his city, so Tim is present in the story. Plus, children in peril equal instant dramatic tension.  Paul has an ex-wife whom we never see, but we’re told that all she does is harangue Paul with ex-wife things.  Trudy is hot for teacher, and she handles these feelings with the subtlety of a compound fracture.  She fantasizes about banging him, because she thinks that older men are all that, and dumb teenaged boys (like her current beau Matt [Joseph Kelly]) are immature (mentally and physically [read: boys just want to party and have sex, a theory which makes little sense since Trudy just wants to party and have sex but with an older guy]).  In fact, she goes so far as showing up at Paul’s apartment and hanging out in his bedroom in nothing but her skivvies (while clueless Timmy sits in the parlor praying to the church of the cathode ray).  She even makes a show of bending over to pick up her jeans for both Paul and the audience (in classic Eighties fashion, they’re brown).  Paul is tepidly exasperated by all this.  Yet, it’s the taboo angle of this subplot that generates interest (prurient or other, but mostly prurient), even if it’s not developed or paid off all that well (not that they had to have sex, but that it’s all so blindingly superficial, something for which we can’t really hold an exploitative horror film accountable).  Kelly is the other temptress (if one can be tempted away from an ex-wife), but at least she is age appropriate to Paul.  I was a little surprised at how salacious their sex scene is (nipple sucking is involved, something I can’t think of happening all that often in mainstream cinema, even on the low budget end, but I admit I’m pretty naïve sometimes).  Just about every character we meet in the film is gnawed on by the rats, and there is blood galore.  Early on in the film, a toddler is killed (offscreen), so we know that everyone (including dull, wee Timmy) is on the menu for the rat feast.  Paul has a swift, entirely not-thought-all-the-way-through brainstorm on how to defeat the rats, which anyone with half a brain would realize likely wouldn’t be as thorough as Paul thinks it will be.  Finally, you get the bludgeoningly (I’m just making up words now) obvious “shock” ending; perhaps the only facet that strays (just a little) from the work of Smith and company, but this is a horror film from the early Eighties, so fair play.  Thus concludes this study in parallelism.  

Films like this are the filmic equivalents of “beach reads,” and on that level, they typically work fairly well.  I found myself enjoying much of Deadly Eyes, though whether this is because of my interest in pulp horror or not is a bit muddy in my head.  I don’t think that you need to like books like Night of the Crabs in order to like this film.  The film ticks all the boxes it needs to tick for exploitation/horror fare, and though it and books like it are close in method, they are far enough apart to intrigue in slightly different ways (while still fulfilling the same fantasies).  I also thought the special effects were effective, even knowing that the rats in long shots are small dogs in large rat costumes, and the puppets for the closeups were repulsive enough to please my gorehound side.  The big issue with the film (and unfortunately it’s big enough to drag the experience down, the same of which can be said of novels of this ilk) is that it’s poorly structured.  We get a little exposition, a little melodrama (none of which is handled here with anything approaching the appropriate level of emotion), and a little exploitation (sex or violence or both).  Anything that may have been intriguing to develop (including and especially the characters’ relationships) remains unmolded.  After much build up, the Trudy subplot is forgotten about for longer than it should have been, and then is dispatched out of hand simply to set up one of the big, chaotic set pieces of the climax (which also feels more obligatory than anything else in the sense that teens in horror films need to be punished for being teens).  So, while I like this film, and I do see myself revisiting it, I can’t say it reaches pantheon levels of low budget horror.  Unless you’re a fan of dogs in rat costumes.

MVT:  The rat attacks work well.  They’re nasty enough and revolting enough and bloody enough, and that’s really all they need to be.

Make or Break:  The attack on the child was somewhat shocking (and rather deftly handled), and it lets us know the high stakes of the film’s threat.

Score:  6.5/10

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Thunder of Gigantic Serpent (1988)

I’m just going to be plain about this.  I’m not a fan of snakes.  I realize that there are people out there (maybe even one or two reading this) who love them.  I realize that, like most animals, they don’t have it innately in for humans.  I realize that my fears of them are massively unfounded and irrational.  But that’s the point.  Many times, fear is irrational.  It’s a ping deep in the darkest parts of the human mind that puts you on edge.  It’s the idea that there may be some nefarious lurker in the basement with you, over there in the part with no lights, just waiting to spring on you as you pass by.  Fear is the unknown.  Fear is ignorance.  Having said that, I still don’t think that, even if I knew everything under the sun there is to know about snakes, I would trust them in the slightest.  This goes back to my deep-rooted distrust of most things in this world.  Call me a pessimist, but I prefer the term pragmatist.  For instance, I love dogs, but I wouldn’t trust a strange one as far as I could throw it (and what with my bad back and all…).  This, of course, cuts me off from certain life experiences, but you know what?  I think I’m good with that (a mindset some folks just can’t seem to wrap their heads around).  Would I have the same phobia about snakes if I had a pet snake like Mozler (where this name came from is anyone’s guess, and my spelling is going solely from the way it sounded in the film) in Godfrey Ho’s Thunder of Gigantic Serpent (aka Daai Se Wong aka Terror Serpent)?  Possibly, but I’d still take Lassie over this any day.

Thunder cracks on the soundtrack, and snakes pour out of a mountainside.  Why?  Because.  Tense villain Solomon practices his beer can target practice and declares his great need to own a formula that makes plants (and soon animals, natch) huge so he can dominate the world food market.  Scientists in league with the military (who, if my eyes deceive me, have the Harley Davidson logo on their berets) kick off something called Thunder Project when their base is set upon by Solomon’s henchmen.  Young Ting Ting plays with her beloved and obedient Mozler, stumbles upon the formula, and – Voila! - next thing you know, Mozler is Kong-sized (or in this case, I suppose it would be more appropriate to say Manda-sized).  Oh, and Ted Fast (Pierre Kirby) is inexplicably on the case, too.

Humans (with or without special abilities) with special friends and/or pets (who almost certainly have special abilities) have been around for, what seems like, eons.  In everything from Flipper to E.T. to Willard and back again, there is a commune forged between the innocence of youth and nature (films like Willard and Stanley and so forth are slight exceptions in regards to innocence [though their protagonists normally start off as rather ingenuous before heading down a dark path], but I think it means something that the main characters in films like those are typically adults, not children).  Kids have the ability in films like this to touch something that adults usually can’t, and I think it comes from their purity.  Filmic kids see the world differently, and have none of the jaded perspectives of folks like their parents, authority figures, and so on.  This point of view is what creates the rapport children have with the natural (and sometimes supernatural) world.  Their love for each other is unconditional, and they would go to the ends of the Earth for one another (yet it’s often the non-human character who winds up making the sacrifice for the human and not the other way around).  Ting Ting and Mozler get along like a house on fire (the snake even saves the girl from an actual one), and Mozler appears to have the brain capacity of, if not a college graduate, a fourth grader.  He understands what Ting Ting says and nods in agreement with her when she asks him questions.  This is before he grows.  Afterwards, they toss a ball back and forth to each other.  But, as I’ve been trying to intimate, I don’t think it’s that Mozler is special in and of himself, so much as it is Ting Ting who is able to bring this out in the serpent.  Had the snake been with another child, I don’t think he would have been nearly so exceptional (and if Ting Ting had a pet lepidopteran, she may have inadvertently created Mothra).

Knowing what little I do about Ho’s work, I was kind of surprised at how many special effects are on display in this film.  Mozler is usually depicted as a duo of hand puppets, one for his head and one for his tail, with his midsection conveniently hidden out of frame, though we do get a life sized prop of his giant head that Ting Ting rides around on for a bit.  I’m a sucker for miniature work and practical monster effects, even when they don’t quite stick the landing (I am, for example, perfectly fine with the marionette from The Giant Claw).  That is not to say that the effects are very good, but they are plentiful and kind of fun.
Ho was notorious for making Frankenstein films.  In other words, he (and frequent producing partner Joseph Lai) would buy the rights to one film, shoot some additional scenes (oftentimes with white actors to give them, I’m guessing, an international flavor) and then edit everything together in a patchwork fashion whose seams not only show but also threaten to burst open at the slightest touch.  This is why many of his films feel like two films smashed together (or three of four, for all I know); Because they were.  This also explains the schizophrenic, disjointed, nature of his films.  Scenes rarely lead one into another.  Characters (like our own Ted Fast) act as if they are in their own storyline which ties in only tangentially to the main storyline, popping up every so often to have a martial arts scuffle and then disappearing again from the film for a long stretch (or even the remainder of the runtime).  It’s an economy of filmmaking (one could even call it a dearth of economy of filmmaking) that leads to some very odd choices (and what I would argue is the primary reason for Ho’s fanbase).  Characters often have information there is no way they could possibly have just to keep the movie hopping along.  Sequences just happen for no motivated, structured reason.  There are long scenes of characters watching one another and then reporting back to their superiors rather than actually taking any sort of action or talking and saying nothing outside of some exposition and filler.  Still and all, I did find myself enjoying this film to an extremely minor degree, lumps and all.  If you’re familiar with what a Godfrey Ho film is like, you know precisely what you’re getting here.  If you’re not familiar with his oeuvre, this is as good a place to start as any.
MVT:  Giant Mozler is the tops for me.  I have always loved giant monsters, I always will, and Thunder of Gigantic Serpent shows their giant monster quite often (wires and all), so I got my fix.
Make or Break:  The Make is the first time you realize that Mozler is actually reacting to what Ting Ting is saying to him.  If you can go along with this, you can go along with everything else in the film.
Score:  6/10