Saturday, March 31, 2018

John Dies At The End (2012)

Directed by Don Coscarelli
Run time: 99 minutes

This movie came about because of a love of the Phantasm movie franchise and a love of zombie novels. David Wong (real name Jason Pargin ) is the author of John Dies at the End and a massive fan of the Phantasm movies. According to the forward Don Coscarelli wrote for John Dies at the End, his favorite guilty pleasure is reading zombie novels.When an online book retailer suggested that Don Coscarelli would like to read a book with meat demons, parasites with plans of planetary domination, weird parallel dimensions, bratwurst cellphone, and a street drug called soy sauce that gives the user all kinds of weird abilities. Leading Coscarelli to buy the book, devour the book, and turn the book into a weird fun film.

Like the book, the movie opens with the riddle of the universe. The riddle is this, the guy who you shot a few months ago comes back and kicks your door in. You grab the ax purchased and take the guy out again. In the process of defending yourself you break the handle and have to go back to the store with a bullshit story about the blood stains on the handle. Armed with a fixed ax you go home to find an inter-dimensional slug thing in your kitchen. Taking your ax you proceed to kill the thing and notch the head on your kitchen table. So back to the store, another bullshit story, and a new ax head. Returning home you find the guy you killed twice back again, his sewn back on with hedge trimmer wire, and looking for a rematch. He also is looking at you like your the guy who killed and that is the ax that did the job. Is he right, is that the same ax that killed him?

The story is centered around John and Dave. Two college drop outs that after being exposed to the drug soy sauce have been chosen to be defenders of Earth and Earths in parallel dimensions. With the aid of Marconi (Clancy Brown), a infomercial guru with supernatural powers, these two screw ups go on a strange adventure to save Earth from a bizarre invasion. The reason for this invasion sis the drug soy sauce. Aside from giving people strange supernatural powers, it's alive, and can act as a gateway for creatures to go from one reality to the next. Because of this a parasite with track record of destroying worlds and our slackers are the only ones destined to somehow step up and be the big damn heroes.

Overall this is a fun but incredibly strange movie. There are some issues with the movie because of the off the wall insanity. Best example of this is Dave uses soy sauce to go back in time to prevent his own murder. It is insanely clever use of time travel but part way through his time travel trip Dave ends up in some post apocalyptic nightmare for no reason. Other than that, the film has sold preferences by it's cast. There is a cameo by Phantasm's own Tall Man Angus Scrimm as the last priest you would want to talk to on a exorcism hotline.

I highly recommend John Dies at the End if your a fan of crude humor, general weirdness, and bizarrely amusing horror movies. Though this is a movie review I also highly recommending the book as well.

MVT: The scene that shows how this society dealt with people who did not except this organic A.I. as their overlord. Because the historic record was too graphic for John and Dave to comprehend the society made an incredibly graphic and violent cartoon to show a graphic and bloody purge.

Make or Break: What made it for me was Dave's character arc. He grows and changes as a character but he never stops being cynical jerk.

Score: 7.5 out of 10


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Project Vampire (1992)

Horror and Action movies love to open in media res.  That’s smart.  It instantly draws the audience in with the mystery of what the hell is going on, and it gives the filmmakers some breathing space to develop their characters and stories.  One of the great clichés of this type of opening is to have characters running away from someone or something, and Peter Flynn’s Project Vampire is no different.  Three scientists (we know they are scientists because they all wear bright white lab coats, all the better to hide from their pursuers) jog down various streets in Los Angeles (remember, always pronounce “Angeles” with a hard “g,” like in “gator”).  Invariably, these sequences end with the hunters catching up with their prey.  Of these particular three, one gets killed, one escapes and becomes villainous, and one gets picked up by student nurse Sandra (Mary Louise Gemmill) and, by default, becomes the hero of the film.  Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have her rescue the one who goes bad?  At any rate, the opening of this movie does enough of what it needs to do.  We get a quick feel for the timbre of the film, we are introduced to most of the main players (including the cartoonishly colorful henchmen Hopper [Kelvin Tsao] and Louie [Ray Essler], who, tragically, is not “the guy who comes in and says his catch phrase over and over again”), and we get interested enough to give the film some more time to win us over.  Project Vampire could have been given a hundred years to win us over, and it still would fail miserably.

As to the plot, it involves the flagitious Dr. Frederick Klaus (Myron Natwick), an ancient vampire who has created a serum by which he can psychically control the vampires he creates.  Former fellow scientist Victor (he of the white lab coat and introductory trot to freedom, played by Brian Knudson) sets out to stop him.

Science and the supernatural have gone hand-in-hand ever since Dr. Frankenstein stitched together pieces from a bunch of corpses and imbued it with life.  What’s wonderful about this idea is that it has the opportunity to expand on a legend and give it a new spin, a new vantage point.  That doesn’t mean modernizing hoary stuff, per se.  After all, the classic Universal monster movies were set in contemporary times, but they still clung tenaciously to the old school, gothic atmosphere from which the base legends sprang.  What I like is things like Event Horizon which is basically a haunted house story set on a spaceship that has a literal gateway to Hell on it.  Brilliant.  Project Vampire has scientific elements in it, but there’s not much thought put into them.  The biggest leap this film takes is in expanding drastically on a vampire’s ability to control the minds of others.  That’s fine and dandy, but it also does so with no real explanation of how this works to begin with.  It doesn’t ground Klaus’ supernatural powers in the real world (even with a bunch of techno-jargon).  All it does is puts Klaus in some medieval-esque piece of equipment (I immediately thought of all the old horror films where naked women are held captive in some mad scientist’s lab with straps just large enough, and strategically placed, to not show us any of their naughty bits) that makes him “vamp out.”  Flynn and company, in fact, go so far as having bio-chemist Lee Fong (Christopher Cho) ask his computer, “What is a vampire’s most powerful strength?”  The thuddingly stupid response is, of course, “His psychic spell.  Destroy the vampire, destroy the spell.”  In terms of scientific breakthroughs, this ranks up there with Timmy Spudwell’s vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano experiments and Amanda Hugginkiss’ famous potato clock revolution.  Naturally, films like this don’t need to use real, hard scientific data to back up their ideas, but they do need to be convincing with what they serve up.  Project Vampire is simply dumb and confusing.  I re-watched segments of this film multiple times to try and make sense of what these people were saying, and all I did was further bewilder myself.  Would I have been more forgiving if this were a Eurohorror film, where I expect idiocy in its rationales?  Possibly, but I would have been no less nonplussed.

One of the more intriguing things this film gets up to and almost develops satisfyingly is its idea of eternal life and addiction.  This stems, primarily, from the core of the vampire mythos.  It’s not just that they need blood to survive.  They crave it.  It both enflames their passions and sates them.  Their fangs, like, say, hypodermic needles, pierce the veins of their victims.  Their victims, then, become like junkies, lusting for the return of those teeth to their skin, chasing the proverbial dragon.  Tom (Christopher Wolf) goes to a pal’s party, specifically looking for a blood meal.  He finds one in a woman he drags into the bathroom and begins to make out with before putting the bite on her.  Alongside the obvious sexual angle, I found myself thinking (perhaps in a severe bout of thematic overreach) of people sneaking off to go snort some coke.  In this scenario, Tom’s victim would be the coke.  In the film, it’s intimated that Lee used to make drugs for wealthy clients (I may have imagined this; so much of this film is nebulous even when it’s being blunt as fuck).  Klaus provides his Project Alpha serum to the wealthy elite who want eternal life, which is injected.  The price of this lifespan is their thrall to Klaus and his drug, especially once Klaus chooses to exert his psychic abilities over them.  Klaus is the pusher, long life is the drug, loss of identity is the come down/price of addiction.

Even in trash cinema, there should be something to not make you want to take a nap.  The thing which comes possibly closest to that herein is the henchmen, Hopper and Louie.  Louie is the Renfield character.  He limps, wears an eyepatch and a white-on-black suit, and grovels ceaselessly.  Hopper is a bald chunk of meat with a sadistic streak, a Kurgan who burns in the sun’s rays.  Their old married couple routine is almost entertaining.  Otherwise, the film’s leads have absolutely zero chemistry (see what I did there?).  Klaus and his mistress Heidi (Paula Randol-Smith) are as threatening as a comfy chair.  Lee has one of the worst “Oriental” accents ever put to film.  The script is terrible, muddled, and rote.  There isn’t nearly enough action, tits, or gore to paper over the film’s flaws.  It is painful to watch, not just in experience but in cinematography.  It looks bad.  I can see now who the filmmakers were targeting this film toward, because you would clearly need to be on a ton of bad drugs to enjoy it.

MVT:  Hopper is just an oddball.

Make or Break:  There’s a decent burn stunt at the film’s climax.  Credit where it’s due.

Score:  3/10 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Something Creeping in the Dark (1971)

It was a dark and stormy night.  Ten jerks find themselves in an old, dark house, and weird things start to occur.  This is the premise for Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping in the Dark (aka Qualcosa Striscia nel Buio aka Shadows in the Dark), and this set up, if nothing else, is one of the most clichéd of the horror and mystery genres.  The reason is obvious.  Storms act as visual portents, bad omens of things to come.  They also give dramatic tension to scenes, because the characters are usually a bit stressed from the effects of the storm (the dangers of driving, being stuck out of doors in the rain, etcetera).  Maybe they bicker more than usual.  Maybe they’re a bit more anxious or cranky.  But, assuredly, they reveal themselves, because the strain and tumult of the tempest makes them forget their normal polite facades.  The director opens this film with his characters driving through the rain, and many shots are obscured by it, keeping the viewer off kilter, never quite sure of what they are seeing while still being recognizable enough.  Like the characters, the audience becomes embroiled in the restlessness of the environment in this way.

Storms also act as a means to gather a disparate group in one location and see what happens when things go south.  Here, the characters wind up in the manse of the late Lady Sheila Marlowe (a clear reference to Christopher Marlowe, the author of Doctor Faustus, played in portraiture only by Loredana Nusciak), a place that looks as ornately musty yet still kind of like a medieval dungeon as any ever put to film.  Rather cleverly, the film gives us an Agatha Christie-esque layout, and the expectation is that any oddities that happen will be explained away by the end as the doings of a human.  It’s a classic weird pulp framework, those stories that, essentially, became the formula for every episode of Scooby Doo (and quite a few gialli).  However, Colucci takes a sharp right turn and brings the actual supernatural into the mix, and the film plays both sides of the fence up until its conclusion, even while it tells us flat out that a specter is involved.  This is done by the introduction of Spike (Farley Granger), a “homicidal maniac” whom Inspector Wright (Dino Fazio) has captured and is bringing to justice.  This means that the characters can act out some of their darker impulses, because they have an easy scapegoat.  For example, Joe (Gianni Medici), the housekeeper, threatens his girlfriend (Giulia Rovai) with murder, knowing he can lay it off on Spike, who makes a habit of escaping throughout the film.  Sylvia (Lucia Bosé) fantasizes about seducing and then murdering Spike, a sharp contrast to the dull, bitter relationship she has with her husband Don (Giacomo Rossi Stuart).  Basically, the storm washes away all but the innermost desires of the film’s characters.

Something Creeping in the Dark is a brooding film, filled with a sense of doom, and it contains much superficial philosophical musings on existential matters.  The characters recognize their flaws, and the inescapability of their situation traps them inside themselves (in much the same way that they are trapped in the house).  They are left to act out their repressions or be consumed by them (possibly both).  The ghost of Lady Marlowe is the impetus for this.  She passes from character to character, possesses them for a time, and either kills them or shows them up for what they are.  Susan West (Mia Genberg) is the flinty assistant to Doctor Williams (Stelvio Rosi).  The doctor was en route to perform an emergency surgery, something which he quickly gets over when he finds out that he won’t get there in time.  Susan clearly harbors unspoken feelings for him, and Marlowe provides her the opportunity to express them.  Yet, after they consummate, Susan doesn’t feel freed of her emotional constraints.  She feels violated instead of satisfied, and she rejects Williams’ attempt to console her.  Rather than bring them together at long last, the playing out of Susan’s desirous impulses may keep them apart forever because her agency was taken away (or was her “possession” an act she now regrets?).  

The filmmakers portray Marlowe’s ghost via a high angle tracking camera (with fish eye lens) that floats down hallways, extinguishing lights as it approaches.  It is an omniscient viewpoint, and Marlowe is, virtually, God (and a capricious God, at that).  She toys with her playthings, enjoys making them dance for her amusement.  It is also conceivable that Marlowe’s possession of various characters is her own attempt at breaking out of her purgatorial/existential prison, of finding some meaning to the spiritual torment she is in.  Finding no satisfaction in this, it’s just as easy to kill her toys in a spiteful, childish lashing out against ineluctable circumstances.

The film is difficult to recommend, though I really would like to.  It takes tropes and plays with them, juggling between the corporeal and the preternatural.  It is loaded with style, and Colucci dives into some psychedelia, but he makes it work by anchoring it within his characters’ minds rather than as some overwrought visual display to take the audience on a “freak out.”  The director also takes about a half a page from Robert Wise’s book (i.e. his direction of the superlative The Haunting), using suggestion as much as he does directness.  It is entirely possible that human hands are behind the film’s nefariousness.  It is entirely possible that the human hands behind the film’s nefariousness are being manipulated by a supernatural force.  It is entirely possible that a malevolent spirit alone is behind the film’s nefariousness.  And Colucci allows that it may be all three simultaneously.  The major problem with the film is that it is both repetitive and sluggish.  Spike makes off into the nearby woods and has it out with the cops not once, but twice.  The Spike character is also, in my opinion, underutilized, considering his potential (and Granger’s talent; he does give his all here).  When the characters aren’t standing in the living room talking circularly or shooting barbs at one another, they are in their individual rooms talking circularly or shooting barbs at one another.  Interesting ideas are brought up and then left floating, and the climax is both predictable and a bit silly in its aftermath.  Something Creeping in the Dark is a film worth seeing (I finally made up my mind), though maybe not on a dark and stormy night, because you may fall asleep during it.

MVT:  Colucci brings a thoughtful sense to his direction.

Make or Break:  The séance scene is tense and creepy, while being distinctly Italian and a little goofy.

Score:  6.5/10

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Karate Rock (1990)

During the opening credits of Larry Ludman’s (aka Fabrizio De Angelis) Karate Rock (aka Il Ragazzo delle Mani D’Acciaio aka The Kid with Iron Hands), a car passes by a Burger King, and the first thing that popped into my head was how appropriate that is.  When I was a boy, fast food was something you got once in a blue moon.  It was a “treat,” not the go-to for every meal of the day.  Fast food was considered trash food.  I suppose it still is, but it’s much more readily accepted as a meal option now.  The same holds true for trash cinema.  It’s probably not “good for you” (yes, I know that sounds snotty), but damn it all, it sure does taste good.  The acceptance of trash cinema has certainly grown over the years from a rather small cult following into a veritable legion or people who devote the entirety of their moviegoing lives to it.  I have no grudge against trash cinema nor against the people who live and breathe it (I would consider myself at least partially in this category).  But I do find myself, from time to time, trying to figure out the “why?” of it’s appeal.  This is something which can be especially confounding when you’re a devotee as well as an observer.  

I’m sure the answer is likely far more complex than any of the films which fall under the trash purview (and definitely more in-depth than I have room for here), but I keep coming back to fast food as the appropriate analogy.  Trash films, even when they drag, when the camerawork is horrible, when the action is less than thrilling, almost always give you at least one moment you won’t see in any other film (or, lacking a specific moment, an attitude).  Just like you can’t get a Burger King burger at McDonald’s and vice versa, you can’t confuse something like 1990: Bronx Warriors with 2019: After the Fall of New York, no matter how hard you try.  In fact, the individual flaws may be the things that make them stand out.  These are films totally concerned with trying to be entertaining.  They don’t care about expanding the vocabulary of filmmaking.  They don’t care about making any cogent statements about the human condition (though, I would argue, they sometimes do despite their best efforts).  They don’t want to suggest anything.  They want to be as plain as the nose on your face (and 99.999% of the time, they are).  Like Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, et al, they all want to sell you a hamburger, fast and cheap, and, most importantly, from one of their franchises.  So, Karate Rock is perhaps the most bonkers ripoff of The Karate Kid ever made, yet it still partly works in spite of itself, but not because of any inherent virtues.  That said, the distinct lack of Elisabeth Shue is truly, truly tragic.

Kevin Foster (Antonio Sabato, Jr) is moved from his Savannah, Georgia home to the small town of Bend because he got into too much trouble for his policeman father John (David Warbeck) to take.  Rooming with the happy-go-lucky Billy (Robert Chan), Kevin runs afoul of local jerkoff Jeff Hunter (Andrew J Parker) and his gang of thugs.  From there on out, it’s nothing but dancing at the local slushie bar and karate-ing (-ish).

As previously stated, the clear and obvious “inspiration” for Karate Rock is 1984’s The Karate Kid.  There is the new kid transplanted to a town where he is all alone and outcast for his background.  There is the young love angle.  There is the karate angle, replete with the old, retired (and retiring) Asian mentor.  There is the gang of young toughs who dominate the protagonist’s life and make it infinitely more difficult.  The thing of it is, Karate Rock has none of the heart of the John G Avildsen film, and it completely misses the whole point of its progenitor.  For the first part, there are still all the setups we expect from this story, and they all turn out exactly as one can predict.  Nonetheless, there is no connective tissue to get us there.  There is no development of the characters, from the top down, to make us care about anything that happens to any of them.  Kevin is practically a doorstop who keeps getting in Jeff’s face just to make himself feel bigger and salve his own pride.  Billy offers no wisdom or insight into how Kevin can better himself until he decides to train him (he does get a half-assed back story, however).  Conny (Dorian D Field), the girl next door, never shares a heartfelt moment with Kevin, and she pathetically keeps trying to change herself to match Jeff’s hotty girlfriend Kim (Natalie J Hendrix) rather than showing Kevin (and the audience) anything unique she has to offer.  John behaves more like Kevin’s parole officer than his father, and there is no depth to their relationship for a reconciliation to mean anything.  These are warm bodies occupying spaces until it’s time for them to do something.

For the second part, this film has nothing to do with self-discovery or conquering one’s fears.  This is because it is entirely shot through a thick, oily filter of pure Italian machismo.  Kevin wants Kim because she’s beautiful, and, according to various moments between her and Jeff, she puts out.  Conny flings herself at Kevin because he’s hot, not because he is in any way distinctive.  And Kevin frankly couldn’t give a shit about Conny until he needs her, anyway.  The impetus for Kevin’s martial arts training has nothing to do with improving himself.  He’s doing it just to get revenge on Jeff for publicly kicking his ass multiple times (and never mind that Kevin names Kim as the prize for the winner of their climactic showdown, something she protests not in the least).  Billy’s decision to teach Kevin has nothing to do with anything other than that he’s an old Asian guy who knows karate (and the training montage is not only substandard in its techniques [read: no “wax on, wax off” stuff] but also mindboggling in its intercutting with shots of Jeff dancing at the slushie bar), and there is no thought given to the ideals and philosophy of martial arts.  It’s strictly used here to beat the shit out of people.  Finally, just to keep the viewer even more off-balance, the whole inner turmoil that Kevin has completely not been struggling with for the entire movie is his desire to be accepted by his old man, which he does by beating up a couple of kids (wasn’t that part of the reason he was taken away from his home in the first place?).  The whole film is like getting Chinese noodles and putting pesto sauce on them.  Yes, it’s still noodles and sauce, and it tastes fine, but it is not in any way what you expect.  And that’s without even getting into all of the disco dancing that takes place to music I could have whipped up at twelve-years-old on my Casio SK-1.

MVT:  The pure wrongheadedness of De Angelis’ approach and the bizarre view that the Italian filmmakers had of American life.

Make or Break:  The “rock dance” competition.  It’s one for the ages in so many ways.

Score:  6.75/10