Monday, February 25, 2019

The People Who Own the Dark (1976)

More than fifty years on and the influence of Night of the Living Dead can still be felt in modern day filmmaking.  Certainly, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel came first and was a source of inspiration for George Romero and other filmmakers to adapt the story.  It’s pretty apparent, however, that NOTLD had a larger and more direct influence on genre-cinema following its release.  There must be a countless amount of films that were either influenced by or shamelessly ripped off from NOTLD and the range of their quality is as wide as Romero’s influence on the horror genre.  The People Who Own the Dark is an example of a film that wears its influences on its sleeve but does enough different to stand out from the rest of the imitators.  Clearly, it takes as much from Omega Man, a more direct adaptation of I Am Legend, as it does from NOTLD, but the Spanish setting and distinct touches made by director León Klimovsky give this film its own identity.

The film is slow to get out of the gate.  We’re introduced to each of the characters one by one as they go about their day-to-day lives.  Each of the characters are preparing to attend a party later that evening, hosted by a pair of wealthy socialites.  The location of the party takes place at a hillside castle in rural Spain.  The castle setting adds to the gothic mood of the film and works perfectly once the siege starts to occur.  I should mention that I watched the 82 minute US cut of the film.  The Spanish release, apparently, runs 94 minutes with additional scenes of dialogue.  Even at 82 minutes, the film does feel slow at times.  Especially for the first act, when all of the characters are being established and the introduction to the party occurs.  If you stick it out through the initial setup, I think most will get something out of the remainder of the film and be glad they stuck with it.

Director León Klimovsky’s subtext and social commentary within this genre-film begin to reveal themselves once we learn exactly what kind of party is taking place.  It seems these members of the social elite have a taste for decadence and have arranged a masquerade party where they may indulge in their most animalistic desires with the female partygoers, who turn out to be paid prostitutes.  Anything goes, as long as it’s out in the open in front of the rest of the guests.  Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut definitely came to mind as this scenario played out.  Before any kind of orgy can breakout, the castle starts to shake and the partygoers believe they have just experienced an earthquake.  The partygoers return from the cellar to discover all the housemaids who remained on the ground level are now blind.  After a trip into the local village where it’s discovered that everyone on the earth’s surface is now blind, the partygoers realize they’re dealing with something much worse than an earthquake.  It’s deduced that a nuclear explosion has occurred and the survivors must leave the area to avoid any fallout.  They decide to return to the castle but not before one of them turns paranoid and stabs one of the blind villagers.  This act of violence triggers the socialites’ gradual demise and sets up Klimovsky’s commentary on class division and unrest between the working class villagers and the wealthy elite.

This is the point in the story where it starts to feel like a real horror film.  The blind villagers swarm the castle much like the zombies in NOTLD trying to enter the farmhouse.  In some ways, the situation in The People Who Own the Dark feels more terrifying than NOTLD.  Because the threat are actual people and not undead, shuffling zombies, the danger that the partygoers find themselves in feels more real.  To add to this, the blind mob work together and are able to strategize as how to besiege the castle.  They come through the ceiling, they’re able to drive cars, they start fires, and they’re capable of using firearms.  This makes them feel more threatening than any braindead zombie.  As is usually the case in these kinds of films, characters start turning on one another as the situation turns dire.  Spanish cult film star, Paul Naschy, is amongst the cast playing a Harry Cooper type character.

I certainly don’t want to spoil the ending of this film, but let’s just say that it’s bleak as hell!  There’s an excellent use of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony during a bus ride at the end of the film.  As I’ve discovered more of these Spanish horror films from the 60’s and 70’s, my appreciation for their quaintness and leisurely paced storytelling has really grown on me.  The first act of the film could certainly stand to move more briskly but the third act finishes so strongly that I was able to overlook that.  The Spanish horror films from this era would be a nice bridge from some of the Hammer horror films that came out of England in the 50’s and 60’s to the more extreme horror films produced in Italy during the 70’s and 80’s.  On the surface, The People Who Own the Dark may look like just another adaptation of I Am Legend.  Personally, I think director León Klimovsky brings enough originality and subtext to the production that it makes for an interesting viewing experience.

MVT: León Klimovsky

Make or Break Scene: The bus trip with Beethoven’s 9th playing on the radio.

Score: 6.75/10

Monday, February 18, 2019

Hit List (1989)

If you’re a child of the 80’s and had an obsession with movies, you know what a wondrous place the video store was at the peak of the video rental boom.  Walking through aisles of VHS covers and having those lurid covers tantalizing your preadolescent mind was quite an experience.  It almost gave you a feeling that you were somewhere you shouldn’t be.  The VHS sleeves for movies like Zombie, I Spit on Your Grave, and Driller Killer will forever be imprinted on my brain.  Then there were the odd or curious looking box art.  The ones that had you guessing what they were about and what type of movies they were.  Films like Happy Birthday to Me or The Exterminator had interesting but somewhat ambiguous covers.  If it weren’t for them being shelved in a specific section of the store, you weren’t sure what you were in for.  One such film, for me anyway, was Hit List.  The image of the car running over a man always piqued my curiosity.  Was this a horror film?  An action film?  What was it?  Once I discovered it was directed by William Lustig and involved a psychotic hitman played by Lance Henriksen, I had to track it down.  And the fact that this movie remains available only on VHS makes it that much more curious.

Essentially, Hit List is a crime-thriller with flourishes of action and horror.  After a gangster is arrested for drug trafficking, he’s forced to turn state’s evidence and testify against his criminal boss.  The mob boss, worried that his lieutenant will rat him out, decides to put a hit out and ensure that no testimony is made; except that the hitman makes a vital error and goes to the wrong house during his assassination attempt.  After disposing of a man and woman he assumes are federal agents providing witness protection, he kidnaps a boy he believes to be the son of his target, whom he can’t find anywhere in the house.  This sequence of events sets in motion the revenge / rescue angle of the film and will make up the majority of the runtime going forward.

Jan-Michael Vincent plays Jack Collins, the family man whose son has been kidnapped, wife attacked, and friend murdered during the home invasion.  Collins is hell-bent on rescuing his son and finding the person responsible for turning his life upside down.  In order to make this happen, he’ll have to recruit the help of the gangster turned informant and intended target, Frank DeSalvo, played by Leo Rossi.  DeSalvo has his own vendetta to settle, now that he knows his boss (Rip Torn) tried to have him whacked.  Together, Collins and DeSalvo will have to fight off mafia thugs, elude the police, and battle a highly trained killer in order to save the kid and win the day.

Just like his prior films, Lustig’s cast for Hit List is made up of recognizable character actors.  Lance Henriksen, Leo Rossi, Rip Torn, and Charles Napier, who plays the lead FBI agent, are all familiar faces to movie fans and they all do a solid job in their respective roles.  Henriksen and Torn, in particular, are a lot of fun in their over-the-top performances as villainous characters.  The only issue with the cast is the leading man role, played by Jan-Michael Vincent.  Most will probably know Vincent from the TV show, Airwolf.  According to a 2008 interview, Lustig states that Vincent was drunk during the shooting of the film and it’s pretty apparent from the moment he steps onscreen.  He seems to struggle delivering his lines and I think you can even see him have trouble staying upright in some scenes.  In addition to this, he just simply can’t emote the grief that is necessary for his character.  When it’s explained to him that his wife is in a coma and that she has lost their unborn child, Vincent’s reaction to this soul-crushing news seems more appropriate for someone who has just been told that their favorite flavor of ice cream has been discontinued.   Lustig does his best to limit Vincent’s dialogue and shoot around his embarrassing performance, but there’s only so much you can do when your leading man is a disaster.  Jan-Michael Vincent almost sinks this entire film.  Fortunately, the rest of the cast brings it and a strong third act saves this movie from being a dud.

In that same interview, Lustig admits that he needed work and that this project was a director for hire job.  It definitely has that feel when compared to his earlier efforts, such as Maniac and Vigilante.  Hit List doesn’t have the same grit or nihilism that those films had.  Also, this film was shot in sunny Los Angeles instead of the rough streets of a pre-Giuliani New York City, where Lustig filmed his previous movies. This gives Hit List a more polished aesthetic, overall.  Still, Lustig delivers on the violence and action set-pieces, especially in the finale of the film.  There are a few memorable sequences that occur within the film.  There is a scene where Henriksen slips into a prison like a ninja and assassinates a potential witness after he takes out the prison guards.  There’s a fun shootout that takes place in a laser tag arena.  And there’s the standout car chase that eventually leads to a crazy sequence where Henriksen’s character is hanging from a truck as he tries to kill the driver.  I don’t want to spoil the end of this wild scene, but let’s just say that there is truth in advertising in regards to the VHS box art for this movie.

Nobody would claim that Hit List is one of Bill Lustig’s best films; including the director himself.  It doesn’t have that grindhouse feel of his earlier films and it doesn’t have a screenwriter like a Larry Cohen to inject some social commentary into the film, as he did for Maniac Cop.  And it certainly doesn’t help that your leading man is blotto through the film’s entirety.  Lustig and the supporting cast manage to somehow save this movie from being a complete disaster.  It’s a testament to Lustig’s skills as a director that he was able to salvage this film from what must have been a difficult shoot and turn in a decent action-thriller.  It may not be a cult classic, but Hit List deserves better than to linger in VHS obscurity.

MVT: The supporting cast of Lance Henriksen, Leo Rossi, Rip Torn, & Charles Napier

Make or Break Scene: The action packed finale!

Score: 6/10

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Hide and Go Shriek (1988)

When you’re a horny teen desperately looking for a place to party, you’ll go anywhere you can to pound cheap beer and try to score with your boyfriend or girlfriend.  God knows how many odd locations I’ve gone to all in an effort to escape parental authority and take part in some juvenile behavior with my closest friends.  The group of teens in the late period slasher, Hide and Go Shriek, choose, of all places, a furniture store to party at.  After store hours, of course!  Now, we never had a furniture store available to us, but I’m certain my friends and I would have jumped at the chance to drink and get wild in such a place.  So, this location doesn’t seem like an odd setting for a slasher movie to me.   Luckily, my friends and I were never stalked and chased by a psychopathic killer through our party spot.  The same cannot be said for the kids in this film; and if that’s the tradeoff for getting to drink and screw in a furniture shop after hours, then you can have it!

The group of kids in Hide and Go Shriek are made up of your stereotypical teens in slashers.  We have the prankster, the creep, the nerd, the slut, the virgin, and the couple in love.  Being that it’s the late 1980’s, we also get some amazingly bad fashion and hairstyles!  The clothes are mostly baggy and loud.  One character is even wearing a pair of dinosaur earrings!  As expected, the hair on the female cast is BIG and the males are a mix of mini-mullets and spiked hairdos.  One of the male characters seems to have modeled his look after the 80’s fictional character, Max Headroom.  The character even wears his sunglasses in doors…at night…Big Corey Hart fan, this guy.  The cast that make up the teens are mostly unknowns.  The only face I recognized was Sean Kanan, who plays John.  Most will know him from The Karate Kid Part III, as “Karate’s Bad Boy” Mike Barnes.  There is really only one cast member that stands out from the rest and that’s Bunky Jones, but I’ll come back to her later.

The film opens with an anonymous character applying makeup in the mirror.  In the next scene, the character is shown picking up what may or may not be a transgender prostitute and later murdering the prostitute in a back alley.  It’s quickly established that there’s a killer on the loose and we’re not certain of their gender.  Clearly, an attempt to keep us guessing who the killer is.   We’re then introduced to our group of teens and then we’re off to the furniture store for some post-graduation partying!  As odd as this location may seem for a party, it does make for a great setting for a slasher film.  Because it’s after store hours and the teens want to avoid drawing any attention to the shop, the interior of the store is dimly lit, creating a lot of shadows.  There are also several mannequins spread about the store which keeps the viewer guessing as to whether or not it’s the killer.  When the killer does arrive on the scene we get POV shots of the killer lurking about and peeping in on the teens as they strip and get down to business.  This all adds up to a pretty unnerving setting which makes for some genuinely creepy moments.

Slasher fans who expect their slashers to be bloody and gory shouldn’t be disappointed with this one.  When the killer starts attacking the teens, the film doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details.  There are two standout deaths in the film.  One where a character is impaled onto an art sculpture and the second being a decapitation by freight elevator, thanks to some early special effects work from Screaming Mad George.  Some may feel that the body count isn’t high enough.  Personally, I found there to be enough stalking and slashing to satisfy my needs as a fan of the slasher sub-genre.

Hide and Go Shriek is not without its issues.  Firstly, it’s a darkly lit film.  Too dark, in some scenes.  I realize it’s intended to be dark so that the killer can hide in the shadows, but it can be difficult at times to make out what exactly is on screen.  I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to watch this on VHS back in the day.  Also, after the initial setup, the film drags a bit until the killer begins to attack the group.  The group of teens work within the tropes and trappings of the slasher genre, but individually they’re not that interesting.  The actors are mostly serviceable but no one really standouts until the final act and that is when Bunky Jones, playing Bonnie, gets her moment to shine.  Once Bonnie discovers the mutilated corpses of her friends, she comes completely unraveled.  Bunky Jones’ portrayal of a teenage girl who is terrified beyond belief is one for the ages.  Some may find all of her shrieking and whining to be shrill and overbearing.  I, however, found her performance to be a highlight of the film and I appreciated that she swung for the fences with her depiction of the hysterical Bonnie.  Her reading of the line “I DON’T UNDERSTAND!” has to be heard to be believed.  Highly entertaining.

I don’t think anyone would claim that Hide and Go Shriek is a top-tier slasher.  Not even the hardcore slasher fans.  It is, however, a solid entry into the sub-genre with several entertaining moments scattered throughout the runtime.  It has an eerie setting, bad fashion, gory murder scenes, overacting, unconventional moments, and an ending that reaches giallo levels of absurdity.  This film doesn’t attempt to reinvent the genre, but it does enough different to make it a memorable watch and not come off as just another disposable slasher, which there were more than enough of during this period.

MVT: Bunky Jones.  She goes for it in the final act!

Make or Break Scene: The reveal of the killer.  This will likely make or break the movie for you.

Score: 6.75/10