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China Strike Force (2000)

Director: Stanley Tong
Starring: Aaron Kwok, Norika Fujiwara, Mark Dacascos, Coolio, Lee-Hom Wang
Rated R Running time: 91 minutes
Released by Dimension Films

There have been many times that I have wished that Rush Hour had never been made.

Jackie Chan's mega-hit Rumble in the Bronx renewed international interest in the martial arts genre, prompting the release of countless Asian action films which had never been seen in North America. A good thing, especially for those of us who had very improbable childhood dreams of growing up to become ninjas. It all went to hell when Brett Ratner's 1998 buddy/action flick teamed the affable Chan with the barely tolerable Chris Tucker. It was, unfortunately, a humongous financial success, sending producers around the world in a scramble to try to recreate the Ratner film's formula. Rappers and second-rate comedians found themselves getting co-billed with action stars, in films which existed primarily to cash in on what was perceived to be a large urban/martial arts market that had previously been neglected. Rumble director Stanley Tong tried to get in on the act with China Strike Force - a movie hobbled by including a little too much "urban flava" in the form of a washed up rapper who can neither fight nor act.

Aaron Kwok and Lee-Hom Wang are a couple of Hong Kong cops out to bust up a drug smuggling ring led by Mark Dacascos and Coolio. Norika Fujiwara is the sexy deep cover cop who gets mixed up with both sides. Plot is secondary to action, and China Strike Force manages to deliver some fun in that department. The highlight here is a pretty tense car chase featuring a pair of race cars dueling around a speeding eighteen-wheeler. Tong is at his best when filming action scenes that require you to leave logic outside of the theater, but there isn't enough here to distract your attention away from the very ill-advised inclusion of Coolio as one of the lead villians. Coolio spends most of his screen time saying ridiculous things and generally just stinking up every scene he is featured in. I realize that you have to take these films with a grain of salt, but Coolio turns the cheese levels up so high that the movie becomes nearly unwatchable. I held out to the end thinking that Mark Dacascos, a very under rated action star who can actually fight, would take over when the film moved into its action-packed finale. Nope. Tong makes an unforgivable mistake by forcing Dacascos to play second banana, and giving the karate-challenged Coolio the coveted final fight scene. Or should I say Coolio's stunt double. Yes, it is that obvious.

Perhaps this film will get a special edition DVD release one day, giving viewers the option of watching the film in a "Coolio-free" version. I wouldn't hold my breath for that, nor would I recommend wasting any time or money on China Strike Force.

Gacy (2003)

Director: Clive Saunders
Starring: Mark Holton, Adam Baldwin, Charlie Weber
Rated R Running time: 88 minutes
Released by Lionsgate Home Entertainment

If you can get past the uneven acting, the TV-movie look, and the ridiculous floppy fake mustaches, Gacy is a decent serial killer biopic. It also answers the question that has probably been burning in your mind: whatever happened to Francis Buxton?

Mark Holton, best known as the villainous neighbor from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, stars here as the bloated deviant John Wayne Gacy, a notorious clown/rapist/murderer who sexually tortured and murdered 33 teenage boys before he was arrested in 1978. The film focuses on the final weeks of Gacy's life as a free man, while he was still busy schmoozing with his neighbors and working hard to cast himself as a sort of "super citizen". If nothing else, the film causes you to wonder how on Earth did an obese, middle-aged man who surrounded himself with good-looking teenage boys and was known to frequently dress up as a clown NOT raise some major suspicions? While his neighbors and associates seemed to be snowed by Gacy's act, the teenagers that he employed were not. In a handful of scenes it is shown to be generally accepted by the young men that Gacy was an unstable, closeted homosexual who was more than a little creepy. This fact could be overlooked, since Gacy was generous with cash and drugs, and often came off as more of a buffoon than a violent deviant. Gacy's true nature begins to reveal itself when he bashes one of his kept boys in the head with a claw hammer. That was a relatively minor incident compared to the other crimes the killer was guilty of, as we see later in the film. The film chooses not to linger on the gory details, which is probably a good thing.

Apart from a very brief scene at the beginning showing us a young Gacy camping with his drunk, abusive father (played by the very under appreciated Adam Baldwin) there is little insight offered into Gacy's murderous nature. It is a straight character study, focusing on the world through Gacy's eyes while he was in the thick of his murder spree. The best film about the killer clown was the 1992 Canadian television movie To Catch a Killer starring Brian Dennehy, and it is hard not to try to compare the two films. To Catch a Killer was a very serious police procedural/docudrama, while Gacy is considerably lighter. Comparing the performances of each film's lead is not as easy because they are so different. Dennehy was brooding, cold, calculating, with the potential for explosive violence lurking just beneath his genial demeanor; Holton's Gacy is more of a pathetic creature, a teller of tremendous lies, the butt of constant jokes, unattractive and seemingly incapable of controlling his violent impulses. I will give Dennehy the edge here because he is in the better movie, but Holton does a fine job with the material.

It's not perfect; this was obviously not filmed in Illinois, the "seventies" look isn't very convincing, and the film plays fast and loose with the facts of the case. Still, director Clive Saunders took a very low budget and a story much bigger than a small film like Gacy could handle and made it into a legitimately entertaining portrait of one of America's most infamous serial killers.


The Sickhouse (2007)

Director: Curtis Radclyffe
Starring: Gina Phillips, Kellie Shirley, Alex Hassell, Andrew Knott
Unrated Running time: 100 minutes
Released by New Line Home Video

How is this for a scenario: a group of snot-nosed thirty-year-old punks are out joyriding around in a stolen car. After running over someone in an alley, this group of very unsympathetic characters take refuge in the nearest available building: an abandoned orphanage. Unknown to them, an ambitious, yet extraordinarily dumb, archaeologist has already broken in to the very same building, which is slated for demolition the following morning. It seems this suddenly popular orphanage is the site of some very cloudy happenings during the time of the bubonic plague, and our plucky archaeologist is hell-bent on collecting evidence and investigating the joint before the wrecking ball comes a-swinging. The two parties eventually meet, but they don't get much chance to socialize because the spooky happenings have begun. The characters start developing weird lesions, having hallucinations, and generally just start freaking out. Pretty soon the group finds themselves being stalked by the bird-headed plague doctors and their army of albino midgets.

Oops. I think I just made The Sickhouse sound much better than it actually is. The screenplay by Romla Walker is about as boneheaded as they come. Walker was not content with just having her characters do some incredibly stupid things (casually breaking in to a site known to be infected by the bubonic plague sans facemask or other protective measures; abandoning a very pregnant girl not once, but twice, immediately after something frightening happens; splitting up to explore the building when it has been established that something is killing them one by one), she wraps it all up in an incomprehensible story about the plague, some child murders, and something called "The Cult of the Black Priest", whatever that is. None of it amounts to much, as a large chunk of the movie is little more than people wandering around in the dark while insulting each other. Walker can't shoulder all of the blame, because director Curtis Radclyffe has no desire whatsoever to film the proceedings with anything resembling originality. Radclyffe follows the "Modern Horror Movie Guidebook" to the letter - lots of irritating noises on the soundtrack, jump scares, shaky photography with spastic editing, and lighting so low that it was a wonder that the camera even picked anything up. These days tension equals loud noises and headache-inducing visuals; you won't feel very frightened but you will need to take some dramamine and lay down in a quiet room.

It's not all bad; the actors do the best they can with what they have to work with, and when you can actually see them, the creature make-up is pretty good. Neither can save The Sickhouse from the its place near the bottom of the heap.

2 out of 5.


Re-Cycle (2006)

Director: The Pang Brothers
Starring: Angelica Lee, Yang Li
Rated R Running time: 109 minutes
Released by Image Entertainment

Famous writer Ting-Yin (Angela Lee from The Eye) begins work on a supernatural themed novel entitled "Re-cycle". Already under enormous pressure to deliver another bestseller, her situation is complicated by the sudden reappearance of her ex-boyfriend. Not wishing to deal with the bitter memories of their failed relationship, Ting-Yin throws herself into her work. It isn't long before strange things begin happening to her, and she discovers that something is hiding in her apartment. The film begins heading toward the now too familiar long-haired-Asian-ghost-story, but completely changes gears when Ting-Yin finds herself pulled into some other dimension, where her memories, her thoughts, and her nightmares have begun a life of their own.

The second act is where the film hits its stride, and the Pang Brothers unleash their remarkable visual style. I can't think of any other film that looks quite like Re-Cycle - from the wasted cities to the toy-box-from-hell moments - the film shakes off any J-horror comparisons that were invoked in the first thirty minutes. We share Ting-Yin's horror and confusion as she navigates a landscape populated by discarded toys, strange people, and in the film's most startling scene, a horde of zombies. At first glance, it seems that the film sacrifices story for imagery, but by the time the end rolls around, we see that the images are the story. It is not wholly successful, the big revelation is telegraphed relatively early on. Still, the images are so unique, the situations so alien, that we hang on until the very end.

The film loses its footing during the conclusion by going into sentimental overload. It gets sappy. Real sappy. It also might rile certain viewers of a particular political/moral bent. It is a make or break issue, and while I doubt the the Pang Brothers are trying to make a statement in this regards, it will most likely cause a few to think poorly of the film. I can't say any more without giving the surprise away, so I guess you'll just have to take a chance.

As with most of the Pang Brothers films Re-Cycle excels when it wows the viewer with incredible visuals, but stumbles when it slips into the more human elements. Worth checking out when you are in the mood for a surreal, trippy horror/fantasy hybrid. Otherwise, Re-Cycle may not be your cup of tea.

Bordertown (2006)

Director: Gregory Nava
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas, Martin Sheen
Rated R Running time: 114 minutes
Released by Velocity/Thinkfilm

Bordertown is a movie with a message. What that message is, I have no idea. Part Lifetime melodrama, part serial killer B-movie, part PSA against NAFTA, part diatribe against media and government corruption; all of it adds up to one big, nearly incomprehensible mess. It cost over twenty million dollars to produce, got laughed off the screen at the Berlin Film Festival, and has become possibly the most expensive direct-to-video movie ever made.

"Jenny from the block" is a reporter who goes to Juarez, Mexico to do a story on a series of murders being committed against female factory workers. She befriends a woman who survives the attack, hangs out with Antonio Banderas, yells at Martin Sheen over the phone, and eventually goes undercover to catch the killer. All of this is surrounded with beautifully shot montages which are too hamfisted to be symbolic (little girls seen playing while barbed wire looms in the foreground, for example). Sheen and Banderas are on autopilot for their roles, leaving the questionably talented Jennifer Lopez to carry the dramatic weight of the film. Lopez goes through a variety of facial expressions and alters the tone of her voice the help convey different emotions, but never for a second do we actually feel like we are watching someone who is not Jenifer Lopez. She is not convincing as a reporter who finds her life transformed by the story she has become involved with, a fact not helped in any way by the unintentionally hilarious dialogue she is required to speak.

Director Gregory Nava seems to care a great deal about NAFTA and would have been much better off saving time and money by just making a documentary about it. His attempt to mix a serial killer thriller with his political concerns fails miserably in nearly every conceivable way.

Jimmy and Judy (2005)

Director: Randall K. Rubin, Jon Schroeder
Starring: Edward Furlong, Rachael Bella, William Sadler
Rated R 100 minutes
Released by Anchor Bay

Jimmy (Edward Furlong) is a troubled young man from a well-to-do family. For reasons which are never made clear to the audience, he despises his parents and spends a great deal of time trying to torment them. Jimmy is obsessed with recording nearly every moment of his existence, whether he is having sex with prostitutes or crashing his parents dinner parties. The only person who Jimmy seems to like is Judy (Rachael Bella), a shy misfit who is constantly bullied at school. Jimmy decides to show his affection for Judy by striking back against her enemies and, of course, taping the results. Judy is overwhelmed by this gesture and, voila, a love connection is made.

The lovebirds spend their days engaged in petty crime and intercourse. All is well until one night they accidentally run over a homeless man in a bad neighborhood. Consulting the "Big Book of Bad Ideas", Jimmy decides that the best way to deal with this problem is to put the dead hobo's body in the trunk of his car. Moments later, a cop arrives to investigate the situation and Jimmy does what characters in predictable movies usually do: he shoots and kills the cop so that we can get to the lovers-on-the-lam portion of the story. The couple have their obligatory hotel room head shaving and hair dying moment, and are married by an Elvis impersonator. Not being especially clever criminals, the cops are hot on their trail. Jimmy says that he knows of a place in the mountains of Kentucky, where every scumbag in the rainbow can be free and naked whenever they want, and do whatever they want, without fear of persecution. Based upon what we have learned about these two characters up to this point, this degenerate commune would seem like the perfect place for the newlyweds to plant their roots. But as bad as Jimmy and Judy are, the commune's Manson-esque leader (William Sadler) is even worse. After delivering a long and embarrassing speech about the "garbage people", Sadler and his goons push the sociopathic lovebirds towards a Thelma and Louise-inspired fate.

Edward Furlong and Rachael Bella do have some chemistry here, as they should, being married in real life and all. Whether or not their performances in this film are good is nearly impossible to tell, given the abysmal quality of the material they are provided with. This is a very insincere movie; pretending to be "edgy" and "provocative" while desperately trying to mimic better-known movies that use the tragic-lovers-on-the-lam motif. Jimmy and Judy are no Bonnie and Clyde, or even a Mickey and Mallory, for that matter. Randall Rubin and Jon Schroeder, who wrote and directed the film, could care less for character development - so expecting the titular couple to experience any sort of arc is out of the question. Jimmy gets the worst of it; going from unlikeable at the beginning, to bald and unlikeable towards the end. Bella is only required to disrobe every fifteen minutes and to act maniacally happy, no matter the situation the couple find themselves in. The makers are more concerned with creating Natural Born Killers for the Hot Topic crowd, not making a movie about real people who you can relate to or sympathize with. It's crass, pointless, and worst of all, dull. The gimmicky shot-by-the-characters approach used to film this movie doesn't add a drop of believability to the proceedings - only makes it harder to watch.


The Revenge of Doctor X (1970)

aka The Double Garden; The Devil Garden; Venus Flytrap

Director: Kenneth G. Crain
Writer: Edward D. Wood Jr.
Starring: James Craig, James Yagi
Running time: 94 minutes
Public Domain

Ed Wood wrote a screenplay called Venus Flytrap that was eventually picked up by Japan's Toei studios. At some point it was renamed The Devil Garden - which somehow became known as The Double Garden (heavy Asian accent, maybe?) - and has surfaced on video as The Revenge of Doctor X. The plot is like a cross between Frankenstein and Little Shop of Horrors, filtered through the singular mind of Ed Wood. Even by Wood standards, this film is completely nuts.

Dr. Bragan (James Craig, who was at one time a double for Clark Gable) is an overworked, short-tempered scientist who seeks some rest and relaxation in Japan. For some reason, he drives from Florida to Wilmington, NC (which happens to be the home base of the site you are currently viewing), where his car breaks down. He meets up with a mechanic/snake handler whose face is covered in grease paint. While waiting for his car to be repaired, he decides to dig up one of the local venus fly traps. Next thing you know, Bragan is in Japan, where he meets up with the cousin of his assistant. She takes Bragan to a huge house in the middle of the mountains, which just so happens to be right next to a very active, fire-spewing volcano. Bragan doesn't seem to interested in relaxation, though - he has extremely vague, yet very important, scientific work to do. After watching the hunchbacked groundskeeper play Toccata and Fugue in D minor, scuba diving with some topless Japanese ladies, and experimenting with some local plant life, we get to find out just what it is that Bragan has been feverishly working on: a man-sized, rubber monster with Wilmington Venus Flytrap hands. Dr. Bragan is the only one who seems to be surprised when the monster, which looks like something Paul Blaisdell threw together while drunk and blindfolded, begins chowing down on the locals.

This is one deliriously silly movie. The script is pure Ed Wood - full of unlikely conversations, non sequiturs, and some very strange one-liners. James Craig, as the obsessed scientist, shouts about a third of his lines - whether the situation calls for him to be angry or not. Stock music plays for virtually the entire running time, usually incongruent with what is happening on screen. The effects are terrible. It is painfully dumb, about twenty minutes too long, and makes little sense.

I thought it was a lot of fun. Only Ed Wood could dream up this kind of weirdness, and present it with the straightest face possible.

The Revenge of Doctor X is in the public domain, so it shouldn't be hard to track down. There are several budget-priced DVDs available, and it can also be downloaded off the net, free of charge. Most versions of this film feature the opening credits for The Mad Doctor of Blood Island, a completely unrelated film that shared a double bill with this Wood monstrosity.


Boogeyman (2005)

Director: Stephen T. Kay
Starring: Barry Watson, Emily Deschanel, Lucy Lawless
Rated PG-13 Running time: 89 minutes

Tim (Barry Watson) is a successful magazine editor with a paralyzing fear of closets and darkened rooms because some kind of supernatural killer ghost/goblin thingamajig made his father disappear fifteen years earlier. Receiving word that his mother (Lucy Lawless in ghoul makeup) has died, Tim returns to his hometown to settle her affairs. His childhood shrink convinces him that the best way to conquer his fears is to spend the night in the house his father was attacked in. Tim follows the doctors orders - which was a very fortunate turn of events for the film's screenwriters. The next hour or more consists of Tim wandering around in the dark, opening doors, closing doors, giving puzzled/frightened facial expressions, and reacting to loud noises on the film's soundtrack. A computer generated "boogeyman" shows up, and Tim defeats him without too much trouble.

isn't so much a movie as it is a series of eardrum-rattling bangs and clangs, droning shrieks, halfhearted emoting, and a preponderance of footage edited together in the most seizure-inducing manner possible. In short, it is exactly like every other film that Hollywood likes to call "horror" these days. Director Stephen Kay works hard to ensure the film manages to be both boring and irritating, and that the characters are as bland and uninteresting as possible. Who needs a coherent, engaging screenplay when you've got an arsenal of modern horror techniques at your disposal? Boogeyman manages to be nerve-rattling, alright, but for all the wrong reasons.

2 out of 5


Them (2006)

Director: David Moreau, Xavier Palud
Starring: Olivia Bonamy, Michael Cohen
Running time: 77 min.
Released by Dark Sky/MPI
Also known as Ils

A French couple moves into an old dark house in Romania. The process of settling in is seriously complicated one night when something or someone begins stalking them in their new home.

That's all the plot you are going to get out of Them, a very lean, mean little movie that wastes little of its 77 minute running time on setting up this nightmare scenario. It doesn't have to. Directors Palud and Moreau aren't interested in story - only in scares. They certainly have the techniques down - from the dark, dreary digital photography to a soundtrack that'll have you looking over your shoulder, the makers are in full control of the action. All that is required of the film's stars, Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen, is a lot of running around while looking frightened, which they do fairly well. This is a short, effective film that doesn't overstay its welcome. My only criticism is with the film's prologue - a scene featuring a mother and her daughter being terrorized in their car. Too much information about what is to come is given away, and it seems to have been tacked on, presumably to fatten the movie up a bit.

I don't want to give away too many details about the film, as the less you know going into Them the better. It's supposedly based on real events, though there is no question that the makers took a good number of liberties with the source material. I advise against looking into the film's inspiration until after you see the movie.

Some folks have said that this is one of the scariest movies of all time. I wouldn't go that far, but I will say that Them is a very well-executed thriller that deserves a rental.

3 out of 5


Fat Girl (2001)

Director: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Anais Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero Di Rienzo, Arsinee Kharjian
Unrated, 83 minutes
Released by Criterion

We start out with a story about two sisters: twelve-year-old Anais is overweight and frumpy, Elena is three years older, beautiful, and popular with the young men. Though they love each other a great deal, Elena confesses to her sister that she must bring Anais along with her on her outings in order to appease their parents. Anais knows this and is equally unhappy with the situation; she says she is sick of being Elena's ball-and-chain. While out one afternoon the sisters meet a much older man, a twentysomething Italian law student named Fernando who is instantly attracted to Elena. A summertime romance begins, while Anais seeks comfort in an enormous banana split. After a very brief courtship, Fernando sneaks into the girls bedroom one night and attempts to badger Elena into having sex with him. Elena is a virgin and would prefer to stay that way; she wants to know that she is loved before she will relent to Fernando's pressure. Fernando says that he loves her, and threatens to sleep with other girls if Elena will not give in. There is a very painful compromise made. Anais, in a bed nearby, has only been pretending to be asleep and has witnessed the entire act.

Fernando has promised his love to Elena, giving her an enormous opal ring to demonstrate his sincerity. Elena is overwhelmed by this gesture and believes that they will marry shortly after she finshes school. Anais, the eternal cynic, warns her sister that taking the ring may not mean what Elena thinks it means. Elena disagrees, and allows Fernando to return in the night and take what he has wanted the entire time. Anais, once again pretending to sleep, weeps as her sister loses her innocence.

The affair comes to an abrupt end when the girl's parents discover what is going on. Their mother is furious and heartbroken, and tearfully drives her devastated children back home. And then something happens. It is so shocking and so unexpected that it changes Fat Girl from a quiet and naturalistic study of the lives of two sisters into something else altogether.

Catherine Breillat has gained a reputation for using onscreen sex in her films the way Sam Peckinpah used violence. Fat Girl is no exception. The love scenes between Fernando and Elena are explicit to say the least, made even more startling by the fact that Roxane Mesquida, who plays Elena, certainly looks like a fifteen-year-old girl. Mesquida was actually in her twenties at the time of filming - a fact which did not prevent the film from being banned in a handful of countries. I cannot imagine the film's jaw-dropping conclusion helping its case. It is legimately shocking, not only because of the things that we are seeing, but also that they are so completely unexpected. Some have suggested that Breillat simply ran out of ideas and had to resort to shock tactics. I don't think that this was the case; everything that preceded the film's climax is much too precise, too measured, and too confident to believe that Breillat would simply tack on a throwaway finale. If anything, it may be a little too ambiguous for its own good - denying the viewer any sense of closure or comfort.

This is one of those movies that will leave you feeling like you've just been hit over the head with a shovel. For a film which largely consists of dialogue and dialogue alone, that is quite an accomplishment. Bergman did it better than no other. Catherine Breillat is no Bergman, but she does possess a similar understanding of the human heart.


Sweet Movie (1974)

Director: Dusan Makavejev
Starring: Carol Laure, John Vernon, Anna Prucnal
Unrated 98 minutes
Released by Criterion

Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie has been made legendary by film academics and intellectuals who see this film as a profound and devastating indictment of belief systems, governments, philosophies, and any other man-made social constructs which are devised to inhibit or oppress the inescapable animalistic nature of man. Or something like that. There are plenty of essays and analyses out there waiting to be read by folks who are interested in finding some deeper meaning in Makavejev's most infamous film, so I will not attempt to butt heads with the intellectual elite. I can, however, describe my feelings about this film, finally watched after years of reading countless reviews which mostly praised this film's savage genius.

It's icky.

Golden penises. Golden showers. Naked women writhing in chocolate. Sex in tubs of sugar. Vomiting. Food fights. Spitting. Singing. Footage of the Katyn Forest Massacre. People slathered with human excrement. Some more singing. There is a plot, but it's little more than an excuse for Makavejev to place star Carol Laure in one very unsanitary situation after another, which get increasingly weirder and harder to watch as the film rolls on.

I won't question Makavejev's intelligence, or criticize his willingness to push cinema into uncharted territory. That said, Sweet Movie comes off as misguided and more than a little juvenile. Its message, or at least what I think is its message, is overshadowed by its desire to shock and repulse the viewer. It is not unlike a bright teenager who feels the need to join a satanic cult or get their face tattooed just to show their parents that they are free and capable of making their own decisions. While you appreciate the kid's desire to demonstrate their independence, their actions leave you scratching your head all the same. Makavejev sets out to repulse and he succeeds, but not without revealing his inability to create a film which cannot get its point across without resorting to cheap shock tactics. You could edit these scenes out of the film, but then there would be next to nothing left.

You are probably better off reading about this movie than actually watching it. If you do decide to experience Sweet Movie, I would recommend doing so on an empty stomach and with plenty of Lysol handy.

2.5 out of 5. 


The Burning (1981)

Director: Tony Maylam
Starring: Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Brian Matthews
Released by MGM

Slasher flicks were so prevalent in the early eighties, film critic Roger Ebert created a catch-all term to categorize this particular genre: dead teenager movies. While I have nothing but respect for Mr. Ebert, his phrase is a little misleading; most of the victims in these films had not seen the inside of a high school in more than a decade. Despite his questionable choice of words, he was correct to lump these films together. Most followed the same predictable template, only attempting to be creative when it came to the onscreen skewering of the mostly forgettable young actors who found work in these things. The Burning is an odd duck. While it follows the formula to the letter, it remains more memorable than most of its peers, thanks to unusually high number of talented people on both sides of the camera.

The story begins at an upstate New York summer camp, where a handful of ornery campers are looking to pull a prank on Cropsy, a particularly unpopular caretaker. The prank takes a very flammable turn and to the boy's horror, Cropsy is severely burned. After years of skin grafts and reconstructive surgery, the disfigured caretaker is released from the hospital. Cropsy makes the leap from unlikeable caretaker to homicidal maniac; showing his newly found murderous side by immediately procuring and slaughtering a prostitute, presumably just for kicks.

Back at camp, a new batch of kids have arrived and the pranks, bullying, and outdoor fun that makes up your typical summer camp movie are in full swing. A group of friends, led by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (sporting a full head of hair, and not looking much different than he did as George Costanza) are engaged in a protracted battle against a hotheaded thug named Glazer (Larry Joshua, who was pushing thirty at the time of filming, but looks thirty-five). Camp counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) is always around the make sure that their shenanigans don't get too out of hand. Fisher Stevens appears as Woodstock, and a very young Holly Hunter can be seen if you make sure not to blink. The slash-and-kill action kicks in when the older campers set out for a brief rafting trip....and run headfirst into Cropsy, now brandishing a pair of shiny hedge clippers.

Storywise, The Burning is fairly unremarkable. This is, for all intents and purposes, your typical madman-at-a-summer-camp slasher flick. Somewhat interestingly, though, the makers chose to skip the whodunit element that was typical of the genre. You know who the killer is from the get-go, it is only the disfigured face of Cropsy that is kept from viewers until the final moments. The lack of mystery is compensated for by the fact that the campers are better developed, a little more three-dimensional than the characters that usually populate these kinds of films. The film is also accompanied by a very effective soundtrack, courtesy of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.

The real star here, and the reason The Burning has so many admirers after all these years, is the work of legendary make-up effects man Tom Savini. Savini was knee-deep in slasher work at the time (Eyes of a Stranger, Maniac, Friday the 13th), and here he debuted several innovative techniques that would go on to become the industry standard. The film features some extremely violent murders, most notably the notorious "raft" scene, and a very good melted flesh effect for the Cropsy maniac. Savini's work gives The Burning a realistic and brutal quality that gives the film an edge over the other slasher flicks of the era.

What can you say? It's dumb fun. And apart from a horribly botched ending (which features the crummiest insert shot I have ever seen), it's a notch better than most of its competition. Whether you are nostalgic for the gory slashers of a less P.C. time, or a new fan of the genre who is tired of the PG-13 trash that litters the market, The Burning is worth revisiting.


Driftwood (2006)

Director: Tim Sullivan
Starring: Taviv Ullman, Dallas Page, Talan Torriero
Released by Image Entertainment

So you set out to make a serious dramatic film and the most remarkable thing about it is the performance of a former professional wrestler. So what do you do? If you are writer/director Tim Sullivan, you can either begin work on a horror/action/comedy starring vehicle for DDP, or you can try to follow one of the golden rules of low budget filmmaking: less is more.

The film begins at the Driftwood Reformatory, "Where Boys Become Men", and David Forrester (Taviv Ullman) is the newest pole on the block. He's a good kid and really doesn't belong at the hard-assed attitude adjustment camp - his well-meaning parents are concerned that David has become death-obsessed after the passing of his older brother. It's for his own good, they reason, and for 50 grand a year, Driftwood must be the best place for their troubled, but much loved son. After meeting his teacher, his fellow inmates, and the charismatic owner of Driftwood, Captain Kennedy ("Diamond" Dallas Page), David attempts to settle in. His situation becomes even more complicated when a strange apparition appears to David, which seems to be attempting to communicate with him. He discovers that one of the young inmates died under mysterious circumstances, something that Captain Kennedy has being working hard to keep secret. David begins poking around, and finds out that Driftwood is not what it appears to be.

The problem here is that Driftwood feels like three different movies welded into one. There is the almost campy style used early on which almost leads you to believe that the film is a tongue-in-cheek boy prison flick, there is the serious story of wayward kids being exploited by a greedy system, and then there is the supernatural story of the ghostly apparition seeking revenge. Unfortunately, the three elements don't blend well, and the film flips and flops from one aspect to another, never really managing to gel. Which is too bad, Driftwood could have worked very well as a dramatic film, sans the supernatural and comic aspects. Shockingly, it is former WCW superstar Dallas Page who manages to hold the film together. Conjuring up some sort of hybrid of Foghorn Leghorn and, well, "Diamond" Dallas Page, he manages to generate enough charisma and screen presence to keep your attention. At times his persona is at odds with the more straightforward dramatic elements, but still, his performance as the retired football player/reform school tyrant is weirdly compelling.

Driftwood works more often than not, but still suffers from a mild identity crisis which keeps the film from achieving what it sets out to do. This is also a barely R-rated picture, so fans expecting another gore-fest ala Sullivan's 2001 Maniacs will likely be disappointed. Worth a watch, so long as you adjust your expectations.

Smiley Face (2007)

Director:Gregg Araki
Starring: Anna Faris, Danny Masterson, John Krasinski, Adam Brody
Running time: 88 minutes
Released by First Look Pictures

Grating. If I had to condense "Smiley Face" down to a single word, that's the word I would choose. This half-baked (hehe..get it?) attempt at creating a stoner chick flick fails miserably and quickly becomes an irritating mess that no amount of drugs could render enjoyable.

The plot  revolves around the misadventures of Jane F. (Anna Faris), a part-time actress and full-time stoner, who mistakenly eats a batch of pot-laced cupcakes belonging to her creepy roomate (That 70's Show's Danny Masterson). Realizing the terrible mistake she has made, Faris vows to replace her roomies stash, even though the electric bill is due and she has an audition to be at. She comes up with a  poorly devised plan to deal with all of her troubles simultaneously, and in wacky comedy style, ends up in even deeper trouble than she was in originally. Before it's over, she tries to sell pot to an old lady, steals the original manuscript pf the Communist Manifesto, stows away on a sausage truck, sees Carrot Top, and ends up on a ferris wheel.

Faris operates on three modes in this film: panic attack, intense confusion, and wistful euphoria. She cycles between these states through the course of "Smiley Face", sometimes hitting all three within a minutes time or less. It's exhausting - and about as far from funny as you can get. You can't blame her, though. For some reason, director Gregg Araki decided that his lead actress should spend ninety minutes of screen time acting as if she had consumed a massive amount of PCP or some equally mind-ripping chemical, rather than the fairly innocuous tray of pot cupcakes the character gobbles up at the beginning of the film.

Araki, who is known for dark, gay-oriented melodramas where he tries too hard to shock, switches to lighthearted comedy, where he tries too hard to elicit laughter. Working from a script that is about as discombobulated and scattershot as you can possibly get, Araki proves that he he can play comedy in only one style: broad. That would be okay if the film had any gags that actually worked - for the most part "Smiley Face" relies on the performance of Anna Faris and a slew of cameos to distract the viewer away from the fact that most of the jokes aren't very funny. It's shrill, tedious, very annoying, and about forty-five minutes too long. Gregg Araki proves that no matter what genre he is working in, his sensibility is only tolerable in small doses.


P2 (2007)

Director: Franck Khalfoun Starring: Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley Rated R Running time: 98 minutes Released by Summitt Entertainment

It's Christmas eve, and workoholic Heather is running late for a family get together. She waits until the last possible minute to leave her Park Avenue office building, and wouldn't you know it, her car will not start. She enlists the aid of the seemingly affable parking attendant, Thomas (Wes Bentley), to help her out of this predicament. Thomas seems to be a tad smitten with the busty Heather, and when she declines his dinner invitation, he reacts by turning into a Category 5 lunatic. Thomas seals the buildings exits and begins stalking the object of his affection. P2 didn't make much of a splash when it appeared in theaters, and I wouldn't have paid much mind to the film had it not been for the very eye-catching DVD cover art, depicting star Rachel Nichols brandishing some sort of weapon, bosom heaving furiously. I took the bait, which is a testament to power of advertising. As an added bonus, the film was masterminded by the folks who brought us Haute Tension, a film I liked in spite of an ending that felt like a massive blow-off. I was expecting a gory actioner that was simultaneously crowd pleasing and frustrating. And that is exactly what I got. Since the film sidesteps complex plotting, it relies on tension and inventive cat-and-mouse action to hold viewers interest. The problem is that aside from one well-executed scene involving an elevator and a firehose (which likely exists only as an excuse to get Rachel Nichols wet), the film doesn't strive to be particularly creative in regards to the predator and prey element, which is the meat of the film. Sure, there's one really gory murder to spice things up, and a very eye-pleasing heroine who always seems on the verge of spilling out of her dress, but it just isn't enough to keep the film from becoming tedious. That's a bad thing, because once the viewer gets bored he starts asking all of the questions the makers do not want him to ask: can stun guns really knock somebody out cold? why doesn't she pull the fire alarm? does that enormous building really only have one security guard? do her fingernails always come off that easily? Plausibilty goes out the window, and there isn't enough excitement to keep your disbelief in check. Speaking of disbelief, let's talk about the film's psycho, American Beauty's Wes Bentley. There are a lot of adjectives that come to mind when thinking of Bentley and scary, intimidating, and threatening aren't among them. Bentley is perfectly acceptable in the early stages of the film, even managing to convey a little awkward charm as the lovelorn parking lot attendant. When he goes into full-blown loony mode, it's another story altogether. He screams, he kills, he has a Rotteweiler as a companion and possesses the world's most powerful stungun - but I never once got the impression that he could not be stopped by simply finding his stash of Cure CD's and stomping then to pieces before his very eyes. 


The Hamiltons (2006)

Director: The Butcher Brothers
Starring: Samuel Child, Cory Knauf, Joseph McKelheer, Mackenzie Firgens
Rated R Running time: 86 minutes
Released by Lions Gate

The After Dark Films: Eight Film to Die For series has been a decidedly mixed-bag. There are the near-masterpieces (The Abandoned), and then there are those that are so godawful you wonder how they could have possibly gotten a release (Tooth & Nail). One film that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle is The Hamiltons, a very different take on the "killer family" genre, and one of the best films the annual horror festival has offered to date.

David Hamilton (Samuel Child) takes charge of his very dysfunctional family following the sudden death of their parents. He spends his days, and sometimes his nights, gutting animals for a meat processing plant. At home he does his best to play the father figure to his younger siblings, but is finding his new role difficult. Youngest brother Francis (Cory Knauf) mopes about in typical adolescent fashion, an always recording video camera his constant companion. Francis is quiet and non-communicative at times, but doesn't cause much trouble for his older brother. The twins are another story altogether. Wendell (Joseph McKelheer) and Darlene (Mackenzie Firgens) are the reason the family is forced to move so often. Their pastimes include very disturbing games of "Truth or Dare", constantly tormenting younger brother Francis, and kidnapping women to imprison in the family's basement. The basement is also home to Lenny, an unseen creature who is kept under lock and key. Lenny must be fed, and big brother David uses his butchering skills to oblige the growling, grunting monster. Despite David's best efforts to keep the family under the radar, the crazed twins can't resist the temptation to have some fun with one of Darlene's friends, putting the family in danger once more. Meanwhile, Francis has been taping everything. Though he insists to his siblings that it is all for a school project, he is really trying to document the family's sickness in order to expose their murderous ways.

What makes The Hamiltons different from the bulk of recent horror films was the Butcher Brother's decision to concentrate on character development rather than cheap thrills. If you stripped out all of the bloodletting, you would be left with a serious drama that focuses on a family's attempts to carry on following the loss of their parents and their home. The acting is a tad uneven at times, but the cast is convincing enough to carry the film through the occasional overly melodramatic patch. They effectively portray a group of people who sometimes do monstrous things, rather than the other way around. Child's performance as David is a standout. He is a good actor portraying a bad actor, one who is trying to put a normal face on a very abnormal situation, and has the nervous tics and uneasy manner that suggest that it is an act that can't last long. Joseph McKelheer's Wendell is appropriately sinister. The opposite of David, Wendell makes no attempts to conceal his nature and always seems to be on the verge of doing something very, very bad. McKelheer plays a heavy with ease, and could easily make a career as a film villain if he chose to go in that direction.

Lenny's identity won't be a big secret to anyone who pays even a moderate amount of attention to the early scenes, and the film gets a little too talky for its own good at times. Also, the DV photography doesn't make the The Hamiltons an attractive film to look at. This is a technical issue and not the fault of the makers. The surprising conclusion makes the film work, and is good enough to make me overlook the various flaws in the production.

In the end, The Hamiltons is an intelligent, well-crafted film that slips into the gray area between horror and drama. People seeking a horror film may be put off by the film's slow pace and accent on character, people seeking a family drama may be mortified by the films sicker aspects. That's a pity, because fans of both genres would do well to give The Hamiltons a try.


.45 (2006)

Director: Gary Lennon
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Angus MacFadyen, Stephen Dorf, Sarah Strange, Aisha Tyler
Running time: 101 min.
Released by Velocity/Thinkfilm

Milla Jovovich plays Kat, a sort of scuzzy woman who is in love with the even scuzzier "Big Al". Big Al makes his living selling pistols, toasters, and the occasional stolen car. They live in a ratty apartment, and have lots and lots of sex. But all is not well with the two lovebirds. It seems that Kat is desired by nearly every other character in the movie. Kat's lesbian friend, Vic, makes no secret of her love for Kat. The same goes for Big Al's friend, Reilly, a hood who wants to go straight. When Big Al flies into a jealous rage and beats the daylights out of Kat, the characters begin scheming on ways to get Big Al out of the picture. Oh yeah, and the domestic violence counselor assigned to the case, played by Aisha Tyler, wants Kat, too.

Rather than feel like the gritty, quirky crime drama ".45" wants to be, it plays more like a parody of one. The fault lies entirely on writer/director Gary Lennon. His characters are cartoonish and unlikeable, their dialogue is stagey and unnatural. When the big moment comes where Al assaults Kat, it is jarring for all the wrong reasons. The scene is very heavy, but in this context, it feels like it came from another film. The remainder of the movie features Kat using her feminine wiles to get rid of Al by any means necessary. I won't give away any of the details, but Lennon goes on to demonstrate that he also has no concept of building tension, and the climax is anything but climactic.

The actors do the best they can, given the quality of the writing and direction. Jovovich might be a good actress, but it's impossible to tell with material this bad. It also doesn't help that the Scottish-born MacFadyen has one of the worst "New York" accents in the history of film. At one point, a character has to explain that Big Al lived in Scotland for awhile when he was young, and not planet Neptune like his accent implies. Stephen Dorf is disposable here, as the small time crook who wants to steal Kat away from Al. The character of Reilly doesn't do anything in regards to developing the story, a shame because Dorf gives it a noble effort. His BLU e-cig commercials are a testament to his acting prowess.

There really isn't much to recommend here. Milla is always nice to look at, but the rest of the movie is kind of lame.

2 out of 5.


National Lampoon's Movie Madness (1982)

(aka National Lampoon Goes to the Movies)

Director: Henry Jaglom, Bob Giraldi
Starring: Peter Riegert, Robby Benson, Joe Spinnell, and a whole lot of regret filled celebrities
Released by MGM

"National Lampoon's Movie Madness" is the smoking gun in the case against the notion that the name "National Lampoon" is any sort of guarantee of quality. Despite a few possible exceptions, notably the first couple of "Vacation" movies, anything bearing the name should be treated with the same caution one would exercise if they were handling hazardous waste. Having suffered through a good number of these films, I feel confident in proclaiming that "Movie Madness" is very likely the worst film branded with the now-defunct magazine's name, and is a strong candidate for one of the most boring movies ever made.

The film, which is alleged to be a comedy, consists of three segments: the first is a spoof of relationship dramas starring the perennially unappealing Peter Riegert; the second a soap opera-inspired tale of a woman seeking revenge against the men who raped her with margarine (don't ask); the final story stars Robby Benson as an idealistic rookie cop, who becomes jaded after he is shot hundreds and hundreds of times. Not only is each story comprised of a single lame joke that is beaten to death almost immediately-- the direction, the acting, and the writing is about as flat and uninspired as you can possibly get. It is truly mind-boggling to think that anybody, anywhere, at anytime could possibly have found anything in this film to be even remotely entertaining, let alone funny. It is more of an endurance test than a film; at 90 minutes long, it feels more like four hours. Four very painful, very unfunny hours. I should add that the "wraparound' segments, the glue that holds the three stories together, is nothing more than a nausea-inducing Dr. John song, in which the lyrics "going to the movies" are repeated over and over and over again. Yes, it's terrible. I refuse to provide any more plot details. Suffering through this garbage once was enough. Recounting every agonizing detail is simply more than should be asked of any human being.

"Movie Madness" never received a proper theatrical release, and while I don't know the exact reasons for this, I'd like to think that somebody high on the ladder decided that the film was nearly unwatchable and wisely decided to shelve it. Years later,the studio sensed that there might be a penny to be made off of this clunker and the film was sold to cable and home video, where it continues to suck valuable time from unsuspecting viewers lives. I have to believe that studio execs are evil, for if they truly had an ounce of good in their souls this film would have been burned and the ashes launched into space back in 1982. Leaving it in a vault for it to be revived years later was a horrible decision, and one that may haunt cable television viewers for years to come.

I did my part. I suffered through this excruciatingly unfunny, mind-numbing waste of film so that you don't have to. I hope that you will believe me when I say that this film is absolutely dreadful. Avoid at all costs.


The Nun (2005)

Original title: LA MONJA

Director: Luis de la Madrid
Starring: Anita Briem, Cristina Piaget, Paulina Galvez, Lola Marceli
Released by Lions Gate

A group of teens at a Catholic boarding school are tormented by a deranged nun. When the girls accidentally kill the nun, they dump her body in a lake and vow to never speak of the incident again. No big shock when years later the ghost of the psycho nun returns to seek vengeance upon the now grown-up girls and their offspring. The cookie-cutter plot is forgivable when a movie looks as good as this one does; there was no expense spared in making THE NUN a gorgeous looking film that drips with atmosphere. Brian Yuzna's Fantastic Factory (who produced this film) have a knack for making a shoestring production look like it cost ten times what it really did. The cast is attractive and believable; a welcome alternative to the cliched batch of teenage stereotypes that litter similar Hollywood-created films. Extra points for providing a number of gory thrills, which are rare in an era that has been dominated by PG-13 rated "horror lite". It's nice to see a fright flick that doesn't shy away from the grue.

The biggest problem here is with the killer nun herself. At times the digital creation is very effective, and at other times is so phony looking that the creature is almost comical. In some scenes the nun appears to be so tiny that she could easily be swatted away without too much trouble,which is probably not the what the filmmakers intended. And when I say she is digital, she is VERY digital. It IS a real actress, but she is superimposed into the action in a very distracting way. I can't articulate it very well, but you'll know what I'm talking about when you see it. The other glaring flaw here is in the pacing. I couldn't tell if THE NUN was a rush job, if it suffered from a choppy script, or if chunks of the film were left on the editing room floor. Again, it's a problem that I am incapable of adequately describing-- the film does not flow, it limps.

THE NUN has enough good qualities working in its favor to deserve at least one viewing. Don't expect a masterpiece, though. While it is a fun monster flick, it's not hard to see where it could have been much, much better.

Hardcore (2004)

Director: Dennis Iliadis
Starring: Katarina Tsavalou, Danai Skiadi, Ioannis Papazisis
Released by Strand Releasing

"A Tale of Two Hookers", Greek-style.

The film begins in a low-rent brothel run by a sadistic pimp named Manos (Andreas Marianos)--who recruits teenage runaways from newspaper ads promising easy money. Manos is a vile character, but he seems to fairly lucky when it comes to job applicants; his stable is populated almost exclusively with people who look like they could have wandered in from a Calvin Klein underwear shoot. His latest recruit is sixteen-year-old Nadia, a clever and energetic young woman who quickly becomes the brothel's most requested hooker. Martha is quiet, introverted, and a year older than Nadia. Martha resents the new girl; Nadia is pretty and popular with the johns, and Manos treats her better than the other girls. The two women eventually form a friendship, which then becomes love. The two hope to escape their less-than-glamorous existence, and take the first step by renting an apartment together. When they are not partying with their male prostitute boyfriends (who both also work for Manos), they are busy working, in one grotesque sex sequence after another. The girls get a very ritzy, high paying gig servicing a roomful of wealthy clients--which Martha ruins when she picks the wrong moment to declare her love for Nadia.

After a very nasty confrontation with Manos, Nadia hatches a scheme involving a gun and a very improbable photoshop job which ultimately transforms the women from lowly prostitutes to media darlings. While it seems that they have realized their dream of finding a better life, the tensions that attracted the women to each other in the first place begin to resurface. Without a common foe, the women begin to turn on each other. Nadia relishes her new found fame. Martha spends her days dreaming of family life. The women cannot move forward until one submits; a realization which drives one woman to act in an extreme, if somewhat predictable, manner.

HARDCORE: Eye-candy

This is a great-looking movie that owes a major visual debt to modern music videos and American indie films. Grimy scenes of hooker life juxtapose nicely against more sensitive, almost naturalistic moments. Director Dennis Iliadis even throws in a sitcom-style dance number. But all the eye-candy in the world can't mend the film's biggest problem - it lacks substance. The film's leads are engaging and believable, but you never really connect with them, nor do you sympathize with their plight. There are beautiful scenes and there are extraordinarily ugly scenes in this film, but they do not mesh together well enough to give the film the depth that it is striving for. What we end up with is a very well-made, well-acted movie about pretty people doing ugly things that leaves you cold.

Needless to say, the film is loaded with explicit sex and violence. But what else would you expect from a movie called Hardcore?

Death Sentence (2007)

Director: James Wan
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Aisha Tyler, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
Released by 20th Century Fox

Kevin Bacon stars as Nick Hume, a mild mannered husband and father whose son is murdered by a violent street gang. When the cops and the courts fail to deliver justice, Nick decides to take matters in his own hands.

There are so many things that are horribly wrong with this movie that it is hard to find a starting point. Not only is Kevin Bacon miscast as the vengeance minded dad, he spends his screen time delivering what might be the hammiest, most unconvincing performance of his career. While Bacon gets emotion all over the place, Wan drops in some of the most unnecessary, inappropriate music cues in recent memory. Wan also shows that he likes to employ cheesy montages to flesh things out.

And the gang. Ah, the gang. Sporting designer leather jackets and mid-90's era tribal tattoos on their heads, they would be more at home at a Slipknot concert than a gritty action film. The gang seem to live in a huge warehouse with lots of multicolored lights and a drug lab that looks like they borrowed it from Dr. Frankenstein. Where Wan might find these guys to be scary, I found them somewhat less frightening than the gang from the "Beat It" video. After Bacon kills one of their members, they hold an impromptu wake where one of them bellows, "He was a good boy!" in his best Shakespeare in the Park voice. John Goodman, probably now filled with regret, plays the father of the gang's leader. He speaks with a weird accent and chews up scenery. I like John Goodman and I hope he wasn't blackmailed into acting in this abortion. He deserves much better than this.

The cops are around, but they do next to nothing, even when the gang cuts the throats of two officers guarding Nick's house. Aisha Tyler, as the detective assigned the case, wanders around delivering one stupid line after another. She could have easily been replaced by a coat rack and no one would have noticed. There is a hospital scene near the end of the second act which features Bacon and Tyler in a tour de force of shitty acting, combined with even shittier dialogue, that culminates with Bacon escaping through a window. I wanted to run away, too.

The final act turns into a bloodbath that blatantly rips off several infinitely superior films, most notably ROBOCOP and TAXI DRIVER. There is even a montage where Bacon shaves his head and loads guns. To make matters worse, Wan slips in a "deep" final confrontation between Bacon and the gang's leader that, presumably, exists in order to instill a philosophical tone to the film. It did cause me to ask questions, mainly about James Wan's filmmaking career and why he actually has one.

This is a truly stupid and ridiculous movie that fails at capturing the gritty revenge flick vibe Wan was attempting. Skip this and watch any of the DEATH WISH movies, instead.

Tooth & Nail (2007)

Director: Mark Young
Starring: Rachel Miner, Vinnie Jones, Rider Strong, Michael Madsen
Released by Lions gate

Because the world runs out of gas, a bunch of guys dressed up like the pro wrestlers become cannibals. Elsewhere, a group of people (who may be some of the dumbest characters ever created) decide to start a new civilization in, of all places, an abandoned hospital. This should have been a warning to stop watching TOOTH & NAIL right there and then, but being the trooper that I am, I forged on.

Live and learn, I guess.

The dimwitted survivors are led by Robert Carradine, who spends his brief moments in the film giving really bad advice and making out with a girl less than half his age. Michael Kelly, from the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, is the resident jerk (and the only character in this film with any common sense) who tries to talk the others into helping him barricade the hospital. Nobody agrees with him, despite the fact that it is well-known that there are bloodthirsty cannibals roaming the streets. He also doesn't trust the girl they find in an alley (Rachel Miner), the apparent survivor of a wrestler/cannibal attack. He wisely decides to ditch these morons to better his chances at survival. Later that night, Carradine is killed, his body dragged away. Despite the fact that it's pretty well-established that THERE ARE KILLERS ON THE LOOSE, the group spends a little time accusing each other of the crime. Their next move made me wonder if the film had suddenly turned into a comedy; they elect the girl from the alley, whom nobody knows, to become the new boss of their little group. Since this film makes no attempts at being suspenseful or scary, I'm not giving anything away by saying that their newly elected leader is also the leader of the cannibals.

In a merciful world, the cannibals would have eaten everyone on sight seconds after this impromptu election. But no, this stinker just keeps on going. People start getting picked off one by one in scenes completely devoid of tension or excitement. The film's sole survivor decides that, after all of her friends have been killed, now is the time to deal with these crazies. She picks up a weapon and puts on some KISS make-up, and proceeds to wipeout the cannibal wrestlers. Vinnie Jones shows up in the final scene, so that he could laugh maniacally while starting directly into the camera.

The End.

This film is a career low for several notable actors, including Vinnie Jones, Rachel Miner, Michael Kelly, and Robert Carradine. But the worst offender here is Michael Madsen, who shares an executive producer credit. Madsen, as one of the cannibal/wrestlers, channels the same character he plays in virtually every other movie. He walks around whistling "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and squints a lot. Between this and HELL RIDE, he's working pretty hard at killing his career.

If what I described doesn't sound silly enough, I should add that most of the characters are named after cars (Ford, Torino, Yukon, Viper etc.) and the cannibals frequently say things like, "I am going to eat you" and "I'm going to suck on your bones." I guess writer/director Mark Young didn't want us to forget that they were cannibals.


Rx (2005)

Director: Ariel Vromen
Starring: Eric Balfour, Colin Hanks, Lauren German
Released by Universal Studios

If you've paid any attention to movies over, say, the last 30 years or so, you probably know that you would have to be nuts to smuggle drugs across any countries border. That is exactly what Andrew (Eric Balfour) attempts to do in Rx, a melodramatic road movie from Israel-born director Ariel Vromen.

Andrew and his best friend, good natured party animal Jonny (Colin Hanks), plan to take a trip to Mexico to score some prescription drugs. Jonny wants the drugs for fun, while Andrew wants them for profit. After Jonny spills the beans about their trip to Andrew's wealthy girlfriend Melissa (Lauren German), Andrew reluctantly invites her along for the ride. Before you can say MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, the situation turns sour. Andrew must figure out a way to get out of danger, and to find a way home.

If it were not for the solid performances from the films leads, Rx would fall completely apart. The character of Andrew is hard to sympathize with. Not only is he somewhat deceitful with his best friend and his girlfriend, he doesn't seem to have a great deal of common sense. From the beginning of the film, Andrew makes one incredibly dumb decision after another, motivated by some vague student loan and family issues. Anyhow, if Balfour didn't have such a likeable screen presence, you would probably despise the character of Andrew, a not-so-bright person who deliberately puts his friends in danger. Hanks and German are fine in their roles, as the people who would do anything for Andrew, whether he deserves it or not.

Andrew is not the only poorly drawn character in the film; the pair of flamboyantly gay German drug dealers are pretty hard to take. Keeping in line with Hollywood's need to depict all Germans as either sexual deviants, Nazis, or buffoons, the screenwriters decided to cover all three bases. At first, the duo are presented as comical foreigners who prance around in short shorts and make passes at Andrew; later on they are transformed into snarling thugs hellbent on making mincemeat of the film's not-so-bright hero. That's one hell of an arc, and one they don't make successfully. One more minor quibble is that Andrew's grasp of the Spanish language seems to come and go. At times he speaks fluently, at other times he is incapable of comprehending even 9th grade level Spanish. Not a big problem, but a problem all the same.

In spite of the ill-conceived characters and predictable plot, I enjoyed Rx. The credit belongs entirely to the three lead actors, whose performances manage to keep the film from becoming your average, run-of-the-mill drug/road movie. Worth watching for a little mindless entertainment, not for creative smuggling solutions.

Barn of the Naked Dead (1974)

aka "Nightmare Circus"

Director: Alan Rudolph
Starring: Andrew Prine, Manuela Theiss, Sherry Alberoni, Gyl Roland
Released by Legend House

Well, let's just go ahead and address the first problem: false advertising. There is a barn (though it is more of a ranch), but there really isn't much nudity (certainly not enough to include the word "naked" in the title) , and there aren't that many dead people. All of the corpses are also fully clothed, so that's a double violation of the fair advertising rules. Now that I've run off a good portion of this film's potential audience, I will do my best to review BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD for the two or three of you that have decided to stick around.

Three showgirls en route to Las Vegas experience car trouble in the middle of the desert. Being predictably ignorant of basic auto mechanics, not to mention the fact that the film takes place in the time before cell phones, they are forced to spend the night in their car. In the morning they are awakened by the seemingly friendly Andre (Andrew Prine), who offers to take a look at their car. While these showgirls think that Andre is a Good Samaritan who happened to come their way, we know better because Prine's first onscreen appearance depicts him watching the showgirls through his binoculars, sneering in a not-too-subtle manner. Andre says there's nothing he can do, and convinces the girls to accompany him back to his place where they can use the phone, and give the audience a chance to marvel at the big, big mistake the women are about to make.

If I told you that Prine is a circus-obsessed lunatic with mommy issues, would you believe me? Probably not, but that's what he is, and these three ladies become the latest addition to his collection of exotic animals and chained up lady slaves. When he's not talking to himself or playing with a wind-up big top toy, Prine acts as ringmaster in a circus where the slave women are forced to perform. The women are whipped, tormented with a snake and a mountain lion, and a few are killed. Unfortunately, none of this is filmed with much creativity or enthusiasm, and the film drags until the somewhat fun conclusion where Prine's mutant Daddy makes an appearance.

This was the first film directed by Alan Rudolph, who would go on to make several better, and more interesting films a few years later. Rudolph would like to forget BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD ever happened, and now disowns the movie. Just as well, because other than his name appearing on the credits, there is nothing here to indicate that Rudolph had a hand in this. Cult fave Prine is solid as usual, taking his role as Andre very, very seriously. He is actually too good for this movie, which is not the "lost gem" it is purported to be. While it may be decent Saturday afternoon viewing, it is too lifeless and inept to qualify as more than an amusing timekiller.

The best thing about this Legend House release is the "GOREBEAT" bonus feature. The always fun Johnny Legend pals around with John Landis, Fred Olen Ray, Brian Yuzna, and Ray Dennis Steckler. It's assembled in a somewhat haphazard manner, but it is a ton of fun for lovers of exploitation films, and is reason enough to give BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD a spin.