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Penny Dreadful (2006)

Director: Richard Brandes
Starring: Rachel Miner, Mimi Rogers
Rated R Running time: 98 minutes
Released by Lionsgate Home Entertainment

It takes guts to make a horror film that consists of little more than 98 minutes of a frightened girl who is trapped in a car while being stalked by a killer. Penny Dreadful, one of the Eight Films to Die For, shows us that without an inventive screenplay or any interesting developments, it can end feeling like a 300 minute horror film about a frightened girl who is trapped in a car while being stalked by a killer.

Rachel Miner is Penny, a young woman who survived a gory car accident which took the lives of her parents. Her shrink, Orianna (Mimi Rogers), is convinced that Penny's crippling fear of cars (yes, cars) can be be doctored away by returning to the scene of the accident. While Rogers is trying to drive and lecture Penny at the same time, she strikes a hitchhiker who was standing in the road. Up to this point, you have no reason, aside from the new agey psychobabble she is spouting, to believe that Rogers' character is mentally challenged. But you have to wonder when, after ensuring that the everyone is OK, she offers the snaggle-toothed, gray-skinned hitcher a ride. The two women realize that this probably wasn't such a good idea after the hitchhiker offers them a bite of some kind of mystery meat that is dangling from a skewer. Sufficiently freaked out, they drop the weirdo off and try to high-tail it back to civilization. Just as you'd probably expect, the two don't get very far because the hitchhiker has slashed one of their tires. Rogers goes out for help, while Penny takes a couple of tranquilizers and nods out. When she wakes, a dead Orianna is sitting next to her, and the disabled car is now firmly wedged between two trees. So now Penny is trapped, in the thing she fears the most, by someone that she will come to fear even more.

Penny Dreadful feels like it wants to do something unique or interesting, but changes its mind at the last minute. Most of the film's action takes place inside of the wrecked car, where Miner does a excellent job of acting very, very afraid. Unfortunately, that is the only moment of originality in the script, and tedium sets in quickly once you realize that this is the same movie you have already seen a hundred times before. It's a little bit of a cheat - we spend a good chunk of the movie thinking that something will happen to tie Penny's traumatic past to the mysterious hitchhiker, or that there will be an inventive twist ending, or something, anything, to make this movie become more than a by-the-numbers slasher film. It never happens. Three characters are introduced in the second act, seemingly for no other reason than as a way for the screenwriters to appease the God of Cinematic Cliches. They supply us one one brief sex scene, and three unexciting death scenes, but do nothing to add to the story in any way. These scenes just act as padding on a film that, at 98 minutes, is already far longer than it needs to be. Between the scene where Penny realizes that she is stuck in the car, to her final confrontation with the hitchhiker, almost nothing of any importance happens. If they had chopped this film down to an hour or so, they might have had something worthwhile.

Rogers deserves a good sportsmanship award for being willing to spend much of her screen time playing dead, and Miner gives a better performance than the weak script deserves. I would only recommend Penny Dreadful to people who like to see Rachel Miner cry, or who enjoy looking at automobile upholstery.


House of Usher (2006)

Director: Hayley Cloake
Starring: Austin Nichols, Izabella Miko, Beth Grant, Danielle McCarthy
Rated R, 81 minutes

House of Usher is what happens when someone raised on a steady diet of The Hunger and Calvin Klein's "Obsession" ads decides to give Poe a makeover. That may sound like heaven for navel-gazers and hair stylists, but those seeking any sort of entertainment will likely chew their foot off trying to escape.

Jill Michaelson (Izabella Miko) receives a phone call informing her that her best friend from college, Maddy Usher (Danielle McCarthy), has died. Maddy and her brother Rick (who was Jill's lover) vanished from Jill's life years earlier, without any sort of goodbye. Jill decides to attend Maddy's funeral to pay her respects to her deceased friend, as well as to question Rick about their disappearance. Jill travels to the Usher mansion, located in some part of the country where the trees have no leaves and it is always overcast, where she is reunited with Rick (Austin Nichols). Rick tells Jill that Maddy had become stricken with a degenerative disease that has claimed several members of the Usher family - and that he himself was now suffering from it. Maddy and Rick left in order to spare Jill the pain of having to watch Maddy's painful demise. Rick persuades Jill to stick around awhile, to catch up on old times and to possibly rekindle their romance. Jill relents, even though the creepy housekeeper does everything she can to try and scare Jill off. As Rick's condition worsens, Jill becomes more and more wrapped up in his weird existence. Jill begins seeing what may or may not be Maddy's ghost, start questioning her sanity, and begins to unravel the mystery surrounding the cursed Usher family.

You have to wait until the last fifteen minutes or so to see anything that resembles "horror". To get there you must wade through an hour of tedium, broken only by patches of painful boredom. House of Usher seems determined to keep you from becoming too interested in its story or its characters. Poor story development and plot inconsistencies abound, though you will need to be awake to notice them. A repetitive soundtrack, monotonous dialogue delivered without any sort of enthusiasm, and a distinct lack of anything even remotely interesting happening makes this a very difficult film to watch. The worst part of it is that all of this nothing is filmed in the most obnoxiously pretentious manner possible. Faces half-onscreen, camera positioned to the far left of the focal point, you get the idea. All the showy camera work in the world will not alleviate the droning boredom of House of Usher. If they had spent half as much time trying to infuse some excitement into their film as they did coming up with "artistic" methods of camera placement, the film may have been watchable. Well, they didn't, so it's not.

The only moment worth noting is a completely ridiculous gag scene placed just before the credits roll. It does not fit in with the film's lifeless tone, and seems to have been added in after the fact. If this was a good film, I would say that the scene cheapened it. It is not a good film, so it is at least good for a laugh. I won't spoil it in case you should ever find yourself watching House of Usher, but I will say this: those Usher's - they get started young.

1.5 out of 5. 


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.