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Kiltro (2006)

Director: Ernesto Diaz Espinoza
Starring: Marko Zaror, Catarina Jadresic, Miguel Angel De Luca
Not Rated  Running time: 98 minutes
Released by Magnolia

Marko Zaror has everything it takes to become an international action megastar: he's ruggedly handsome, built like a freight train, and he's got karate moves that will make you ashamed that you ever sat through a Steven Seagal movie. It doesn't seem like KILTRO made him a household name, but it's a pretty entertaining little action/fantasy flick.

The plot is your basic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl-to-evil-karate-badass (Miguel Angel De Luca), boy-trains-to-become-unstoppable-asswhoopin'-machine-to-get-girl-back actioner. There are dyed mullets, loud clothing, wise dwarves, bad soundtrack music, and CGI-arterial sprays mixed in as well. The one thing that is sorely lacking is action scenes. There's a brief skirmish at the beginning when Zaror challenges an entire class of martial arts students,and a digital blood spraying scene near the end when our hero mows down a crowd of baddies, but little else in between. The film's primary focus is on the blossoming romance between Zaror and Catarina Jadresic, not on delivering kung fu thrills. While director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza handles these elements fairly well, it's disappointing that he didn't choose to give the viewer more of what they really want: action. More wheel-kick decapitations would have helped immensely.

The word is that the Zaror and Espinoza's next collaboration, Mirageman, is much more satisfying than Kiltro. I'm Netflixing it and should have a review up shortly.


Kemper: Co-Ed Killer (2008)

Director: Rick Bitzelberger
Starring: Christopher Stapleton, Robert Sisko, Kate Danson
Rated R  Running time: 88 minutes
Released by Lionsgate

Direct-to-video schlock producers are now scraping the bottom of the barrel for a new name brand serial killer. With Dahmer, Gacy, Gein, and Lucas already well represented, it's time for some of the more obscure homicidal maniacs to have their moment in the sun. Enter Ed Kemper, a California-based maniac best known for decapitating his mother and then having intercourse with her severed head.  If that weren't enough for you, he also used his poor mother's noggin as a dartboard.

If you're interested in finding out more gory details about the life and works of Ed Kemper, I suggest visiting Crime Library or some other "true crime" website, because Kemper: Co-Ed Killer has almost nothing to do with the real life facts of the case. Instead, the film centers around a wholly fictitious cat-and-mouse game between a cop (Christopher Stapleton) and his friend, amateur serial killer profiler Ed Kemper (Robert Sisko). Sisko looks nothing like the real Kemper, being much older and much shorter than the man he portrays. Despite being miscast, he actually turns in a decent performance -- which is much more than this mindless production deserves. Bad dialogue, ludicrous plot developments, and lifeless direction make the film pretty rough going. It has the look and feel of a late-night cable skinflick, which isn't surprising as the director also wrote such fare as Erotic Confessions and Embrace of the Vampire. Writer Jack Perez is the proud director of Wild Things 2 and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. With such an esteemed pedigree between these two, you'd think they could at least supply us with enough sex and gore to compensate for the film's numerous shortcomings. But alas, most of Kemper's nastiness occurs offscreeen.

Kate Danson, Ted's daughter, has a small role as a crime scene technician. I'm willing to bet that her Dad broke out the checkbook in order to save his daughter any future embarrassment.


Unrest (2006)

Director: Jason Todd Ipson
Starring: Corri English, Marisa Petroro, Scot Davis
Rated R Running time: 88 minutes
Released by Lionsgate/After Dark Films

In this dull, medical-themed horror outing, a group of anatomy students rile an ancient Aztec demon when they begin slicing and dicing away at one of it's 'offerings.' The invisible creature starts bumping the students off one by one, and the film's Britney Spears lookalike heroine tries to set things right before any more of her friends end up on a slab.

Unrest is full of bland characters doing uninteresting (and unlikely) things while the droning soundtrack provides an occasional KABOOM false scare moment. In other words, it's almost completely indistinguishable from most of what passes from mainstream horror these days -- right down to its wink-and-nudge-insert-sequel-here ending. The producers could have called this one Boogeyman 5 and no one would have noticed. A few gross-out autopsy moments appear intermittently, but action and gore is kept to a bare minimum.

The film was hyped as "the first film to feature real corpses" or something along those lines. Not true. As far as I know, that particular honor belongs to Poltergeist.

Nice try, though.



The Wild Man of the Navidad (2008)

Director: Justin Graves, Duane Meeks
Starring: Duane Meeks, Alex Garcia, Stacy Meeks
Not Rated Running time: 86 minutes
Released by MPI/IFC Films

Two young Austin-based filmmakers (Duane Graves and Justin Meeks) boldly proclaim their love for the hairy-creature-running-amok drive-in flicks of the early 70's in The Wild Man of the Navidad. Using Charles B. Pierce's The Legend of Boggy Creek as its primary source of inspiration (with liberal doses of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre thrown on for good measure), the film tells the supposedly true story of Dale S. Rogers -- husband, welder, and reluctant caretaker of one very hungry monster.

Living in a dilapidated farmhouse with his invalid wife and her perverted male nurse (who takes every opportunity to grope and molest the wheelchair bound woman everytime Dale is away), Rogers struggles to make ends meet. When he loses his welding gig to a sleazy co-worker who plies the boss with moonshine, Dale must figure out a new way to pay the bills. He quickly realizes that the occasional gunsmithing job isn't going to do the trick, and decides to do something that he, and the entire population of Sublime, Texas, will come to regret: open up the 600-acres of prime hunting ground that was willed to Dale after his father's death. It turns out to be a lucrative decision for the downtrodden welder, and the moonshine-swilling locals jump at the opportunity to hunt on property that has been off limits for over thirty years. Everyone is happy, except the mysterious beast-man who lives on the land. Locals start disappearing, guts start flying, and Dale comes to realize that the hulking creature he's been the reluctant guardian of is no longer content with just devouring rabbits....

With limited resources and a less-than-ideal shooting schedule, Meeks and Graves managed to create an effective tribute to the trashy, but fun, popcorn flicks of yesteryear. From the deep yellow color of the opening credits to the soundtrack's mix of country tunes and electronic squall, it's evident that the duo have spent a great deal of time soaking up the atmosphere and nuances of 70's horror cinema. It doesn't hurt that Texas Chainsaw alumn Kim Henkel was on board as co-producer and brought along several relics from the 1974 classic, including the legendary meathook. If The Wild Man of the Navidad had been shot on 16mm rather than video, it would be nearly indistinguishable from the old hicksploitation/Bigfoot movies that Graves and Meeks seem to adore.

The films has its flaws, which are primarily due to the low budget. Effects are of the things-we-got-from-the-local-slaughterhouse variety and with the exception of co-director Meeks as Dale Jones, the cast is made up non-actor locals. At first the use of amateur thespians is amusing, but becomes seriously grating towards the film's conclusion. Of course, the more uppity, urban-dwelling viewer will probably find great amusement in watching rural folks awkwardly recite dialogue while having a camera pointed at them -- everyone else will find it off-putting.

I can't trash this movie because of the budget. The energy, ingenuity, and honest-to-God passion for on display here negate issues caused by a lack of resources (see also Cavite). The film has received an overwhelmingly positive response from both viewers and critics, and should lead to bigger projects for Meeks and Graves. I, for one, look forward to their next creation. In the meantime, horror fans and wannabe auteurs should look to The Wild Man of the Navidad to see what can be done with a shoestring budget and a lot of heart.


The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi (2009)

Director: October Kingsley
Starring: October Kingsley, Faye Dunaway
Rated R Running time: 96 minutes
Released by Troma

The old psychologist-might-be-catching-some-of-her-patient's-crazy theme gets a hipster makeover in The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi. Writer/director/producer October Kingsley stars as the titular shrink who administers psychiatric care to a smorgasbord of cartoonish nutjobs while wearing heavy makeup and fishnet stockings. While she maintains a conservative, professional demeanor during the day, her nights are full of partying and kinky sex with various partners. This juggling act begins to take its toll on the doc, and weird visions and experiences, which may or may not be real, begin to interfere with her life. It's when a detective (Faye Dunaway) shows up at Fugazzi's office that we begin to unravel the secrets of the doctor's past, and head towards a conclusion you'll see coming from a mile away.

Kingsley has a few interesting ideas in regards to production design, but the mixture of amateurishness and pretension makes The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi pretty tough going. All the arty camera angles and color schemes in the world can't hide the bad acting, derivative story, and obnoxious characters. It's also surprisingly chaste for a film that is being marketed as some kind of twisted psycho-sexual thriller. Scenes contrived to provide shock value, such as highly publicized broomstick rape sequence, are too poorly executed to elicit much of a response out of the viewer. In fact, it's nearly impossible to tell when Kingsley is being serious and when she is being silly, rendering the entire film a confusing, tedious mess. The only bright spot here is the performance of Faye Dunaway, who goes on to prove that she is a true professional by delivering a solid performance in a movie that is way, way beneath her considerable talents. Dunaway's fans may want to check this one out, but should be forewarned that they are likely to suffer from overwhelming sympathy pains. Everyone else would do well to avoid it.

More memorable than the film itself were the misguided attempts to promote it on various internet message boards. Glowing reviews, which seem to have been written by the same one or two people, appeared before anyone had actually seen the movie. Anyone questioning these reviewers, or even offering a differing opinion, were attacked mercilessly by the film's "fans." The speculation was that these reviewers were plants, and may have been someone from Shoreline Entertainment, or perhaps even Kingsley herself. I don't know whether this is true or not, but it should serve as a lesson to any filmmakers even considering using similar tactics to promote their work.

Don't do it.


Ninja Cheerleaders (2008)

Director: David Presley
Starring: Trishelle Canatella, Ginny Weirick, Maitland McConnell, George Takei, Michael Pare, Natasha Chang
Rated R Running time: 93 minutes
Released by Peace Arch Entertainment

Obnoxious direct-to-video stinker that isn't nearly as cute or clever as it thinks it is. Three junior college cheerleaders who moonlight as strippers and cheerleaders spring into action when their boss/sensei (George Takei) is kidnapped by a mobster (Michael Pare). Lame jokes, fully clothed strip club sequences, and action scenes that make Gymkata look like Five Fingers of Death follow. George Takei seems to have some fun with the handful of scenes he is in, while Pare appears to be wondering just where the hell did his career go so wrong. It seems nearly impossible to believe that a film about cheerleader/ninja/strippers could actually suck, but Ninja Cheerleaders has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Not funny enough to work as a comedy, too ridiculous and poorly executed to work as an action flick, and way too tasteful to deliver in the sex and violence department. In fact, it appears that someone decided to insert some very silly "booby" shots as scene transitions because they sensed that Ninja Cheerleaders needed something, anything, to break the monotony.

I'm going to do the readers a big favor and post a couple of the film's cheesecake shots in order to satisfy your prurient desires and keep you from renting this lifeblood sucking bore.


You're welcome.


Unhinged (1982)

Director: Don Gronquist
Starring: Laurel Munson, Janet Penner, Sara Ansley, Barbara Lusch
Unrated Running time: 79 minutes
Released by Brentwood/BCI

In a way, getting added to the "video nasty" list was probably the best thing that could have happened to Don Gronquist's 1982 slasher, Unhinged. When the British Board of Film Classification decided that Unhinged -- along with 74 other films -- was simply too offensive for the doe-eyed people of the UK to view, all copies of the film were pulled from shelves; prohibited by law from being rented or sold. Though they probably didn't mean to, the BBFC gave the ultra-cheap, Oregon-lensed shocker something that money couldn't buy, infamy. Now, over a quarter of a century later, Unhinged is still being discussed all because of the notorious reputation given to it by the prudes at the BBFC -- a reputation that the film doesn't really deserve.

Three college girls are on their way to a rock concert when they get lost and end up wrecking their car. They seek refuge in an old mansion inhabited by a mother and daughter who seem to have a very bizarre relationship. As per the formula, it's difficult to leave the house, as the phone doesn't work, their car is undriveable, and there isn't another neighbor for miles. In fact, it seems that Marion Penrose (Janet Penner) and her mean old mother don't want the girls to leave. A bad situation is made even worse when it appears that someone is stalking the property, who may or may not be the killer who has murdered dozens of girls in the area. The girls start getting bumped off, until only one is left to discover the Penrose family secret -- and it's a doozy.

Unoriginality aside, the biggest problem here is the apparent lack of enthusiasm on either side of the camera. The acting is generally terrible -- unlikely dialogue is delivered in a half-assed manner reminiscent of a porn feature. A few interesting ideas are presented (the twisted relationship between the domineering mother and her spinster daughter, the psychosexual motivations of the killer), but director Gronquist seems more interested in following the tried and true slasher formula than in allowing these themes to develop. Unhinged does have its moments, however. Gronquist seems to have a flair for filming kill scenes (though they are few and far between) and has no problems with throwing a little gratuitous T&A into the mix. Gronquist also makes the most of the film's setting -- and isolated mansion in deep in the Oregon forests -- helping to add an appropriately dreary atmosphere to the proceedings. Just try to ignore the animated lightning storms that seem to occur every night. The film's grand finale features its most gruesome set piece, and blindsides viewers with an effective twist ending that almost elevates Unhinged from generic slasher to minor classic.


I also must mention the movie's score -- an "only in the 80's" synth-driven blend of electronic noise and classical motifs that enhances the film's trashy vibe. Unhinged is too uneven to rate as much more than an occasionally interesting regional flick that is crippled by its "video nasty" reputation. Slasher fans will likely hate the film for not living up to the hype. Too bad, because Unhinged is certainly not as terrible as many critics have claimed.

Brentwood has done a good job of presenting Unhinged on DVD, which is surprising considering the company's fast-and-cheap sensibilities. The film looks and sounds about as good as it ever has, and features gory cover art which, in true exploitation fashion, boldly proclaims that Unhinged "outsold Poltergeist before banned." Extras include a clip from an Oregon talk show where actress Penner and a very nervous Gronquist discuss the movie's production. The other feature could be the worst commentary track ever recorded. Purported to be a "comedy commentary", it's a feature length idiot fest featuring a group called "The Detractors" -- a group of movie critics and writers who have no connection to the film whatsoever. They offer no insight into the film or its making, and none of them seem to have an appreciation for low budget horror. The entire track consists of lame jokes and mindless chatter that approximates the experience of watching Unhinged in a frat house. I can only hope this was a ploy on the part of Brentwood to offer a commentary track so awful that it makes the actual film seem like a masterpiece. Otherwise, it's tremendously disrespectful. Unhinged may not be a lost classic, but it certainly deserves better than that.


Candy Von Dewd and the Girls from Latexploitia (2002)

Director: Jacques Boyreau
Starring: Kate Birrell, Jacques Boyreau, Pandemonium
Unrated Running time: 55 minutes
Released by Alpha Video

The plot: a haggard crew of male space explorers, whose testicles are shrinking more and more each moment, travel the galaxy in search of fertile women to spawn with in order to save the human race. They land on a planet they believe to be rife with breedable lasses, and get more than they bargained for. It's loaded with babes, alright -- but the horny spacemen find themselves smack in the middle of a turf war between two warring factions of hotties. Their only hope is to call upon Candy Von Dewd, a voluptuous superheroine who spends much of her screeentime writhing around in painfully tight latex outfits.

The plot of Candy Von Dewd and the Girls of Latexploitia of no importance whatsoever. This isn't as much a movie as it is like a sci-fi/fetish themed party that most of us will never be cool enough to get invited to. And a pretty wild party it is -- full of gorgeous women dancing, play fighting, and posing in latex outfits, while psychedelic visuals do their best to put the viewer into a trance state. It's an impressive production that looks like what you'd get if a box full of radioactive sex toys exploded in an LSD laboratory. There's too much humor for the film to become pretentious, and at 55 minutes it's too short to become tedious. It's not for all tastes, but for anyone who likes the idea of "Girls Gone Wild in Outer Space", Candy Von Dewd and the Girls of Latexploitia might be right up your alley. And besides, who doesn't want to see ladies in skimpy latex outfits cavorting around a basement set full of fireworks and glow-in-the-dark props? Nobody, that's who!

Don't think, just go with it.








Dirty Little Billy (1972)

Director: Stan Dragoti
Starring: Michael J. Pollard, Lee Purcell, Richard Evans, Charles Aidman
Rated R Running time: 93 minutes
No DVD release at this time

Young William Bonney (Michael J. Pollard) steps off a train from New York City and sees a wasteland: Coffeyville, Kansas. Streets of mud and flat, barren land stretching as far as the eye can see. With an epidemic threatening to wipe out their closest neighbors, Coffeyville hopes that an influx of refugees will give their little town an economic boost so they can afford their very own Sheriff, a mayor, and all the things a legitimate town ought to have. Billy's family have come here to carve out a meaningful existence as farmers, which couldn't be a more alien way of life for the shiftless young man. He doesn't know how to hunt, he doesn't know how to fish, and his first attempt at working a plow ends with him being dragged face first across a field. What Billy is good at are the kind of things that decent, respectable people frown upon: cards and petty theft. Billy is miserable with life in this new place, and his stepfather tells him that if he doesn't like it, he is free to leave. So Billy obliges, and ends up crossing paths with a slightly unhinged outlaw named Goldie (Richard Evans). Goldie has taken over a local saloon, for no other reason than the fact that he's got a gun and he's not afraid to use it. Everyone in town is terrified of Goldie, but not Billy. The gun, the utter disregard for law and order, and the power that Goldie possesses over the townsfolk mesmerizes the young thief, and Billy goes to great lengths to work his way into Goldie's world. Goldie seems to like the idea of having someone around that looks up to him, and begins teaching Billy the ways of outlaw existence. Goldie's woman, an attractive prostitute named Berle (Lee Purcell), isn't happy about this arrangement, but rather than receive a smacking around from Goldie, she keeps her protestations to a minimum. She eventually warms to the young thief, and a ragged little family is born. However, the bandit lifestyle has its downsides, and it isn't long before a deadly situation arises that transforms William Bonney into the larger than life figure known as "Billy the Kid."

Western purists will likely shake their heads in disgust over the film's portrayal of the legendary outlaw. Billy the Kid has been portrayed in many different ways -- sociopathic killer, misguided and misunderstood teenage bandit, and even as a Robin Hood-style figure possessing a warped sense of decency. In Dragoti's film, the tag line sums it up perfectly -- "Billy the Kid was a punk". A sniveling, scheming, smartass kid with a chip on his shoulder and a hatred for anything resembling honest work, this Billy is light years away from what audiences were accustomed to seeing. It's an oddly appropriate starring vehicle for Michael J. Pollard whose performance is very . . . well . . . Michael J. Pollardesque. Pollard's unconventional appearance and quirky mannerisms will likely be off-putting to folks more accustomed to the old uber-macho Western stereotypes, but here he is perfectly matched to material which re-imagines history and injects it with a heavy dose of bawdy humor. The rest of the cast is loaded with soon-to-be stars (Gary Busey, an uncredited Nick Nolte. and TV staple Dick Van Patten), and a virtual who's who of veteran character actors (Charles Aidman, Willard Sage, Ed Lauter, Mills Watson, and many others). I could have sworn that I spotted Brion James in a few scenes, but he was not credited and it was impossible to tell for certain given the murky quality of the bootleg I viewed. As bad as the picture quality was, Ralph Woolsey's cinematography still manages to be quite impressive -- perfectly capturing a dirty, violent place full of dirty, violent people. It's hard to believe that this film was directed by Stan Dragoti, whose other films include Necessary Roughness and She's Out of Control. I think it's fair to say that Dirty Little Billy is far and away his best work.

Not a masterpiece, but an interesting and engaging slice of 70's cinema. Can someone please tell me why this is not on DVD?


The Tracey Fragments (2007)

Director: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Ellen Page, Ari Cohen, Erin McMurtry
Rated R Running time: 77 minutes
Released by Thinkfilm

Told in its entirety using splitscreen techniques, Bruce McDonald's The Tracey Fragments is a strong contender for the title of "Most Agonizingly Pretentious Film of the Decade." Hipster star of the moment Ellen Page is Tracey Berkowitz, a mentally damaged teen who leaves her cartoonishly shitty home in order to find her missing younger brother. Along the way she suffers from your typical teenage romantic delusions, relives various high school torments, and reflects on just how badly her equally nutty parents have screwed her up. The Tracey Fragments is the kind of self-absorbed exercise you would expect from a high-strung art school queen, not a veteran filmmaker like McDonald. McDonald's films are usually challenging to the sensibilities of the more mainstream viewing audience, but this time around he tests the patience of even the most adventurous filmgoer by happily sacrificing substance for style. The aforementioned spiltscreen usage, a meandering indie rock soundtrack, lots of stagy fourth wall-breaking monologues from Page, and a non-linear storyline are just ploys to convince a hipster audience that what they are seeing is "groundbreaking" or "edgy", and to ignore the fact that there isn't an interesting story to be found here.


Death Valley (2004)

aka Mojave

Director: David Kebo, Rudi Liden
Starring: Eric Christian Olsen, Dash Mihok, Rider Strong, Vince Vieluf, Genevieve Cortese
Rated R Running time: 95 minutes
Released by Allumination

An ethnically diverse group of friends from Los Angeles venture deep into the Mojave desert to attend a secret rave. They eat mescaline, trip out, dance to obnoxious music, have emotional breakdowns, and hook up with a high school girl. Morning rolls around and the partiers decide to let the drugs wear off before they begin their long ride back to the city. We know that they're making a big mistake because we've already seen that the area is crawling with racist, meth-addicted thugs. What happens next? You got it -- they run afoul of a gang of racist, meth-addicted thugs on motorbikes. Will the dainty city slickers be able to get in touch with their more primitive side in order to defeat the bloodthirsty desert rats?

You betcha.

Death Valley
is a bland mishmash of The Hills Have Eyes (sans radioactive mutants) and Deliverance (sans intelligent screenwriting and masterful performances), with a little Wolf Creek (sans the nihilistic tone) thrown in for good measure. The film takes itself very seriously -- so seriously that it refuses to be any fun at all. We spend the first half of the film getting into the characters minds and learning about their problems, presumably to make us care about them when they run into the dirtbike riding maniacs in the second half. While Eric Christian Olsen is sympathetic as the film's reluctant hero and Rider Strong is excellent as the weasley rich kid out to save his own skin, it doesn't really work, as all attempts at creating emotional depth go out the window as soon as the film's villains appear. For all of their raping and pillaging, the gang comes off as slightly less threatening than the Sweathogs from "Welcome Back, Kotter." They mug for the camera, they giggle, they make wonky faces in the background while their leader (Dash Mihok) listlessly delivers motivational speeches about their loyalty to each other. What you end up with is a movie with the different personalities; one is a melodramatic tale of twentysomethings trying to discover who they really are, the other is a disposable action/revenge thriller with laughable villains and underwhelming thrills. Directors Kebo and Liden get points for trying to make something a little deeper than your average low budget revenge thriller, but the two sides simply don't mesh the way they would have liked. When the end comes, we should be reveling in non-stop carnage as the murderous punks are sliced and diced in a variety of crowd pleasing ways. Unfortunately, it all ends with a loud blah, with the thugs getting their comeuppance in the usual predictable ways. This is where a bucketload of ultra-violence could have salvaged the film, but the makers chose to play it safe. It's a serious movie, remember?

You've seen this all before. There really isn't anything that makes Death Valley stand out amongst its peers in the "survival horror" genre. It's not nasty enough, exciting enough, or interesting enough to recommend. The best thing I can say about it is that it's not awful. It's fine for watching on cable on a lazy day when you wish to shut off your brain, but plunk down any money for it.


...Around (2008)

Director: David Spaltro
Starring: Rob Evans, Molly Ryman, Ron Brice, Marcel Torres
Unrated Running time: 104 minutes
No DVD release yet -- currently appearing at various festivals

My heart goes out to David Spaltro. He probably had no idea that the gravy days of cheap credit and easy money were drawing to an end, just as he was maxing out 40 credit cards to finance his debut feature, ...Around. Yes -- 40 credit cards loaded to the tune of about 175,000 smackers. That's the kind of talk that gives an unrepentant cheapskate like me chest pains, but it doesn't seem to have killed Spaltro yet. If he's anything like the protagonist of ...Around, hardheaded and willing to incur stomach-churning debt in order to realize his dreams, chances are he would do it all over again -- meltdown of the usurious devil-system be damned.

Doyle Simms (Rob Evans) is a young man who has dreams of becoming a filmmaker. From a broken home and living in a crappy neighborhood, Doyle's life is utterly devoid of that mysterious "White privilege" the commies are always rattling on about. Nothing comes easy to Doyle, yet with a healthy blend of self-effacing humor and piss-and-vinegar stubbornness he finds a way to survive. When he finally makes it to the Big Bad City (NYC for the slower readers), the cold-hearted bureaucracy of the financial aid office makes his dream of attending film school a financial impossibility. He doesn't let that stop him, and he ends up living on the streets and contemplating existence with the most well-read homeless man ever captured on film (Ron Brice). Eventually Doyle finds a low-paying job in a restaurant, forms a bond with an aspiring actress hottie named Allyson (Molly Ryman), and manages to scrape up enough cash to rent an apartment. It would seem that life is finally coming together for Doyle, but the realization that he has struggled with everything except the creation of his film -- his life's primary purpose -- leaves Doyle demoralized. It doesn't help that a pretty traumatic situation develops with his emotionally unstable mother and his relationship with Allyson begins to splinter. Will Doyle be able to pull it together long enough to make his movie? Will he finally bury the hatchet with his Mom? Will he be able to keep Allyson in his life? Maybe, but it doesn't go down the way you would think.

It's a first film made on the cheap, so the expected flaws make an appearance. Nothing major, and if you are not an unlicensed movie critic like yours truly, I doubt you'll even notice. ...Around has something that many movies, especially independent movies, are sorely lacking: sincerity. Free of the girly schmaltz that often creeps into similarly themed dramas, ...Around makes you care about the characters and the situations they find themselves in because it rings true. There are no easy answers to their problems, and no happy endings for some of them. ...Around is about the struggle to live your own damn life -- a struggle that never ends, and one that not everyone can endure. Rob Evans is excellent as Doyle, delivering a natural performance that keeps the film engaging even when it loses its footing towards the final act. The missteps are only noticeable because the first thirty minutes or so are nearly perfect. The saving grace is Spaltro's sensibility as a writer/director. This film was obviously made with a great deal of love, and that passion translates well. He also manages to display an intelligence that is light years beyond many of his peers. There's no Guy Ritchie-inspired hipster nonsense, self-conscious attention-whoring camera wankery, and no transgendered, biracial political activism. Just a simple story, with real people going through real situations. And THAT, my friends, is a massive accomplishment in an era where filmmakers feel to need to be relentlessly obnoxious.

Will Spaltro make his money back? I don't know. This isn't a good time to be alive if you aren't either subsidized by or working for the government. He certainly should -- he's made a very warm-hearted little movie that delivers a lot for a small amount of money. Big time producers should take notice of Spaltro's intelligent and economical approach to filmmaking. Though he may have to dumb it down a bit for the Hollywood crowd. And that's a compliment.


Pineapple (2008)

Director: Damian Skinner
Starring: Stephen Chester Prince, Eliza Swenson, Gabriela Ostos-Tamez, Lee Tergesen, Smackola
Rated R Running time: 85 minutes
Released by Desire/Maverick

This Austin-filmed indie tells the story of Andrew (Stephen Chester Prince), a white collar dad whose world gets rocked when he catches his wife sleeping with another man. With his ego bruised and his personal life in shambles, Andrew does what beaten down men usually do in times of extreme emotional duress -- he heads down to the nearest strip club. What starts as way to lick his wounds, drink a few beers, and watch some bootyshaking turns into something else when he becomes involved with one of the club's dancers, a sexy, but deeply troubled, woman named Cristal. They begin a relationship that's full of cocaine and rough sex, and it isn't long before Andrew's "normal" life begins to suffer. At first it's as simple as having a drained bank account and a constant hangover. He eventually contracts an embarrassing case of the creepy crawlies, and his domestic situation takes a turn for the worse. Ignoring both the affections of a sexy co-worker (Gabriela Ostos-Tamez) and advice from his buddy (Lee Tergesen), Andrew slips deeper and deeper into the seedy world of strippers and drugs. Eventually, Andrew runs afoul of a drug dealer (Smackola) , his sexual relations with Cristal become more and more violent, and he ends up having to decide whether or not living the wild life is worth all the trouble.

I found myself enjoying Pineapple's weird mix of melodrama and exploitation more than I probably should have. While the film doesn't really sell the decent-man's-descent-into-Hell angle, a steady stream of strippers, gangsters (however unconvincing), and lurid plot developments made me enjoy watching Andrew's life become a slow-motion train wreck. Eliza Swenson is easy on the eyes and disrobes frequently, and Prince does a respectable job as the unstable yuppie whose life is unraveling faster than he realizes. The rest of the performances are about what you'd expect from a very low budget flick. Skinner does a good job of stretching a dollar (I would bet a chunk of the price tag went to former Oz star Lee Tergesen), and gives the production a look that is a good deal better than some of its comparably priced peers. I suspect some viewers will be led to believe that Pineapple is a straightforward skinflick after seeing the DVD cover art, which depicts Swenson in full-on stripper regalia. Pineapple features a little too much heavy drama to satisfy the raincoat crowd, but is sleazy enough to keep exploitation fans happy. Skinner deserves a pat on the back for taking a cliched story and a low budget and making it into something that is more entertaining than most of the similarly-themed "erotic thrillers" that are clogging the market. 


Invaders of the Lost Gold (1982)

aka Horror Safari

Director: Alan Birkinshaw
Starring: Stuart Whitman, Edward Purdom, Laura Gemser, Woody Strode, Glynis Barber, Harold Sakata
Rated R Running time: 83 minutes
Released by Crash Cinema

This super cheap, Philippines-lensed quickie from Dick Randall lured me in with its poster, which depicts a nude Laura Gemser (Emanuelle in America), a group of gnarled Sgt. Rock-types, a piked skull and a Japanese flag. Combine that with a title that Randall's lawyers figured Spielberg couldn't sue over, and it's not really clear just what the hell kind of movie this is. But you know it has to be awesome, right? It starts well enough, with a platoon of WWII-era Japanese soldiers battling it out with some loinclothed natives. Spears and arrows fly, heads get lopped off, and the retreating soldiers stash a crate full of gold in a cave.

The trouble begins when we zip forward to modern (well, 1982 modern) days and the action shifts to Rex Larson, played by Edward (Pieces) Purdom. Larson is trying to locate the hidden treasure that was hidden years earlier. He meets with a couple of Japanese men who, presumably, are privy to the treasure's location. I say "presumably" because logic and continuity are not among director Alan Birkinshaw's strong points. Anyhow, we establish the fact that Larson is a first class a-hole who will stop at nothing to get his hands on the treasure. One of the soldiers kills himself, Larson shoots another, but the third (Harold "Oddjob" Sakata) agrees to help Larson find the gold. Larson calls up his friend Douglas Jefferson (David De Martyn) and gets him to fund the expedition. An all-star cast is selected to take the journey: Jefferson's hot blonde daughter, Janice (Glynis Barber); tough bodyguard Cal (Woody Strode); booze soaked jungle guide, Mark Forest (Stuart Whitman), and a couple of Mark's trusted jungle companions, Fernando (Junix Nocain) & Maria (Gemser). After what seems like an eternity for all of these people to get together, they hop on a boat and away we go!

It's not clear if these people know each other or not; sometimes there seems to be a connection, sometimes there doesn't. Normally this wouldn't matter, but Invaders of the Lost Gold never comes close to duplicating the excitement of the opening scene. In other words, there isn't enough going on to distract you from the film's choopy script, sloppy direction, and non-existent continuity. Instead of splattery action, we are treated to a drawn out whodunit as each cast member is knocked off, usually by being pushed off a cliff or fed to plastic crocodiles, by a "mysterious" killer. As long as you didn't sleep through the first twenty minutes, you should be able identify the culprit. So much for suspense. There are a few highlights -- Laura Gemser's skinny dipping scene which ends in her completely unexplained death, some of the funniest and most inappropriate dubbing you'll ever hear, and a stripper-packed bar scene near the beginning. Apart from a decapitation early on, gore is almost non-existent.  The film seems like something Randall threw together with a pile of old film stock and some actors who were cheap and available. It's unfortunate that such a good cast and a great location could be squandered so badly.


Blown (2005)

Director: David C. Hayes, Bill Konig, Kevin Moyers, David Sabal
Starring: David C. Hayes, Jeff Dolniak, Kevin Moyers, Carina Lira
Not Rated Running time: 65 minutes
Released by Sub Rosa

It's becoming increasingly clear to me that there is absolutely nothing that Sub Rosa Studios will not release. The last time I picked up one of their discs, I had to struggle to find something nice to say about a barely watchable home movie (see The Curse of La Llorona). Blown is more of the same, except this time the action centers around a demonically possessed inflatable sex doll who terrorizes an apartment full of dudes throwing a bachelor party. It has it's funny bits (the shower scene and the climactic final battle between the engaged couple and the doll, in particular), but most of it falls flat. It's only an hour long, and it takes about half that time for anything to really happen. A "Masterpiece Theater"-style wraparound segment features a host who re-enacts missing scenes, watches part of Night of the Living Dead, and constantly reminds the viewer that the movie sucks. It's hard to trash a movie the bends over backwards trying to remind you that it's not supposed to be good. All I can say is that it's not even necessary - Blown speaks for itself.

Killer Pad (2008)

Director: Robert Englund
Starring: Daniel Franzese, Eric Jungman, Shane McRae, Emily Foxman
Rated R Running time: 84 minutes
Released by Lions Gate

On the film's DVD cover, just above the kind of artwork that screams "zany comedy", is a blurb announcing that Killer Pad is "From the Producers of Dude, Where's My Car?". That should tell you all you really need to know about Robert Englund's not-so-triumphant return to the filmmaking saddle. His last movie, 976-EVIL, was a Nightmare on Elm Street redux full of tepid jolts and horrible one-liners spouted by a villain that was infintely more laughable than frightening. This time around, Englund forgoes all attempts to scare and tries to find yucks in a script where there are none to be found. After meeting with an Asian tranvestite mystic landlord (Mad TV's Bobby Lee), three college boys stumble into a *ahem* killer pad that turns out to be too good to be true. What's the problem you might ask? Well, the fancy, high-dollar house overlooking the Hollywood hills is located smack dab on top of a portal to hell. A Latino gardener (Hector Jimenez) tries to warn them that the place is evil, but the excessively dumb trio think that he is asking for hot sauce. Funny, eh? They finally figure out their dream home's secret when their house warming bash is rudely interrupted by the appearance of a hermaphroditic devil woman (Emily Foxman) and her crew of demonic babes. Joey Lawrence shows up as himself, people start getting killed in amusing ways, and a drunken priest staves off the power of Satan by performing an impromptu sing-a-long of Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Night". Yes, it's that kind of movie.

Killer Pad knows it's dumb, and is damn proud of it. It's also grating, obnoxious, and worst of all, thoroughly unfunny. Englund should be slapped - HARD - for refusing to even try to give this useless little clunker even the smallest amount of sleaze appeal. There are tons of hot chicks in this film, but there is no nudity or sex. There are a number of crazy death scenes, but a disappointing lack of gore. Robert (Lightning Bug, Laid to Rest) Hall's make-up effects look very nice, but the digital FX look like something straight out of the Sci-Fi Channel's stock footage department. The disc features a "making of" doc that is nothing more than a commercial for the Viper Filmstream digital camera. Too bad Englund doesn't know how to light a scene or edit footage in a more coherent manner. The Viper camera is very nice indeed, but would be better employed in the hands of more competent directors. Sorry, Freddy. I liked you better when you were buried under latex.


The Curse of La Llorona (2007)

Director: Terrence Williams
Starring: Antonio Royuela, Mary Sanchex, Anne Stinnett, Elizabeth Osbourne, Cyd Shulte
Unrated Running time: 65 minutes
Released by Sub Rosa

Thoroughly awful shot-on-video horror flick that proves SubRosa will release almost anything. THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA is the third part of a trilogy based on the “Crying Woman” tale of Mexican folklore. This time the story centers on a family who gets more than they bargained for when they take in their emotionally disturbed niece. It seems the girl, named Hana, is being haunted by the malevolent Llorona and is set on destroying everyone around her.

Terrence Williams’s incoherent, cliche-filled script is loaded with ridiculous dialogue and puzzling story elements. For example, characters repeatedly insist the story takes place in a rural area (the next door neighbor is even said to have a farm), yet it is plain to see the film was shot in a relatively normal looking suburban neighborhood. At another point, Hana’s uncle finds a half-eaten brain in the garage. His reaction? Throw it in the garbage can and act as if nothing happened. There’s also a creepy doll involved that makes my head hurt to think about, so I will let you investigate that element on your own.

This is a badly made movie with lousy special effects and a story built on characters saying and doing stupid things. The actors, to their credit do as best as they can, but cannot possibly overcome the sheer incompetence in the writing and direction.

Williams is prolific, if nothing else. He’s churned out a half-dozen movies over the span of three years. At a glance, the quality of them seems to be at the same level as THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA. His last film, HORNO, was released in 2009. I don’t know if Williams has given up filmmaking or not, but if he keeps it up he could become a modern day Jerry Warren.


King of the Ants (2003)

Director: Stuart Gordon
Starring: Chris McKenna, George Wendt, Kari Wuhrer, Daniel Baldwin, Vernon Wells
Rated R Running time: 102 minutes
Released by First Look/The Asylum

As uneven a film as Stuart Gordon's King of the Ants shapes up to be, it makes for a logical transition from the black-humored horror films he became known for (From Beyond, Re-Animator, Dagon) to the dark fables he has been turning out in recent years (Edmond, Stuck). Adapted for the screen by Charlie Higson (from his novel of the same name), the film tells the story of aimless young house painter Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna). Shuffling through life with no ambition, no car, and no money, Sean thinks that things may be about to get better when he meets a shady electrician named Duke Wayne (a very good George Wendt, playing against type). Duke thinks that Sean might be just the guy to perform a little job for Duke's friend, Ray, a mobbed-up contractor played by Daniel Baldwin. It seems there is a tenacious city accountant (an uncredited Ron Livingston) who knows a little too much about Duke and Ray's not-very-legal business dealings. Sean is asked to tail the accountant and play amateur private detective. Which he does - poorly. Then one night, a very drunk Ray asks Sean if he'd be willing to go a step further and kill the nosy accountant. Sean agrees, but only if he is paid the paltry sum of 13 grand. When Sean does the deed, it is genuinely shocking - not because of the level of brutality on display, but because Gordon leaves his trademark black humor at the door. The violence in King of the Ants goes for agonizing realism, and the accountant's painfully slow death is pretty hard to watch.

Being the sleaze they are, Ray and Duke have no intentions of paying Sean for the murder. When Sean reveals that he swiped an incriminating file from the dead man's briefcase and tries to force the pair into paying him, Sean is whisked off to Ray's secluded desert home. not wishing to kill Sean, Ray decides to do something even worse -- make him forget. For several days Ray and his band of thugs (including the Road Warrior's Vernon Wells) take turns bashing Sean's head with a golf club. Beaten to a pulp and suffering from startling hallucinations, Sean appears to have his mind sufficiently scrambled enough for Duke to untie him. A bloody melee ensues, Sean escapes, licks his wounds, and plots his revenge.

The film stumbles badly when Sean becomes romantically involved with the dead accountant's wife (Kari Wuhrer). This diversion doesn't make a whole lot of sense (to me, anyway) and slows down with had been a pretty tightly wound neo-noir outing. I will admit that Kari Wuhrer's frequent nudity did help me overlook this blunder, however. No matter what genre he's working in, Gordon knows how to keep a viewers interest. Once the film regains its composure in the final reel, Sean has gone through one of the weirdest character arcs in recent film history. Filmed with handheld cameras and abundant natural light, King of the Ants is drastically different from Gordon's previous films. Retaining the same dark sophistication that has marked his best work, Gordon uses the template of a revenge thriller, loads it up with an unusual amount of characterization, and throws in a few dashes of horrific surrealism for good measure. The result is a wildly uneven, extremely brutal, and compulsively watchable mishmash of old Gordon and new Gordon. Highly recommended for those with strong stomachs. Where else are you going to see killer Norm?


In a Glass Cage (1987)

Director: Agusti Villaronga
Starring: Gunter Meisner, David Sust, Marisa Paredes, Gisele Ecchevaria
Unrated Running time: 108 minutes.
Released by Cult Epics

The "glass cage" of the film's title refers to the archaic iron lung which has become the home within a home for ex-Nazi Klaus. Before his spine was broken in a fall, Klaus was a doctor who got his rocks off by raping and torturing little boys. Now in exile and living only with the aid of the massive breathing apparatus, Klaus spends his days staring at his reflection in a mirror mounted near his chin. Bathing, shaving, and feeding is done with the help of Klaus' steely-eyed wife Griselda (Marisa Pariedes), who secretly wishes that her husband would hurry up and die, already. Griselda doesn't seem to have much warmth in her soul - not for her crippled husband, and not even for their young daughter, Rena (Gisele Echevarria). She's still protective of them, however, and springs into action when a mysterious young man barges into their home and locks himself in Klaus' room. When the man finally unlocks the door, he tells Griselda his name is Angelo (David Sust) and he is a nurse who has arrived to care for the incapacitated Nazi. Griselda demands that the young man leave, but relents when Klaus insists that he should stay. You get the impression that Griselda has some knowledge of her husband's proclivities, and assumes that this must be the reason why Klaus' would want the handsome stranger to be his constant companion. But she is wrong. In the days that follow, it becomes more and more evident that Angelo doesn't know a thing about nursing. He does, however, know a lot about Klaus, courtesy of the scrapbook the Nazi left at the scene of one of his crimes. Things get very, very nasty when we discover that Angelo is not interested in revenge - he is actually a fan of Klaus' work.

Nazism is fairly irrelevant to the story in IN A GLASS CAGE, and seems to be an easy way for writer/director Agusti Villaronga to establish the fact that Klaus is supposed to one very bad dude. Being a child molesting killer alone doesn't always guarantee that audiences will be revolted by the character's onscreen shenanigans (see Freddy Krueger), so the Nazi aspect is a good way to make sure that audiences know that they should be mortified. It's also unlikely that being a child molesting dairy farmer, or a child molesting insurance salesman would provoke as strong a reaction. IN A GLASS CAGE is more concerned with the universalism of human evil, and the way that it tends to perpetrate itself until someone finally puts an end to it, than it is about studying any political philosophies. Considering the material, it's not as explicit you would think it would be, but still features no small amount of stomach-turning moments. There is a scene where Angelo disrobes and gives Klaus a taste (sorry) of what is to come (sorry, again) that sends that "Ick meter" past the red line. No movie that features child rape and torture is going to be a walk in the park, yet IN A GLASS CAGE finds a way to be very distressing without showing too much.

The acting, photography, and production values are far better than any movie about a pair of lunatics who prey on children deserves to be. Villaronga only slips when he tries to hammer the aforementioned theme about human evil a little too hard into viewer's noggins. The film allows the tension to build steadily in the first half, but by the second half the film turns into a more straightforward thriller, and Villaronga resorts to a few overly arty shots and a heavy-handed attempts at symbolism that detract from the stark, unsettling tone that the film had achieved up to this point. Villaronga would have been better off letting the material speak for itself - IN A GLASS CAGE is heavy enough without any unnecessary artistic flourishes. It's a small criticism, though, and one that you will likely not notice since the film's action is wrapped tighter than a drum. While it may not be entirely successful as the profound meditation on human evil it obviously wants to be, IN A GLASS CAGE works flawlessly as a remorseless, stomach-churning thriller.

The Cult Epics disc has a short, but informative, interview with writer/director Agusti Villaronga as its only extra.

3 out of 5. 


Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970)

Director: Mario Bava
Starring: Brett Halsey, Charles Southwood, Marilu Tolo, Teodoro Corra
Not Rated Running time: 85 minutes
Released by Anchor Bay

As a big fan of director Mario Bava's work, I tried my hardest to come up with some nice things to say about his 1970 comedy/western Roy Colt and Winchester Jack. Even Bava fanatics describe the film as non-essential at best, an unfunny and overlong bore at the worst. You don't want to know what non-Bava fans have to say about it. As much as I'd hate to admit it, the film's detractors are mostly right.

Roy Colt (Brett Halsey) and Winchester Jack (Charles Southwood) are partners-in-crime -- when they are not beating the tar out of each other, that is. After one particularly intense knockdown dragout, they go their seperate ways; Roy takes up with a feisty Indian prostitute (Marilu Toto), while Jack stumbles into a Sheriff gig after saving a crippled banker from a nervous tic-afflicted bandit. It seems that the banker is in possession of a treasure map that leads to a hidden stash of gold - and a group of outlaws led by a holy man gone wrong known as the Reverend (Teodorra Corra) have their eyes on it. Coincidentally, so does Roy Colt. And Winchester Jack. And the feisty hooker who doesn't care what man she's with as long a he marries her and shares the wealth. The usual gunfights, fistfights, a surreal melee in a brothel, and even an intermission occur before all parties have their grand standoff at the "x" on the treasure map. All of this is played for laughs that are delivered in the typical zany Italian style. The cast is up to the task, and Bava does seem to understand comedy, but all the talent in the world can't overcome the fact that the film simply isn't funny. Roy Colt and Winchester Jack is rife with the kind of low humor that might appeal to folks who laugh hysterically at sight of someone being hit in the groin while a wacky noise plays on the soundtrack.

Bava's legendary visual style is limited to the odd shot or two (a skull with daylight shining through its eye socket, Roy and the prostitute walking through a foggy, reedy swamp); the flat earthtones of the Wild West are not especially conducive to the Master's usual experiments with color and composition. Bava handles the film with technical competence, but can't add much life to a lackluster script that is stretched too far. There is about an hours worth of story here that is padded with too many useless action scenes and misfiring gags.

So take it or leave it. Bava devotees will be all over this one, warts and all. People with a passing interest in the Italian director would be advised to skip Roy Colt and Winchester Jack and go after Bava's next film, the excellent Twitch of the Death Nerve, instead. It's not awful, but for a Bava film it is a disappointment. About the best thing Roy Colt and Winchester has going for it is the nifty little theme song at the beginning of the film.


Gang Warz (2004)

Director: Chris McIntyre
Starring: Robert Vaughn, Coolio, Chino XL, Teresa Saldana, Pablo Patlis, Reni Santoni
Rated R Running time: 97 min.
Released by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Still scarred from the memories of Master P's Hot Boyz, I approached the similarly misspelled Gang Warz with a great deal of apprehension. The fact that the DVD comes with a free CD of cap-poppin' hip-hop jamz alone should've been reason enough to avoid this film like the probation officer. But my curiosity once again overrode my better judgment, and I was consumed with a burning desire to find out just what Robert Vaughn is doing for money these days.

Sporting orthopedic shoes and enormous glasses, Vaughn gets top billing as the hard-assed Chief Hannigan (even though the plaque on his desk says "Captain"). He's only in a couple of scenes, which is unforgivable. I mean, if Chuck Bronson could challenge belief at age 73 in Death Wish 5, why couldn't the Man from UNCLE get one last chance to employ a stunt double? Instead, the bulk of the film's action revolves around Chino XL, a rapper playing a cop. The film is basically an inner-city version of High Noon, with Marco Cruz (Pablo Patlis), a vicious gang lord and drug dealer who gets released from death row. Cruz is out for revenge against the priest who testified against him (Reni Santoni) and the cop who busted him (the aforementioned Mr. XL). The story gets more involved as they throw in a bunch of subplots involving Theresa Saldana as Cruz's mother (who is having an affair with the priest), Cruz's brother (who is having an affair with Marco's woman), and Coolio (the gangster who is trying to go legit). Coolio's dying words are, "It's all good."

Gang Warz is more like a Mexican soap opera than the gritty, urban action flick it's marketed as. Chino XL, with his skintight designer T-shirts and cornrows, is not only extraordinarily hard to buy as the principled cop in a department rife with corruption, he is a horrendous actor to boot. The rest of the cast look and act like they should be doing softcore porn for the cable channels. I'm not really sure how Saldana, Vaughn, and Santoni ended up in this clunker, but I hope they make it through these obviously hard times. Director Chris McIntyre gets a few points for attempting to make things a little more complex than your average ghetto potboiler, but loses them almost instantly for denying viewers of any kind of excitement whatsoever. A couple of weak shootouts make up the films' action, and the spicy Latina babes who appear in the film stay fully clothed. Who the hell does McIntyre think his audience is? I can tell you one thing for certain, not one of them decided to suffer through Gang Warz for it's meticulous plotting and subtle performances. We want boobs, blood, explosions, and Robert Vaughn doing karate kicks. To deny us of these simple pleasures is to relegate yourself to the cut-out bins of history.


Zombie 4: After Death (1988)

Director: Claudio Fragasso
Starring: Candice Daly, Jeff Stryker, Jim Wilson, Don Gaines
Unrated Running time: 84 minutes
Released by Shriek Show/Media Blasters

If you were ever hoping to see gay porn superstar Jeff Stryker in a *ahem* straight role, here's your chance. He plays a researcher, or something like that, in Claudio Fragasso's Zombie 4: After Death, a movie with more alternate titles than IQ points. Candice Daly plays the daughter of cancer researchers who were living and working on an island. The local witchdoctor, miffed that the scientists couldn't cure his daughter's cancer, opens the gates of Hell and unleashes the zombie hordes upon the island's inhabitants. Daly was only a child then, yet managed to avoid becoming zombie food long enough to get of the island. Now grown up, Daly teams up with a batch of the lamest mercenaries you have ever seen and returns to the crappy little zombie-infested island. Why? I don't know - I think it has something to do with a book of evil spells, and some candles and stuff.

In Zombie 4, Fragasso shows us that one does not need a coherent script, decent acting, competent effects, or any directorial skills whatsoever to make a movie. In the DVD extras, Fragasso even says that Zombie 4 is a piece of crap that was made to make a few bucks on the horror market. It's a good thing that he's honest about it, because if he tried to suggest otherwise there's good chance some disgruntled member of the DVD buying public would try to have him committed. Zombies in track suits with rags draped over their heads constitute the bulk of the film's effects, very hard-to-stomach mercenaries with machine guns that never have to be reloaded, and some of the cheesiest keyboard-driven 80's schlock music your ears will ever have to endure. This film is awful in a spectacular way, which means that there are moments which may provide some amusement. For me, most of them came from the macho man-mercenary who is constantly hitting on the group's women. A choice line: "Those are the times when it really counts in a mans life. When you discover if you've got any balls. When a man is afraid he's going to die, there's nothing he wants more than a woman by his side. And I want you."

I like his style.


Population 436 (2006)

Director: Michelle Maxwell MacLaren
Starring: Jeremy Sisto, Charlotte Sullivan, Fred Durst
Rated R Running time: 92 minutes

A census worker named Steve Kady (Jeremy Sisto) becomes stranded in a small town with a curious feature -- year after year, the population remains at 436 people. On the surface Rockwell Falls appears to be a wholesome and happy place that seems stuck in a past era.  Rather than being won over by the town's quaint charms, Kady begins noticing some odd things about the locals -- kids singing weird religious songs and people generally acting strangely. He begins to look deeper and discovers the dark secret of Rockwell Falls -- which ends being exactly what you think it is.

Well-made and competently acted, POPULATION 436 manages to function efficiently on the technical side of things, but fails miserably in the most important aspect: the story. The film is derivative to an extraordinary degree, with the biggest debt being owed to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." From there you can't start counting the marginal influences like THE WICKER MAN, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and even TWO THOUSAND MANIACS, to some degree. With almost nothing new to offer, the film is not only predictable, it's forgettable, as well.

2 out of 5.

Emanuelle in America (1977)

Director: Joe D'Amato
Starring: Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Roger Browne, Paola Senatore
Unrated Running time: 100 minutes
Released by Blue Underground

The sunglasses-and-raincoat crowd got more than they bargained for in Italian sleaze merchant Joe D'Amato's 1976 Emanuelle in America. What starts out as your usual lightweight softcore outing becomes something entirely different when the film reaches its tipping point -- a jaw-dropping scene that shows a woman satisfying a randy horse named Pedro. From there on out, hardcore insert scenes are thrown into the mix, and Emanuelle (Laura Gemser) even encounters a snuff film operation. The snuff/torture scenes are pretty rough, especially when the rest of the film is a lighthearted formulaic sexploitation vehicle for the Indonesian Black Emanuelle star. "Stylishly directed" and "Joe D'Amato" don't really go together in a sentence, but there are enough interesting camera angles and snappy edits to make you give the guy credit for trying.

There is some plot -- a bunch of nonsense about Emanuelle infiltrating a modern-day harem that has links to a kidnapping ring. Or something like that. Really, do you care? It's got wall-to-wall-nakedness, bestiality, and gore. That ought to be enough to get you to rent it. That is, *ahem* if you're into that sort of thing. All in all, it's a pretty dull affair until we get to the notorious "snuff" segment, which ends up feeling like something D'Amato threw in to give an otherwise bland skinflick a nasty edge. It worked -- over thirty years later and people are still talking about this film. It is even said to have inspired David Cronenberg to make Videodrome. Maybe it was Pedro's performance . . .

Lightning Bug (2004)

Director: Robert Hall
Starring: Brett Harrison, Laura Prepon, Ashley Laurence, Kevin Gage
Rated R Running time: 97 minutes

Being a horror film-loving teenage special effects artist sucks when you're stuck living in a crappy little Southern town. Green Groves has big dreams of moving to Hollywood and becoming an effects pro, but gets nothing but headaches from the narrow-minded townsfolk who consider his hobby to be "satanic". Nor does he get much encouragement at home, where he lives in a tiny trailer with his younger brother, his haggard mom (Ashley Laurence, HELLRAISER), and her booze-guzzling A-hole boyfriend, Earl (Kevin Gage, LAID TO REST). His life generally sucks, until one day an attractive girl rolls into town who doesn't think Green is a weirdo like everyone else in town does. Turns out that Angevin (Laura Prepon) is a bit of a social outcast herself, having trekked off to the big city and gotten involved with "those movies", if you know what I mean. So the two hang out, watch horror flicks, do all the things teenage lovebirds are supposed to do. Green gets the opportunity to strut his stuff when he lands the gig of designing the spook house for the town's Fall festivities. Everything seems great until a crew of mean old Bible-beaters, led by Angevin's mother, are determined to ruin Green's big moment, not to mention the fact that the drunken Ray's behavior grows increasingly violent. Green is hell-bent on leaving all these headaches behind, but Angevin has tasted Hollywood life before, and wants no part of it. What's a teenage FX genius to do?

Loose ends abound in Robert Hall's autobiographical coming-of-age tale, with many plot points being started and never finished. You almost get the impression that either chunks of the film were left on the cutting room floor, or that first-time director Hall bit off more than he could chew. Harrison is good as the film's lead, and Prepon does a fine job of looking sultry, but most of the other cast members are little more than the same cartoonish stereotypes of country folk that you've been seeing for years. The film takes on a pretty dark tone in the final act, which doesn't mesh well with the Afterschool Special-vibe that the first half is drenched in. Hall might be a bit deficient in focused storytelling ability, but he makes up for it with heart - - which ought to count for something in this mean old world. Lightning Bug was obviously a labor of love for the effects-guy-turned-director, and there are moments where the film affects a certain charm. In the end, though, the glaring story problems are too much for all the best intentions in the world to overcome, leaving Lightning Bug a good-natured, but uneven, first effort.

2.5 out of 5.


Nightmare Man (2006)

Director: Rolfe Kanesky
Starring: Tiffany Shepis, Blythe Mets, Luciano Szafir, Hannah Putnam
Rated R Running time: 89 minutes
Released by Lionsgate

If Tiffany Shepis weren't quite so willing to disrobe at the drop of a hat, it is questionable as to whether Nightmare Man would be watchable at all. The film is your typical Rolfe Kanefsky fluff about a woman who receives a haunted African fertility mask which causes her to be terrorized by a mysterious phantom. Her husband decides that his wife has gone plum-fuggin-crazy and tries to ship her off for a long, pleasant stay in a remote nuthatch. Like a dope, the guy lets his car run out of gas on the way to the hospital. When he treks off to find a gas station, the "Nightmare Man" arrives to attack his wife. A chase through the woods ensues, and the pair end up near a cabin where a group of people are having a weekend get together. I shouldn't have to tell you that the partiers get mixed up in this whole "Nightmare Man" business, should I?

It's hard to really hate Kanfesky's movies since it's clear that he doesn't intend for the audience to take them all that seriously. Kanefsky makes them fast and cheap with huge servings of cheese, usually throwing in handfuls of t&a and bargain basement splatter to keep things humming along. They're not necessarily good movies, but they'll fit the bill when your feeling like putting your brain on autopilot for awhile. Nightmare Man features some pretty terrible acting, laughable special effects, and apart from some scenes of Ms. Shepis shaking her booty while brandishing a crossbow, takes way too long for anything interesting to happen. Kanefsky manages to get it up a little by the final act, but by then you've probably already wandered away from the TV.

Nightmare Man is not the worst film to go out under the Eight Films To Die For line, but it's cutting it pretty close.

Addio Zio Tom (1972)

aka Goodbye, Uncle Tom

Director: Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi
Unrated Running time: 136 minutes
Released by Blue Underground

In 1966, a pair of Italian filmmakers released Africa Addio (aka Africa: Blood and Guts). Depicting the countless civil wars and incidences of tribal violence that have beset the Dark Continent since time immemorial, and full of African rituals that Western viewers found positively revolting, the documentary was a huge international hit. That success came with a price tag, and the two soon found themselves under attack from the more liberal segments of society and media who accused Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's film of being racist towards African culture. To be fair, Africa Addio, even with some very controversial "manufactured" scenes (including an incident where the two were accused of bribing some local militants to hold off on an execution until the filmmakers could set up their cameras), paints an unflattering portrait of ALL humanity - White and Black, alike. For all the indignation stirred up by Africa Addio, it is child's play when compared to the duo's next project -- which may be the only film ever produced specifically to instigate a race war.

If you believe the claims made by Jacopetti and Proseperi, Addio Zio Tom (aka Goodbye, Uncle Tom) was created with the intention of dispelling any nasty insinuations that they were nothing more than a pair of bigots out to make a buck off of society's inherent racism. The film - which operates under the premise that the filmmakers are magically transported back in time to the beginning of the slave trade in America, where they sought to document the countless horrors and injustices rendered upon the poor, innocent Black people - is about as well-intentioned as a person who puts on blackface and speaks in jive in order to relate better to their African-American neighbors.

Scenes of modern (late 60's/early 70's) America are intercut with the filmmakers' "re-creations" of various aspects of slave existence. We see ships with black people packed together like sardines, force fed a disgusting-looking gruel, and occasionally having corks shoved in their bottoms. We see them shaved, scrubbed with lye, and inspected in the same way one would inspect a farm animal. Young girls being subjected to brutal rapes at the hands of vicious, animal-like bucks (one even whinnies like a horse when he opens his mouth) for the purpose of creating bigger and better workers. We see the white man (and woman) free to indulge in whatever perverted sexual whim that might cross their diseased little minds (all white people are evil and demented in Jacopetti and Prosperi's universe). Virtually any sort of abuse, torture, or degradation you can imagine has been lovingly catalogued by the Italian "documentary" makers. After two hours of appalling scene after appalling scene, we meet a modern Black man wearing spectacles and an Afro. He reads passages from William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner" while watching carefree White people enjoy a day at the beach, blissfully unaware of their murderous pasts. The Black man fantasizes about leading a modern-day slave rebellion in which we see several suburban white folks get slashed, smashed, and bashed by militant Black men. A baby is even lifted out of its cradle and slammed headfirst into a wall. This closes the film, and presumably provides Black America with a solution for all their ills - kill the White devils.

Jacopetti and Prosperi's distortions of historical facts are as appalling as the many scenes of abuse. I will not go into a point-by-point refutation of the film's version of American "history", but I will say that it is clear that Jacopetti and Prosperi had absolutely no intentions of creating a sober, accurate portrait of the Antebellum days of the South. Addio Zio Tom is a propaganda piece, one created with the express purpose of adding fuel to the already white-hot state of American race relations in the early 70's. And to that dubious goal, the film certainly succeeds. No one watching this film will come away unaffected. All people, white or black, are certain to be filled with anger or digust, and maybe a little of both. Whether those bad feelings are directed towards each other, or towards the filmmakers, depends upon which side of the ideological fence you happen to be standing on.

All the criticisms about the filmmakers' intentions or their blatant disregard for any historical evidence which opposes their agenda will not change one very important fact about this film: it is a masterpiece. The photography and editing are incredible, creating a collage-like visual experience that, whether you like it or not, you cannot forget. Riz Ortolani's score runs through the entire film, sounding like a marching band version of Del Shannon's "Runaway", and adds a surreal note to the already provocative images presented by the filmmakers. Sometimes silly, sometimes profound, it is a catchy, upbeat contrast to the countless horrors we see onscreen. It took about a week for the damned thing to get out of my head, leaving the experience that is Addio Zio Tom lingering in my consciousness much longer than I would have liked.

What is funny is that even now, there are some people (with dubious claims to being "intellectuals") who continue to insist that Addio Zio Tom is a documentary. These people often have agendas of their own, and conveniently ignore the fact that the film is exactly what it appears to be: an irresponsible, crass exploitation film which creates the same kind of feelings in the viewer that the maker's pretend to condemn. There really isn't any other movie like this - except for maybe Cannibal Holocaust. To those who decide to hop into the time machine with Jacopetti and Prosperi, bring a strong stomach and a healthy skepticism. You're gonna need them.

You might be wondering where Jacopetti and Prosperi found so many Black people willing to spend much of their screentime stark naked and participating in a smorgasbord of humiliating activities. Why, you can thank a certain Haitian dictator who went by the name of "Papa Doc" for that. Sort of interesting that a film that claims to document that White man's enslavement of Black people, was made with the assistance of a Black man who, in a sense, had made slaves out of his own people.

5 out of 5.