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25.7.14

Diary of the Dead (2007)


Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Lalonde
Rated R 95 min.

George Romero's fifth zombie film makes the disappointing LAND OF THE DEAD look a whole lot better. In DIARY OF THE DEAD, Romero reboots the series, and tells the story of a group of film students who end up documenting the onset of the zombie plague. Along the way they encounter a comic relief Amish mute, a group of pseudo-Black Panthers, and of course, hordes of the undead. 

The problem with DIARY OF THE DEAD is that Romero completely eschews the kind of characterization that made films like MARTIN and DAWN OF THE DEAD great in favor of some very heavy handed messaging about media, journalistic ethics, exploitation of human suffering, yada, yada, yada. At no point in this film did I care about any of these people, nor did I feel any sort of tension from the situations they find themselves in. It's as if Romero started to make a horror movie with a message and then forgot about the "movie" part of it.

The "found footage" approach rarely works in a movie's favor, and in this one it feels completely artificial. One character even says she decided to add ominous music to make the footage seem more frightening. This line completely destroyed what goodwill Romero had left. After enduring CGI gore, annoying characters, and half-baked social commentary, this insult to the viewer's intelligence is too much to bear.

DIARY OF THE DEAD was a real heartbreaker. I hope Romero uses what's left of his working life to make movies he wants to make, rather than be pressured into milking the zombie cow any longer. He's a brilliant filmmaker whom, I believe, has one more great movie in him.



Gangs of the Dead (2006)


aka LAST RITES

Director: Duane Stinnett
Starring: Reggie Bannister, Enrique Almieda, James C. Burns, Noel Gugliemi
Unrated 90 min.

A meteorite that crashes into Earth is the cause of a zombie outbreak in the shot-on-video GANGS OF THE DEAD. Rival gangs converge on an abandoned warehouse to do business with a grizzled old drug dealer played by Reggie Bannister (who gets splattered by a truck about ten minutes after he appears). Meanwhile, some cops are conducting a stakeout on the warehouse, waiting for the right moment to bust up the party. It doesn't take long for the zombies to start chomping on people. Once they realize that they are trapped, the gangs, the cops, and an obnoxious TV weatherman must work together to make it out alive.

I wasn't expecting much out of this one, but found it to be a pretty well done, entertaining gangster/zombie movie. Director Duane Stinnett handles the action scenes well, and there are a few very splattery gore FX. The acting is pretty spotty, but you don't watch a movie called GANGS OF THE DEAD for nuanced, naturalistic performances. My only gripe is that there were too many characters, and some of them were incredibly stupid. The film could have benefited from more zombie action, but I get the feeling there probably wasn't enough money for that.

This movie was also released under the title LAST RITES. In the UK it was titled 48 WEEKS LATER, which I find very funny. Imagine the surprise of the people who fell for it.

24.7.14

Murder in the Red Barn (1935)


Director: Milton Rosmer
Starring: Tod Slaughter, Sophie Stewart, Eric Portman, D.J. Williams
Unrated 69 minutes
Public Domain

Tod Slaughter was 49 years old when he made his film debut in Milton Rosmer's MURDER IN THE RED BARN. Slaughter, a well-traveled veteran of Victorian-era British theater, found his place in this world through his fevered portrayals of madmen, schemers, and murderers. There was no moral conflict for the Tod Slaughter villain - his characters did reprehensible things and enjoyed every minute of it. As an actor, Slaughter seemed to enjoy it, too. His performances were hammy beyond description, yet Slaughter cast a long shadow that influenced, consciously or not, every screen villian that would follow.

The official title of the movie is MARIA MARTEN, or MURDER IN THE RED BARN. Based on a real life murder case, the movie follows Corder (Slaughter), an outwardly respectable, but inwardly loathsome squire. Corder’s pompous, self-important demeanor masks his true identity: he’s a degenerate gambler who is out to swindle a fortune by marrying a wealthy old lady. The plan is put in jeopardy when Corder knocks up the town floozy, a girl named Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart). Realzing he cannot allow the truth to come out, he convinces Maria to sneak away and meet him at the Red Barn one night, telling her they are going to run away together. Naive Maria agrees. Corder kills her and buries her body. Corder then attempts to frame one of Maria’s suitors, a Gypsy named Carlos, for her murder.

A Master of Ceremonies introduces the cast members at the beginning of the film, kicking off what is essentially a filmed play for most of its running time. That is, until one terrific scene appears during the second act. The camera is placed as if lying in a grave, while a cackling Slaughter throws dirt in our faces. It's a great and surprising moment that happens at just the right time. From this point on, Slaughter's diabolic plan begins to unravel, and he slowly starts going mad. Well, madder, is probably a better word.

The cast is mostly seasoned theater veterans, and all are perfectly fine in their roles. However, Tod Slaughter absolutely steamrolls over every other actor on the screen. It was here where he created the template for the morally bankrupt scoundrels, and sometimes madmen, he would continue to play. Nobody was a badder guy than Tod Slaughter.

23.7.14

Three on a Meathook (1973)


Director: William Girdler
Starring: James Carroll Pickett, Sherry Steiner, Charles Kissinger
Rated R 77 min.

William Girdler was well on his way to becoming a B-movie titan when he was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 1978. This film, Girdler's second, is a riff on the Ed Gein case that predated THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE by a year. The story concerns Billy (James Carroll Pickett), a troubled young man who lives with his widowed Pa (Charles Kissinger) on the family farm. One night Billy meets up with some vacationing girls with car trouble and invites them back to his house. Not a good idea, warns Pa. The girls hang out for a bit and eat some of Pa's "mystery meat." In the middle of the night, somebody kills all four girls. In the morning, Pa tells a stunned Billy, "I told you so."

Trying to make sense out of things, Billy heads to a bar in the city. He watches a Gary Puckett-soundalike band called American Xpress, and meets a pretty waitress named Sherry (Sherry Steiner). Too many drinks later, Billy awakes in Sherry's bed. After some initial awkwardness, a romance begins to blossom between the two, and Billy has the bright idea to bring his new girl and one of her friends back to his home in the country. Predictably, this sets off a sequence of events that features more bloodshed and a completely out of left field ending you'll never see coming.

Technical gaffes and bad acting abounds, but THREE ON A MEATHOOK has the same creepy charm as many of its 70's brethren possessed. Slow moving and with a focus on characterization rather than gore, it will likely be an endurance test for modern viewers. However, if you like movies like DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT or SCREAM BLOODY MURDER, you'll enjoy this one. There's a handful of mildly gory murders thanks to Pat (Dr. GORE) Patterson, including a nifty decapitation and some bodies hanging from meathooks. None of it is particularly realistic, but it is fun nonetheless. Knowing his audience, Girdler throws in nude scenes, as well.

I'm a sucker for low budget 70's horror films, especially the regional gems. While THREE ON A MEATHOOK is a little too ragged to qualify for "forgotten gem" status, it's still a nice, macabre little movie with a fantastically weird sucker punch ending. 

La Bestia in Calore (1977)


aka THE BEAST IN HEAT
aka SS HELL CAMP

Director: Luigi Batzella
Starring: Macha Magall, Gino Turini, Edilio Kim, Xiro Papas, Salvatore Baccaro
Not Rated 86 min.

It's World War II, and the Nazis are capturing attractive young women in the name of science. Dr. Ellen Kratsch (Macha Magall) needs subjects to in order to learn more about her newest creation: a half-man, half-primate creature genetically engineered to be a sexual monster. Fed a steady diet of hormones and aphrodisiacs, the "Beast" savagely rapes any woman thrown in his cage. He finishes by tearing out and eating handfuls of his victim's pubic hair. Meanwhile, a pace-killing subplot involving a band of resistance fighters plods around recycled war movie footage.

I'm somewhat puzzled by the appeal of the "Nazisploitation" subgenre, so I can't say that I'm very familiar with this movie's brethren. However, this one is mostly boring with impressively offensive moments sprinkled throughout. Directed without much in the way of style by Luigi Batzella (NUDE FOR SATAN), the film tries to shock, but comes up short due to the ineptness of the production. The only good thing about this movie is the performance of Macha Magall. As the demented Nazi sex kitten/scientist, Magall livens things up with a very inspired and dedicated performance. She had a genuine presence that deserved to be used in better films.

Macha Magall as "Dr. Ellen Kratsch" in LA BESTIA IN CALORE

 It's not hard to see what may have attracted the BBFC's attention. LA BESTIA IN CALORE has an abundance of full frontal nudity, both male and female. There are a handful of prolonged scenes of rape and sexual torture. Genitals are cut off, shot off, and chewed off. In one scene, a Nazi soldier tosses a baby into the air and then blasts it with machine gun fire. The scenes of sexual violence are not as graphic as they might sound, and as is often the case with the "Video Nasties," the violence is so poorly executed it is more silly than shocking. The movie's greatest special effect is the Beast of the title, actor Salvatore Baccaro. Without any makeup or prosthetics, Baccaro bore a startling resemblance to a Neanderthal.

Salvatore Baccaro, the "Beast in Heat"

It's dumb, gross, and offensive, but ultimately too silly and badly made to warrant any attention from people who aren't already fans of this weird little genre. LA BESTIA IN CALORE might be good for a night of beers and laughs, but you'll probably spend a lot of time leaning on the "fast forward" button.  

22.7.14

The Manson Family (2005)


Director: Jim Van Bebber
Starring:  Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Marcelo Games, Maureen Elise, Amy Yates, Carl Day
Unrated 95 min

With a career spanning four decades and only two features and a handful of short films, you can’t call Jim Vanbebber a prolific filmmaker. Scarce as they may be, all are excellent. His debut, DEADBEAT AT DAWN, was a dirt cheap, DIY action epic.  ROADKILL was a short and nasty little portrait of a cannibal. MY SWEET SATAN was a savage and truly horrific riff on the Ricky Kasso murder case. But it's THE MANSON FAMILY that remains his masterwork.

THE MANSON FAMILY is also a film that some of us thought we’d never see. Made in fits and splotches over the course of a decade, it was often talked about, but nobody ever knew how much of the film actually existed. Production resumed when money was available, and ended when it was not. Vanbebber has said he sold plasma and flipped hamburgers in order to raise capital for the project. Many of the actors worked for either nothing or next to nothing. It wasn't until MPI provided a cash infusion that the film would be completed, nearly fifteen years after it began. The question became, would it live up to the hype? The answer is yes, and then some.

Vanbebber uses a framing story in which a modern day journalist (Carl Day) is making a documentary about the group. From there he weaves a collage-like account of the Manson family from their earliest days on the Spahn Ranch, to the murders, and to their arrest and trial. We are with the Family, frolicking in the fields, playing music, and making love. We see the members growing devotion to Charlie (Marcelo Games), who manipulates the women into seeing him as some sort of father/god figure, and hooks the men with an endless supply of willing and obedient women. Not to mention drugs. Lots of drugs. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, an LSD-fueled orgy turns into a blood soaked nightmare of sex and death that foreshadows the carnage to come. Vanbebber focuses on the transformation of Charles “Tex” Watson (Marc Pitman) from somewhat skeptical hedonist to fully compliant assassin. With Tex fully under his influence, Manson was free to enact his strange plans for “Helter Skelter.”


And when those plans are executed, Vanbebber pulls no punches. The scenes of the attacks on the Polanski and LaBianca homes is some of the most furious and stomach churning ever filmed. Vanbebber does not attempt to glamorize these acts in any way, and forces the viewer to experience the horror the Family unleashed on their victims. These scenes are extraordinary in their fury and their impact.

The film's greatest strength is its ability to capture the completely insane atmosphere of sex, drugs, and violence that Charles Manson created, and the frenzied devotion of his followers. At times the film often looks like a cross between a snuff film and a demented school play. What the cast may lack in acting skills, they make up for with a frightening, wild-eyed enthusiasm. After about forty-five minutes, I started to wonder if these people might kill for Vanbebber, if he asked.

The onlt thing that prevents THE MANSON FAMILY from becoming a pure true crime docu-drama is the inclusion of a group modern day Manson acolytes. The weird crew of teens, complete with tattoos, piercings, and bondage wear, develop an unhealthy fixation on the reporter making the documentary. These scenes don't entirely mesh with the main storyline, but still add a weird and nasty touch to the film.

If you are a horror or true crime fan, you must see this movie. THE MANSON FAMILY is certainly the most devastating movie ever made about the case. It's also one of the most intense and upsetting film experiences you'll ever have. Once seen, THE MANSON FAMILY cannot be forgotten.

21.7.14

Anthropophagus (1980)


aka THE GRIM REAPER

Director: Joe D'Amato
Starring: Tisa Farrow, Saviero Vallero, Margaret Mazzantini, Zora Kerova
Unrated 90 min

ANTHROPOPHAGUS is one of the more notorious films that found its way onto the British Film Commission's "Video Nasty" list. While the movie's blood-and-guts level lives up to its reputation, taken as a whole, it's just not very good.

The plot is simple: a group of tourists find themselves stranded on a deserted island inhabited by a deformed killer (George Eastman). Having slaughtered the island's entire population years earlier, the cannibalistic madman emerges from hiding so he can butcher the new arrivals. But before that, we are introduced to a mysterious woman in black, and a traumatized girl who managed to survive an earlier attack by the hulking cannibal.

There's nothing remotely scary or exciting about ANTHROPOPHAGUS. A bored, listless atmosphere hovers around the entire film. It seems to be a quality Joe D'Amato usually brings to films, with EMANUELLE IN AMERICA and BEYOND THE DARKNESS being possible exceptions. The film staggers along for an hour before the "grim reaper" appears, and his grand entrance is completely undermined by careless direction. Eastman, at six feet seven inches tall, cuts an imposing figure, but D'Amato has him lumbering around, lazily grabbing at his victims without much enthusiasm.

The gore in ANTHROPHAGUS isn't anywhere nearly as shocking as its reputation implies, but it is disgusting. The killer's makeup looks like it's made with greasepaint and silly putty, and the entrails are things picked up at the local slaughterhouse. The most infamous scene involves the monster feasting on a fetus ripped from a dying woman's womb. On paper, this sounds like an incredibly disturbing moment. However, the lifeless direction and shoddy special effects make the whole thing look rather ridiculous.

Horror fans should see this movie at least once, if only for it's historical curiosity. Take away the notoriety, and it's a boring and uninspired gore film.

Far from Home (1989)


Director: Meirt Avis
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Matt Frewer, Richard Masur, Susan Tyrell,  Andras Jones, Anthony Rapp, Jennifer Tilly, Karen Austin, Dick Miller
Rated R 86 min

FAR FROM HOME is one of the movies Drew Barrymore starred in during her adolescent, post-drug  addiction "comeback" period. Drew plays Joleen Cox who, along with her divorced writer dad (Matt Frewer, run out of gas in a small desert town in Nevada. They end up stuck in a trailer park owned by a sneering, foul mouthed woman named Agnes Reed (Susan Tyrell) while they wait for a gas truck to arrive. In the meantime, Drew meets two local boys who take a liking to her. There's a geeky and polite kid named Pinky (Anthony Rapp), and the troubled and possibly dangerous Jimmy (Andras Jones). However, romantic entanglements get put on the back burner when a killer begins picking off the park's residents.

I avoided this movie for decades because the cover art led me to believe this would be a sappy love story. While there are a few mildly sappy moments, FAR FROM HOME is actually a very well made thriller. The screenplay is by longtime John Carpenter collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace (FRIGHT NIGHT 2; HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH), which he adapted from a story by Ted Gershuny (SUGAR COOKIES; SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT).

The movie stumbles a concerning the identity of the killer, which ends up not being much of a surprise. However, the gorgeous photography and scenery and the excellent cast makes up for any of the story's shortcomings. I really enjoyed the characters in this one, especially Richard Masur as the eccentric 'Nam vet and Susan Tyrell (NIGHT WARNING) as the nasty trailer park owner. Jennifer Tilly is fun as the beautiful, but ditzy, Anna. And of course, it's always great to watch Dick Miller as the town's Sheriff.

This movie is somewhat notorious for scenes featuring fourteen year old Drew Barrymore in various states of undress. It's definitely exploitive -- which is probably what Barrymore wanted at the time to jump start her career. She also made the equally trashy GUNCRAZY around this same period.

FAR FROM HOME is no masterpiece, but it is a fun, somewhat trashy, thriller.

3 out of 5. 

Southern Gothic (2007)


Director: Mark Young
Starring: Yul Vazquez, William Forsythe, Nicole Duport, Dani Englander, Jonathan Sachar
Rated R 104 min

Haunted by the death of his daughter, a strip club manager named Hazel Fortune (Yul Vazquez) spends his time drinking and longing for death. Things start to look up for him when he befriends a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold named Starla (Nicole Duport) and her young daughter, Hope. Unfortunately, psychotic preacher Enoch Pitt (William Forsythe) has taken a liking to Starla, as well. Enoch is bitten by a vampire, who then turns Starla into a vampire. If that wasn't enough, he decides to kidnap Hope so the three can live as a happy vampire family. Hazel shakes off his depression long enough to team up with a friendly vampire and ride to rescue.

SOUTHERN GOTHIC isn't quite as stupid as director Mark Young's previous movie (the truly awful TOOTH & NAIL), but it's close. It seems like he may have been going for a NEAR DARK-style vibe with this one, but without the style, sexiness, or intelligence. The vampires in this movie are more like Hollywood "rednecks" that use knives and guns, and aren't scary or interesting in any way. It's also a very dark and dreary looking film, with most of the scenes either tinted in drab colors or poorly lit.

The early part of the movie takes place in one of those strip clubs where nobody takes their clothes off, so forget about any prurient fun. The few action scenes are poorly executed, with black blood and spastic camera work. The only good thing about this movie is William Forsythe, and he is underused, sadly.

I can't think of anything horror fans might enjoy about SOUTHERN GOTHIC.