Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hell Night (USA, 1981)

Hell Night was the third non-X-rated film of Tom DeSimone, who had honed his directorial skills the prior 13 years as a maker of gay pornography both under his own name and as Lancer Brooks. His earlier projects of note include his only non-gay and non-hardcore films, the extremely idiosyncratic comedy Catterbox (1977T/trailer one and two), which could once be found in both an R and X-rated version, and a 3-D women's prison film with Uschi Digard entitled Prison Girls (1972), as well as a couple of gay porn "classics", The Idol (1979) and Heavy Equipment (1977, in 3-D and featuring both Al Parker* and Jack Wrangler**, two icons of the Golden Age of gay porn, as well as the legendary Christy Twins). After Hell Night, DeSimone went on to add some life again to the flogged-to-death girls in prison genre with The Concrete Jungle (1982) and Reform School Girls (1986/trailer) as well as a few more porno films—such as Bi-Coastal (1985)—before first disappearing into television direction and then from the face of the earth. Nonetheless, Sizemore must have seen Hell Night as a possible stepping stone to a more legitimate career for he obviously gave his best to the rather unoriginal script by Randy Feldman—as do the young stars for that matter.
By no means a masterpiece, Hell Night (trailer) is a competently made Golden Age "dead teenager film" that is better for a laugh than for either gore or a scare. The worst that can really be held against the film, aside for the numerous plot holes, is the fact that although featuring a young and surprisingly hot Linda Blair at the beginning of her exploitation film prime, she plays the good girl of the flick and thus remains dressed for the entire proceedings. (The picture of her presented here shows all her niceties that the film is missing.) But even if Hell Night is low on Linda's amplitudes (34C-24-34), the plot does at least include one curvaceous Australian-accented goodtime girl (one-film wonder Suki Goodwin as Denise Dunsmore) that does look damn nice in her skivvies and garters and dies for showing them to us. (Still, odd for a film of its time, nowhere is a breast ever flashed.)
In general, the plot of the film is so old that it seems less from the Golden Age of Slashers than from the Silent Age of Hollywood, but as old hat as the basic premise is—teenagers spending the night in a supposedly haunted mansion as part of an initiation and dying for doing so—the acting of the soon-to-be-dead teenagers is at least above average, the characters (mostly) believable and likable, the direction competent and the cinematography excellent. Hell Night takes its time getting to the meat of the matter, as a good portion of the film is spent both on establishing characters and setting up the situation.
As mentioned before, the basic premise is that of a bunch of teens spending the night in an infamous house, the Garth Manor, as an initiation to join what seems to be the world's only unisex sorority/fraternity (sorternity?). Locked in the house, the four pledges divide into groups of two, the sex-negatives Marti Gaines (Linda Blaire) and Jeff Reed (Seth Peter Barton) and the sex-positives Seth (Vincent Van Patton) and Denise (Suki Goodwin) while, unbeknownst to them, a small band of jokers (including Jenny Neumann, the star of Larry Buchanans’s legendary Mistress of the Apes (1979/theme song)) remains outside to trigger the various scary sound effects and tricks they have rigged up in the house (all electric, but in a house without electricity). Unbeknownst to all of them, the one surviving member of the Garth Family massacre is alive and well in the tunnels beneath the house, and he don’t take well to visitors.
One by one the numbers dwindle as no one acts any more intelligent than can be expected in a film like this, but, as Roger Elbert said in his review of the film at the time, nothing "excitingly violent" really ever happens. Nonetheless, atmosphere and good characterization go a long way, and the film has enough of both, otherwise the plot holes and idiotic actions would ruin the film. You can probably guess who the only survivor of the hellish night is...
Presently Hell Night is seemingly destined for remake hell, as according to Entertainment Weekly, Sony Screen Gems plans to de-ball yet another R-rated horror flick of the 80s and remake the flick as a PG-13 atrocity. In truth, though, as fun as Hell Night is, the plot is so old that one has a hard time castigating Sony Screen Gems as being uncreative in their decision... besides, truth be told, by today’s standards, the original version hardly warrants an R-rating (although the carefree attitude about teenage sex and alcohol and drug use might cause problems for the rating board in today's prim and proper USA). In any event, regarding the original flick, it might not be a masterpiece but it is extremely well shot as well as fun and entertaining. It hardly deserves a place on anyone’s "must-see" list, but easily deserves preferential treatment to so much of the modern PG-13 slasher crap that has followed in the wake of the original R-rated Scream (1996/trailer).
Besides, to tell the truth, Linda Blair has one bitching cleavage. Why did we all hate her back then? Unlike Final Girl, I’d give the flick 10 out of 10 heaving bosoms nowadays just because of Linda... but then, the difference in our rating of the film probably has something to do with the differences in our age and sex.

* To quote alsgaypornstars.com: "Al Parker was born in June 1952 in Natick MA and he grew up to be a truly great, bearded, horse-hung star of gay porn. He stood about 5ft 10ins tall and had a 9-inch cock. He began his porn career in the 1970s as an early Colt star and was still making movies well into the 1980s, mainly for the likes of Falcon and his own company Surge. He was also a director. He died of AIDS in August 1992 in San Francisco. Before doing gay porn, Al worked at Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion."

** To quote GaySexBlog.net: "Jack Wrangler was one of the biggest gay porn stars of the 1970s, in case you didn't know. He made 85 movies. Jack's story is quite, er, interesting. A child actor who performed in the Christian TV show Faith of our Children, he had bit parts in TV shows like Mod Squad before venturing into gay, and eventually straight, porn. In 1979, at age 33, he got married to 55-year-old movie star Margaret Whiting after meeting her at one of his jack-off performances."

The Final Option/Fei hu xiong xin (Hong Kong, 1994)

An example of just how bad a Hong Kong film can be, Gordon Chan's The Final Option, or Fei hu xiong xin, as it is titled in its native language, is an unbelievably boring, uninteresting and uninvolving film that plays like a third-rate colony version of SWAT—the old American television show of the 1970's, not the pyrotechnic remake of a few years ago.
The movie is supposedly about what is actually Hong Kong's own version of a police department's special unit, the SDU, or Special Duty Unit (known as the Flying Tiger Team locally). As might be expected due to the film's roots in "reality",
The Final Option never even reaches the level of the worst hormonally driven low-budget, straight-to-video trash and, worse, completely lacks any mildly exciting action, blood, story or naked flesh. (Actually, that The Final Option is lacking naked T&A is to be expected, seeing whence the film comes, but that the other three aspects are lacking as well is surprising.) To put it simply, the film sucks.
The plot basically concerns some guy that decides to join the SDU, and the rest of the film narrates his and his co-workers training, private lives, feelings, how they interact with each other and the effect their career choice has on their personal lives. A few action scenes are thrown in, but this is done so seldom and so far apart—not to mention so dully—that the scenes do little to relieve the boredom. On top of that, the team doesn't actually come across as being all that effective in the first place—but seeing that this film is supposedly a reflection of the reality of SDU activities, this lack of effectiveness is probably an attempt to add realism to the film, making the characters less cinematic superheroes than representatives of authenticity. (And, as we all know, in reality the police are rather ineffective and prone to fucking up—well, at least in the countries I have lived in.)

The most familiar face amongst the numerous characters in The Final Option is that of the SDU trainer and team commander Stone Wong, played by Michael Wong, a New-York-born Hong Kong regular that enjoyed great popularity in the Hong Kong films of the decade, despite a reputed low grasp of the actual language. He is also to be found in 1997's far more entertaining and weird cult classic Mad Stylist/Zhi ji sha ren fan and the dissatisfying but watchable (in parts) killer-babe film Her Name Is Cat/Paau mui (1998/trailer), among other Hong Kong films of varying quality. Any and all of his films are probably miles better than this piece of shit which, despite its hit status in Hong Kong at the time of its release, is less a Final Option than Not An Option At All. This celluloid tranquillizer was followed by a sequel in 1996 titled Fei hu, also starring Michael Wong. This is a bit odd, considering that he is dead and buried by at the end of The Final Option.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dead Birds (USA, 2004)

(Trailer) During the American Civil War, a group of six robbers and a dog rob a bank in Alabama and set out for Mexico. Along the way, they take refuge for the night at the isolated and deserted plantation of a dead fellow soldier they once knew. A storm rolls in and as the night continues it becomes obvious that they are neither alone nor safe, but that which threatens them is most definitely not human. One by one their numbers dwindle—but is it too late to escape?
Dead Birds
, the first feature-length film of Alex Turner, is an odd and uneven little film that manages to surprise and please even as it uses so many staples of the genres that too much of the film is predictable and, far more unforgivable, serves up a sextet of characters that are, in the end, little more than cold-blooded killers,
no matter how sympathetic the one or the other might seem within the course of the film. Indeed, the bloodbath that they instigate during the opening moments of the film is so excessive and cold-hearted that one is hard put to understand why one should even root for the characters later in the film when they enter the house of hell. In this regard, even the later admission of remorse (for having shot and killed a child during the robbery) by the group’s leader William (Henry Thomas, best remembered as Elliott in Spielberg's E.T. (1982)) does little to assuage the fact that the gang—by choice—has caused the violent death of many a fellow human being. (In the end, the four better “good guys” of the six are differentiated from the two not-so-good guys simply by having the two worse guys being obvious racists—they use the N-word.)
The film's initial 15 (and the last 5) minutes are perhaps the best of the film and, along with the movie's unique period setting, are the saving graces of the entire production (the acting, with the exception of Isaiah Washington as Todd, the only black man riding with 5 Confederate deserters, is strangely less than convincing). The location shots are exceptionally successful—the town scenes were shot on the sets left over from Tim Burton's pleasant fantasy Big Fish (2003/trailer)—and everything leading up to the set-bound events within the plantation house firmly entrench the film with a depressing atmosphere that is truly palpable.
Regrettably, after the six “heroes” cross the field of dead corn—and explain away a skinless creature they shoot dead as a “hairless hog”—the film loses its momentum in the overly long scenes of the various characters wandering the ghostly hallways and rooms of the plantation house. Both the director and the film's scriptwriter Simon Barrett (who co-wrote that same year a much better paced script for the dumb but fun Frankenfish (2004/trailer)) desperately need to learn a bit more when it comes to pacing, for Dead Birds truly loses its force at this point and never effectively regains it despite a few decent scares and a particularly horrendous scene of a creature cutting its way out of a woman’s stomach. Had less time been spent building the suspense, the suspense (and the individual pay-off scenes) would have been far more effective; as it, the viewer often has the feeling of “get on with it,” a feeling that detracts from the money shots (to use the vernacular of another genre of film making). Much of what happens is too easy to predict to be forgiven, but the true faux pas of the film is Todd’s sudden death in an explosion of CGI light, an unsatisfying groan-inducing scene that is so lame and left-field that it defies comprehension that it wasn't rewritten. That said, the last 5 minutes careen wildly from expectable to truly unexpected, and combined with the last line uttered in the film, become truly memorable.
Dead Birds could have been and should have been a much better film than it is, but thanks to its genre setting, overall atmosphere of dread, occasionally effective scares and fatalistic ending, the film at least remains both interesting and watchable. But viewers with a forgiving attitude will probably enjoy it more than those with high expectations.

Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town (USA, 1991)

(Trailer) What self-respecting fan of bad films could possibly ignore the Circe-call of a title like Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town? Remember, though, for all the desirability of Circe's song, in the end she did turn those who responded to it into pigs. Needless to say, this film won't change you into a pig for watching it, but it could cause you to die of boredom; more than anything else, however, the film simply makes other lousy zombie comedies such as Corpses (2004/trailer) come across like cinematic masterpieces. Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town tries hard to be so-bad-its-good, but like so many films that try to do so, it only manages to be bad enough to really be bad.
Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town features a female motorcycle gang called the Cycle Sluts that rumble into the desert hick-town of Zariah in search of wicks to dip—or, as they call it, "meat"—and are met with the predictable hostility. The town suffers from a high mortality rate for, unknown to the residents, the local mortician (Dan Calfa, who also played a mortician in the far more superior zombie comedy The Return of the Living Dead (1985/trailer)) is killing and turning the locals into zombies which he then puts to work in a nearby deserted and radioactive mine (a concept—minus the radioactivity—taken from the immeasurably superior Hammer flick Plague of the Zombies (1996/trailer)). Why exactly he is doing this and what he is does with the radioactive substance is never fully explained, but then, such oversights abound in this flick—in one scene, for example, two Cycle Sluts seemingly die in an explosion, but are then back up and running (un-singed) in the next scene. Some Sluts get laid, some die, one does a Joan Jett imitation in a sleazy café and then they get driven out of town by the angry townsfolk, only to return to save a bus load full of blind orphans and the rest of the town from the gang of zombies that, having escaped from the mine, are now in search of dinner. Somewhere along the way Billy Bob Thornton makes one of his first movie appearances as the husband left-behind by one of the Cycle Sluts, but he doesn't really have enough to do to be able to give any indication of the career he would soon have.
A Troma release, Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town is less an actual Troma production than an independent no-budgeter picked-up by Kaufmann & Co. and, as such, lacks the only two redeeming aspects normally found in the typically adolescent Troma exploitation film: Tits and blood. Which is not to say the film doesn't have a good line of dialog or two, or that some of the ideas aren't mildly entertaining, but as a whole the film is disjointed, badly acted, narratively uncreative and excruciatingly painful to watch for a film with only a 86-minute running time. T'is hardly surprising that Dan Hoskins, the credited director and author of this cinematic abortion, has seemingly never followed-up this anemic fetus with another cinematic mistake. If ever there was a trailer that truly misrepresents the film it's advertising, then the trailer to this flick does just that, for it really makes the flick look like it could be fun.
Things have really gone downhill since the days of other killer-slut films like Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965/trailer) or The Female Bunch (1969/trailer). And seriously, folks: a film featuring "chopper chicks" without a single breast-shot?

Army of Darkness (USA, 1992)

Oh woe is the evil called Hollywood. So much creativity has died in its shadow—given a chance, it seems that the favorite pastime of those that pull the strings in Tinsel Town is to suck the imaginative talent out of the brains of the truly inspired and replace it with spam. Director Sam Rami is a good example of this: Long before he got stuck in Marvel's increasingly inconsequential Spiderman franchise, he actually displayed a seemingly endless and exuberant creative vision... But then, nothing good lasts forever.
As an unknown low-budget horror filmmaker from the state of Michigan, Rami initially caused some big waves amongst horror fans (and attentive critics) with a flick entitled The Evil Dead (1981/trailer), a brilliant, supper-low-budget gore masterpiece that featured trees that rape and mashed-corn ooze and a lot of humor and carnage and some of the best camera work ever to be seen in the sordid movie theaters where the film initially ran. By the time he decided, for reasons unknown, to become a "serious" filmmaker and Hollywood-game-player with A Simple Plan (1998) and the embarrassingly crappy (gag, puke) For the Love of the Game (1999), Rami had done a whole slew of imaginatively fun and surprising films—namely: Crimewave (1985/trailer), a uniquely weird comedy (written by the Coen Brothers) with a few second-rate and forgotten names (Bryon James and Louie Lasser, for example); Evil Dead II (1987/trailer), which was less a sequel than an inspired and bloodily hilarious remake; Darkman (1990/trailer), a fun but relatively inconsequential filmic comic book; The Quick & The Dead (1995/ trailer), a star-studded and campy homage to Spaghetti Westerns; and, three years prior to the last-mentioned film, Army of Darkness (1992/trailer), the third installment of his Evil Dead trilogy and an unabashed horror slapstick and paean of love to an uncountable number of popular films and film genres.
Army of Darkness more-or-less takes up where Evil Dead II ends. (Due to legal reasons, however, the prologue shown consists of re-shot footage instead of re-edited original scenes.) In short, having successfully defended himself against the evil dead in a back-woods log cabin, ordinary-Joe Ash (Bruce Campbell, in what should have been a career-making turn1) gets vortexed back through time and stuck in some Pre-Medieval demon-plagued desert that looks surprisingly like Californian dry-lands. With the help of a chainsaw and his "boom-stick," a magical shotgun that never needs reloading, Ash moves up the corporate ladder from hated slave to prophesized savior, but in his clumsy search for a way to return to his own time he inadvertently raises the army of darkness—imagine the skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts (1963/trailer) times a couple of thousand—which, led by his resurrected evil alter-ego, now threatens to destroy the realm. A coward at heart, Ash couldn't give a flying fuck, but when the "Deadites"—the evil dead to those of us in the know—steal Sheila, the gal putting the sugar in his coffee (a young and, for most of the film, attractive Embeth Davidtz), he has a change of heart and takes up the sword and steam-powered Oldsmobile to help fight the battle...
Badly marketed by Universal pictures as a stand-alone feature when it was originally released and hampered by both the general masses' inability to appreciate unbridled uniqueness as well as the humorless inflexibility of the horror-film fans of the time, Army of Darkness inexplicitly tanked at the box office when originally released. To say that time has been good to the film is wrong: The film was already excellent when it was released, time has simply enabled it to stand on its own two feet and not promptly be seen as a horror film that didn't happen. For, despite the expectations of the Evil Dead fans back then, Army of Darkness was not a horror film, but an inane, over-the-top farce that resolutely (but lovingly) takes the piss out of every film convention the filmmakers ever saw and liked. Viewed stoned or straight, this flick continually blows the viewer away with a non-stop stream of hilarious scenes and dialog and entertaining special effects, and despite the monsters and gore remains oddly innocent and guileless.
Most current DVDs of Army of Darkness include two endings: The campier S-Mart ending of the theatrical release in which Ash proves himself the man to fight Deadites even in the 20th Century, and the originally filmed but replaced ending of Ash awakening 100 years too late to a war-destroyed world. Regardless of the ending one chooses to watch, Army of Darkness—along with the first two installments of the series—is without a doubt an un-arguable must-see for any fan of "trash" films.

1OK, it did help cement his reputation amongst genre enthusiasts, and it can hardly be said that he hasn’t had a viable career since then, but damn, the way he steals the film should have opened more doors than it obviously did at the time.

Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh (USA, 1995)

Neither half as good as the first Candyman (1992 / trailer) and supposedly even worse than the direct-to-video third instalment, Turi Meyer's Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999 / trailer). Not that the people behind the camera and production of Farewell to the Flesh would lead one to expect this: Clive Barker is still there, as producer and for the story, and director Bill Condon—who has since gone on to direct a variety of popular critic's favorites—not only did his Hollywood teething by scripting two cult favorites, Strange Behavior (1981 / trailer) and Strange Invaders (1983 / trailer), but his 1988 directorial debut Sister, Sister (trailer) is not the worst Louisiana Gothic gathering dust on your local video store's shelves. True, the credited scriptwriter of this dull-a-thon, Rand Ravich, did go on to write and direct something worse in 1999, The Astronaut's Wife (trailer), but can he alone be the blame for Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh?
So what is so terribly wrong here? Everything, actually. The worst is already to be expected within the first five minutes of the film, when after a few cheap false scares and before the first real attack of the Candyman, the viewer is treated to the sight of the sound boom trailing behind a pompous victim-to-be as he strolls down a deserted New Orleans street. Unlike in the first film, the acting in Candyman 2 is uniformly abysmal, with only the returning Tony Todd as the title character managing to put any conviction or presence in his roll. Seldom has there been a film as uniformly miscast as this turkey, especially in the most important parts. Kelly Rowan, as Annie Tarrant, the obscure object of Candyman's bloody desire, sleepwalks through the entire film, seemingly suffering from an overdose of Quaaludes. William O'Leary as her brother Ethan comes across a little better since he now and then has the chance to look beady-eyed and sweaty, but he hardly impresses. Timothy Carhart as Paul McKeever is a bit more likeable in this film than he was as Harlan, the rapist Thelma blows away in Thelma & Louise (1991/trailer), but he hardly makes a lasting impression before he gets a hook through his chest. Veronica Cartwright plays another nerve-strung alcoholic, but the impression is less that she is acting then just being herself. At least Philip Glass' score is still pleasant to hear, even if, for some inexplicable reason, it seems oddly out of place this time around; postmodernist music is not the first thing that comes to mind when one talks about New Orleans. 
To say a sequel is unnecessary is actually too easy a put down, for as James Cameron's Aliens (1986 / trailer) proved, a sequel can often stand on its own as a film. But Aliens and Farewell to Flesh are miles apart in quality or artistic worth. Farewell to Flesh is a predictable and badly acted farce with less real scares than the first film despite a substantially heightened gore and gush level. Farewell to the Flesh is much more closely related to A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2; Freddy's Revenge (1985), in that it is a misfired, incompetently made attempt to create a serial horror figure that somehow fails to catch the secret ingredient that made the horror figure so effective in the first film. In Freddy's case, he did indeed go on to serialization success, but less due to the second film than the lasting strength of the first installment and the increased use of special effects and black humor as of the third film. In Farewell to the Flesh, the filmmakers take the strange approach of trying to give a kill-happy supernatural serial murderer some pathos by introducing an absurd, badly filmed costume drama background story, failing to realize that the Candyman is much too brutal a killer to be able to be given any poignancy at all.
Not that pathos is needed to make a good anti-hero, as both Freddy and Jason prove. But Freddy has humor and a highly surreal sense of style, while Jason is popular less as a character than simply as a forum of vicarious thrills. Candyman's method is relatively redundant and hardly laden with style. Likewise, his supposed justification of revenge is immaterial and false, for there is no valid justification in the selection of his victims other than the simple need on part of the filmmakers to have a continuous body count—indeed, it seems that would-be victims no longer even have to repeat his name five times to become meat-hook fodder. Candyman is much more an effective personification of horror when he simply exists as a supernatural creation, as in part one, and the attempt to give him depth simply does not work.
In Farewell to the Flesh, the viewer gets to watch as Candyman bloodily slaughters everyone the young school teacher Annie Tarrant comes into contact with. The descendent of the aristocratic family that originally owned "Daniel Robitaille," the uppity slave that went on to become the Candyman, she is also both pregnant and his great-granddaughter. Well, they do say incest is best, but slaughtering all family members is hardly an effective way to woo. At the end of the film, with the help of a bunch of her pre-teen ghetto students, she manages to get rid of her unwanted suitor, the action taking place in some old, collapsing slave quarters literally full of skeletons.
 Final verdict: Cheap scares, bad acting, perfunctory direction, illogical story development and uninteresting characters do not a good film make.
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