Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Short Film: Food Fight

This film comes from Tourist Pictures. According to their website: "Food Fight is an abridged history of American-centric war, from World War II to present day, told through the foods of the countries in conflict. Watch as traditional comestibles slug it out for world domination in this chronologically re-enacted smorgasbord of aggression."
The symbolic breakdown of the different foods can be found here.
The filmmaker would like you to know that none of the "cast" went to waste: it was either consumed by the filmmaker or his dog after shooting. The software used was Photoshop and After Effects, and took 3 months to do. And, "Although it seems like stop motion, most of it was stop motion created within After Effects, using key-frame animation. [...] Basically [he is] moving the food around within the program, frame by frame, which is the same as traditional stop motion, only it's digital."
That said, the film not only looks just like traditional stop motion animation, but like stop motion done well. The music, which is oddly infectious, fits the events perfectly. Tourist Pictures’ entertaining presentation of world aggression probably won’t improve your appetite, but Food Fight is a short but interesting and watchable visual treat from the title sequence of food grease slowly seeping through paper until its messy final.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Psycho Beach Party (USA, 2000)

(Trailer.) It’s the early 60s in Malibu, where some unknown serial killer has begun to kill people who are less than physically perfect, and the police haven't a clue who it could be. The first murder occurs at the local drive-in where the young Florence "Chicklet” Forrest (Lauren Ambrose) and her best gal pal Berdine Barnes (Kimberley Davies) seem to be the only ones actually watching the movie. The next day while at the beach the spunky young gal is impressed by a group of surfers — including one played by Nicholas Brendon, just prior to his joining the Buffy cast — and decides she, too, wants to surf. Soon, Florence becomes "Chicklet,” the first female surfer of the beach, getting private lessons from no other than the local surf legend Kanaka (ThomasGibson) himself. But one by one her friends and acquaintances are showing up dead — could she be the killer? She herself doesn’t know for sure, for she suffers schizophrenia and some other personality always seems to take over just when a murder occurs... Could it be that her sex pot, foul-mouthed alter ego Ann Bowman is offing those she doesn’t like? Or what about the street-wise Safeway cashier that also pops up on occasion?
Based on a play by Charles Busch (a male), who also plays the character Captain Monika Stark (a female, obviously), Psycho Beach Party is one fabulously funny and fun camp persiflage of dead teenager and surfer films such as Beach Blanket Bingo (1965/trailer) and Gidget (1959) that is nicely spiced with some fun jabs at bad 1950s SciFi flicks like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958/trailer) and iced with some wonderful surf music and dance sequences. (The credit sequence alone is true eye-candy: the shimmering, shaking babe looks true to the generation, much more a (clothed) example of a prime Bunny Yeager model than today's anorexic.)
In the original stage production Charles Busch actually played the part of the film’s lead character Florence "Chicklet” Forrest — imagine Gidget with split personalities — but by the time the film version got rolling he was too old for the part, so he wrote in the female Jack Web character so that he could still act in the project. In the film, Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose truly excels as Chicklet, and going by the versatility, aplomb and tempo with which she deftly handles her part, that woman is one talented gal. But then, everyone in the film is excellent, ably assisted by some of the funniest dialogue and exchanges ever to grace a body count surfer film. OK, the dialog is often extremely juvenile — a typical line, for example, is that said by the Swedish exchange student Lars as he asks Mrs. Forrest to sew his pants: "I'm having trouble with my pants. Whenever I put my hand in the pocket, I feel a little prick." — but even when the dialog stoops low, the entire production and presentation manages to raise it from adolescent humor to true camp.
In any event, anyone mildly versed in 60's surfer culture or bad 50's films will find Psycho Beach Party a blast. Well acted and well written, aside from the fab dialog the film also has some hilariously on-the-spot characterization and an excellent set, costume and production design. As a horror comedy, it is, of course, not for those “still walking the straight and narrow-minded” (to use a line said by The Great Kanak), but the rest of us will definitely enjoy it, for seldom has there been a body count film as refreshingly cute, lighthearted and amusing as Psycho Beach Party. (In all truth, however, as much as all the native English speakers that I know that have seen the film have loved it, all the non-native speakers I’ve watched it with have hated it.)

Cherry Falls (USA, 2000)

(Trailer.) An interesting slasher flick that comes close to but in the end doesn’t quite deliver all that it promises. In other words, much better than average and thus much more memorable than most, but not as consistently effective (or scary) as Geoffrey Wright's much more disturbing and oddly politically incorrect (non-slasher) skinhead social study Romper Stomper (1992/trailer), which stars an at-the-time unknown Russell Crowe.
Cherry Falls lines up neatly in behind the long list of hip, self-reflective teen horror flicks that become the rage over at the turn of the last century, from Scream and sequels (1996, 1997 & 2000) to I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997/trailer) to Faculty (1998/trailer) to the German production Anatomy (2000/trailer). Wright and scriptwriter Ken Seldom take this postmodern stance one step further by taking the most cherished of notions of teen body count films — that sex equals death and only virgins survive — one step beyond in the opposite direction. As the movie's extremely ironic title implies, only those with intact cherries fall. In the day and age of AIDS and protected sex (or better yet, to believe the unrealistic and misinformed, no sex at all), the young teens of Cherry Falls are faced with death by their very innocence, the murderer seemingly only interested in killing the virtuous. (Much like the end message of The Faculty is "do drugs", the end message of Cherry Falls is pretty much "have premarital sex.") By the film's end, it is revealed that the killer's aim is less at the virtuous than at the hypocritical, though by the big, climactic scene (s)he becomes rather unselective: the final orgy of blood is so in more ways than one, as not only are cherries being popped left and right, but the killer's slashing knife slits rather indiscriminately.
The film opens rather promisingly, with a nice young couple making out by the lakeside, the boy persistent, the girl protective of her honor. In the tradition of numerous urban legends and gore-fests, a car drives up and in no time flat the body count begins, the slur "virgin" slashed deeply into the thigh of each dead teen. The killer is a long-haired woman or a hippie (do they still exist?) who likes leather miniskirts, and the first possible suspect is Marge Markin (Candy Clark), the bottle-tipping, cigarette-smoking mom of Jody Markin, the film's virginal female hero. (As played by Brittany Murphy, who is fondly remembered as a character actress from Freeway (1996/trailer) or Sin City (2005/trailer) and not so fondly from Clueless (1995/trailer), Jody is a young, virginal version of the breathy, black-clad lesbian played by Meg Tilly in Bound (1996/trailer), only she's just more exuberant than breathy and a bit less, well, stacked.)
Jody's father is Sheriff Brent Markin (Michael Biehn), who only needs a third dead young lady with "virgin" carved on her thigh to realize what the unknown killer has targeted, and that his daughter is thus also a potential victim. Calling a town meeting to reveal what he knows to all parents, a fistfight breaks out amongst the upright citizens even as the killer stuffs victim number four into a locker and then proceeds to have a knock-down, tear-the-room-apart fight with Jody, who is in no way an easy lady. Later, at the police station her composite picture of the long-legged murderer gives her daddy a shock, for it looks surprisingly like an oddball girl who disappeared some 25 years earlier. But why is the drawing so upsetting to the sheriff? Jody sets out to solve the mystery while her classmates set out to all lose their cherries at a big ball — er, bash — at the local party spot. Her dad sets of to find the long-missing oddball, but finds a seemingly deserted house that not only leaves more questions unanswered but, like the last scene in the movie, also leaves room for the sequel — a sequel that is obviously never to be.
That Cherry Falls is excellently made cannot be denied. Likewise, the acting is generally top notch, with special kudos going to Brittany Murphy. Michael Biehn, best remembered as Arnie's adversary in The Terminator (1984/trailer), is relatively restrained, his friendly, concerned low-key attitude making the revelation of his dark secret close to the film's end all the more shocking. The flaw of the story is a killer who is much too obvious, not to mention almost too unbelievable. Along the lines of the nutty brother who waits 15 years to take revenge on the death of his sister in the original Prom Night (1980/trailer), the killer of Cherry Falls has had more or less 25 years to ready his revenge. Fine and dandy, but even if one does swallow the concept that revenge-driven serial killers are also unnaturally patient, a few more convincing red herrings would have been nice, for after the first scene in which those muscular, panty-hosed legs are seen, it is obvious that only one character in the movie (other than the sheriff, in any event) could wear an outfit like that, and it ain't Jody's jerky boyfriend Kenny (Gabriel Mann). Nor could Jody's slush of a mini-skirted mom, for that matter. (Candy Clark is once again almost unrecognizable in yet another of the small supporting roles she has come to be doomed in, but always does so convincingly.)
Structural flaws aside, the ending definitely pulls out all the stops, complete with the unexpected death of a main character and the killer going full-tilt wacko amongst a house full of half-naked and naked teens.
Along the way, Wright and Selden try to take a few swipes at the hypocrisy of the supposedly upstanding, but though they get some easy laughs and a few shocking revelations, they never really achieve any depth in their social commentary and criticism. Still, Cherry Falls gets plus-points because tries so hard, something most other modern teen killer or monster flicks don't even bother doing. For that reason alone, mildly disappointing or not, the film is miles better than most of its ilk and definitely worth watching.

Flashback – Mörderische Ferien (Germany, 2000)

It all started with that overrated but enjoyable piece of fluff entitled Scream (1996).
Well, actually, it all started years ago during the golden age of slashers, but it took the financial success of Scream (trailer) to bring the genre back. In the U.S., Wes Craven's film was followed by a whole slew of imitations, most of which were more and more like substandard but flashier versions of the original product of yesteryear than the ironic, self-referential movie that made Neve Campbell a brief shooting star.
Elsewhere in the world, the foreign movie industries also noticed that there was once again money to be made in body-counting. Nonetheless, it took the German film industry four years to jump on the bandwagon, but then it promptly spit out two full theatrical releases.
The first was Anatomie (2000/trailer), a Franke Potente vehicle which actually tried to be a little up-market, or at least tried to look good. Hot on the heels of that film came Michael Karen's Flashback – Mörderische Ferien, which didn't bother to try for anything other than to cater to the cheapest product demands. Written, directed and staring mostly television no-names from such lousy daytime soaps as Verboten Liebe ("Forbidden Love"), Klinik unter Palmen ("Clinic Under Palm Trees") and Gute Zeiten Schlechte Zeiten ("Good Times Bad Times)", Flashback is a simple, unpretentious body count film which often — unintentionally — seems like a satire but mostly just bides its time between one bloody death and the next. True, there is one big unexpected and wonderfully inane twist in the middle of the film when everyone is revealed to be egoistical conniving assholes and the real murderer is revealed, but up until that point little happens in the movie that isn't predictable or hasn't already happened in some other film. In truth, other than that we-are-all-assholes twist, the only thing original about Flashback is its location, the blood all flowing amongst the impressive beauty of the Bavarian Alps. But even if the film is not all that innovative or good, at least it does have blood, blood, blood...
Supposedly the original story to Flashback comes from the pen of Jimmy Sanger, who any true fan of horror remembers as the scribe of such classics as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957/trailer), Dracula (1958/trailer), Maniac (1963), The Nanny (1965/trailer), Who Slew Auntie Roo (1971) and dozens of other genre films, usually of better quality. (True, he also worked on crap like The Brides of Dracula (1960/trailer), but then, everybody has a bad hair day.) It is easy to imagine the story Sanger probably supplied (as he desperately tried to fix his hair): "Uh, like, some young woman goes somewhere where there are no parents and like, uh, young people start dying." Not exactly Gone With The Wind or Les Miserables — or a Bee-Line publication for that matter — but more than enough for the actual scriptwriter, some unknown named Natalie Scharf, to regurgitate the semblance of a beginning, middle and end.
Unlike most slashers, Flashback opens with not one but rather two introductory scenes. The first, which occurs on a train, is used to introduce a sickle-wielding nutcase in a flowered housedress and is filmed so incompetently that one first expects the whole thing to be a film within a film, and that when the real film starts it will be revealed that the characters are simply watching some lame horror film. But no, it soon becomes obvious that one is really simply watching a lame horror flick. After the introduction of the third-rate Norman Bates, another scene is used to introduce the character of Jeanette Fielmann as a child (Nicola Etzelstorfer), who gets to find her daddy murdered, watch her mother have her throat sliced by the sickle-wielding cross-dresser, trip over her slit-in-two doggy and somehow survive the dark and stormy night. (Scriptwriter Natalie Scharf does manage to work in a classic urban legend into this scene which is effectively unnerving.) Then the adult Jeanette Fielmann (a surprisingly likable Valerie Niehaus) snaps awake on the couch of her shrink, Dr. Martin (Erich Schleyer). It is ten years later, and we learn that the seemingly normal Jeanette, who is unable to remember how she got away that night, has spent the last ten years being raised by Dr. Martin in a nut house. No, he is not some mad scientist, but rather a kindly, sympathetic father-figure who thinks it is time that Jeanette returns to the real world, so he arranges that she should go to the Alps for the summer to act as a French tutor for the Schroeders, a group of three rich and spoiled teenagers whose parents are off on a trip somewhere. No sooner does she get there than does someone steal her flowered housedress, a sickle disappears and mysterious lights start appearing in the old coach house across the way. Elke Sommer (born Elke Schletz in Berlin in 1940), looking much worse for wear than she did back in Blood Baron (1972/trailer) and Lisa & the Devil (1973/trailer), is on hand as a possible suspect, playing the bitter, limping and sinister housekeeper Frau Lust. (At the latest, she proves her innocence when she takes her last ride on the ski lift, dropping body parts along the way.) In no time flat, Jeanette is unsure whether or not she is having flashbacks or if there really is someone running around wearing a housedress and wielding a sickle, but between all her nervousness and her tutoring she still finds the time to start messing the bed-feathers with Leon Schroeder (Xaver Hutter). A hot-looking bitch in a wig named Ella (Katja Woywood) dies soon after her dog does, and some asshole in a Volkswagen becomes the running joke of the film once he gets a sickle through his head. Soon after, the film's big twist is revealed — so unexpectedly, in fact, that it is indeed effectively surprising — and from that moment on the bodies pile quicker than women have orgasms in porno films. (Likewise, the individual characters — by their idiotic actions, anyway — seem just as willing to die as the average woman in a porno flick is willing to fuck. True, they do all try to run away, but isn't that much the same as a woman saying "No" when she actually means "Yes"?) The final scene of the movie, of course, reveals that in all likelihood the entire process will repeat itself somewhere someday.
In all truth, had the dialogue not been so universally atrocious and had the direction been a bit more competent, Flashback might have been a rather good film. As it is, it veers back and forth between effectiveness and total idiocy and, as a result, becomes a jumbled mess whose only redeeming features are the blood, blood, blood and great landscape. In the last scene, the German director and actor Detlev Buck makes a brief guest appearance as the psychologist of the film's sole survivor. Aside from making one wonder what the hell he is doing in a project like this one, it also causes one to wonder about how much better Flashback could have been had someone with his talent done the direction. Undoubtedly, had Flashback been made by someone with a decent sense of comedy, the movie could have been a lot more fun than Scream ever was.
Still, in comparison to the next German produced slasher Swimming Pool (trailer), which came out in 2001 and was filmed in Prague, Flashback is a masterpiece of intelligent filmmaking.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Masque of the Red Death (USA, 1964)

As of 1960, Roger Corman, the great master of low budget drive-in and second-billing features, suddenly found himself with budgets a little larger than usual and, beginning with The House of Usher (1960/trailer), produced and directed a series of exceptional horror films based on a variety of stories, poems and titles by Edgar Allan Poe. While all the films in the series are of note, amongst the best is undoubtedly The Masque of the Red Death (trailer).
A gloomy, atmospheric exercise at overcoming one’s limited budget, the film features not only an excellent cast in good form and an effectively stylish art direction, but also displays a top notch, dreamlike cinematography by future art-house director Nicolas Roeg. Scriptwriters R. Wright Campbell and Charles Beaumont — the latter who was to die of Alzheimer’s Disease three years later — effectively cobbled their feature length script together by intertwining Poe’s dank, gloomy story of unavoidable doom with another less well-known short story of his, Hop Frog. Vincent Price, while not quiet exuding the decadence and innate corruption on par to his tour de force in Witchfinder General (1968/trailer), still does one of his better, less hammy acting jobs as the decadent Satanist Prospero. Prospero’s disrespect for the life of others is apparent in the first scene he appears, when his carriage and guards charge into the peasant’s village and almost run over a child. His despotic power as ruler of the area is likewise quickly established by his interaction with his fearful serfs. Retreating to his castle with Francesca (played by then 18-year-old Jane Asher, who, after being dumped by Paul McCartney, eventually went on to be killed in that depressing cult classic Deep End (1970/credit sequence)) in tow, Prospero plans to sit out the ravages of the Red Death amongst his entertaining and depraved minions behind the locked gate of his fortress. As to be expected, the Red Death is hardly so easily vanquished....
As an added treat, the film also features the striking Hazel Court, a familiar and beautiful face to fans of Corman and Hammer films who eventually disappeared into marriage and television before dying in 2008, plays Juliana, an early practitioner of branding and Prospero’s ill-fated female plaything facing replacement by the reluctant Francesca.
The Masque of the Red Death is a horror film with artistic pretensions that, despite a few dialogue heavy scenes and inconsistent plot aspects, still manages to impress and entertain. Definitely worth catching the next time it turns up on late night television, though watching it on DVD uncut by commercials would be a far more satisfying viewer experience.

A Climate for Killing (USA, 1991)

A Climate for Killing starts off with Yuma Sheriff Kyle Shipp (John Beck) first being confronted with a headless and handless body of a woman and, soon thereafter, with a barbecued Mexican. With the help of his alcoholic coroner Grace Hines (Katherine Ross) he links the woman to a murder-suicide long-since forgotten and ends up putting his life, job and honor on the line so as to get his man. He is accompanied most of the time by Paul McGraw (Steven Bauer), a big-city surveyor sent to review and restructure his department, who also starts to woo his bitchy daughter Elise (Mia Sara). The film meanders along at a very slow, no-chance-of-a-heart-attack-here pace. Needless to say, all ends well and bygones become bygones and love conquers all and gag me with a spoon.
The first of J.S. Cardone's various American Southwest films, A Climate for Killing is probably the least interesting of them all. The main flaw lies in the script which, as normal for a Cardone film, was penned by the man himself. While the mystery, general plot and story development itself holds water well — even if the murderer is much too easy to figure out — the characterization, character development and various subplots are annoyingly flat and predictable, somewhere on the level of a bad television flick. Likewise, Paul & Elise are completely unnecessary, uninteresting characters that serve little other than to pad the film and annoy the viewer, a failed attempt at adding "emotional depth" to the thriller that adds little other than boredom. (In terms of sunburnt, desert murder mysteries infused with interesting character development and relationship-based subplots, John Sayles' Lone Star (1996/trailer) is definitely miles better — and much more unsettling for the Average Joe.)
Katherine Ross, a bright star of the late sixties in such films as The Graduate (1967) and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969) who disappeared into the nether regions of bad television movies throughout the 80s does well as the alcoholic coroner, and John Beck is fine as the sheriff, but Steven Bauer is again miscast, his inert sliminess much better suited for such (small) parts as the drug lord in Traffic (2000). Mia Sara (shown here in some other flick) is simply Mia Sara, like normal.
In general, A Climate for Killing might be a substantial step up in class from Cardone's far-more entertaining first film Nightmare Island (1982/trailer), but it isn't half as interesting as his Red Rock West (1992) influenced and much more convoluted Black Day, Blue Night (1995/trailer) nor half as laughably fun as his much more trashy Alien (1979) rip-off Shadowzone (1990/trailer). Definitely not essential viewing.

Kill and Pray / Let Them Rest / Requiescant (Italy, 1967)

(A version of this review appeared in a print copy of the excellent film magazine Shock Cinema some half-dozen years ago. If you don’t know the magazine, you should. For more info on Shock Cinema, check out their homepage).

(Spoilers.) If you’re into the operatic Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, Carlo Lizzani’s trashy and fun western probably won’t be your cup o’ tea. Still, the first 15 minutes is more than entertaining, mixing both the best and the worst of what an Italian western can be, while the film as whole is an entertaining, interesting and truly individual oddity.
A group of Mexican banditos (Revolutionaries to some people, like the director) meet up for an official peace settlement with some Southern soldiers around the time of the Civil War and are promptly tricked, betrayed and slaughtered. The child son of the leader of the Mexicanos survives a head-shot to wander out into the desert, where he found and taken in by a passing-by pastor with family, driving a wagon with "In God We Trust" printed on the side. (Credit sequence.) Years go quickly by and the boy is suddenly a (mighty white) man who, when the pastor’s daughter by birth splits with a passing by Can-Can Troupe, swears to find her and bring her home. Before he even manages to leave town, he witnesses a stagecoach robbery and when the gun of the stagecoach driver falls into his hands, proves himself to be a (god) gifted sharpshooter and kills two of the robbers. An innocent babe in the wood going out into the big bad world to find the gal therewith becomes an angel of death who quotes the scriptures after he shoots them dead, goading his horse onwards by whacking its butt with a frying pan. Of course, he eventually finds the girl, who has since become a prostitute forced to work for the very folks who engineered the slaughter of his family by birth. By the end of the film, the gal may be dead but vengeance is not only his, he also steps directly into the shoes of his long-dead Daddy and to become the new Mexican Bandito Leader... I mean, Revolutionary.
Featuring — amongst other things — drug use, less than subtlety implied homosexuality (hey, if I weren't a happily married man, a couple of them bad boys wouldn’t find me saying "No"), a perve bad guy who rubs a Barbie doll against his cheeks when he's excited, the sexist abuse of women, a nasty shooting contest, an entertainingly overacting main bad guy (Mark Damon as the sinister "southern gentleman" James Bello Ferguson who leads the pack of villains), and a fabulously vile and laughably entertaining revenge-shooting, the film, despite obviously fake blood, huge gaps in logic and a lead good guy with the charisma of a wet sheet (Lou Castel as Requiescant), is actually rather good until Pier Paolo Pasolini shows up. Playing the priest Don Juan, he ruins the fun by constantly spouting long speeches of deep and meaningful metaphysical and political content that, while battering the various themes of Kill and Pray over ones head, also bore the tears out of you. Whenever he opens his mouth, one is advised to take the time to get a beer from the fridge.
Nonetheless, for fans of Italian trash and less socially redeemable spaghetti westerns, under any of its names Kill and Pray is great stuff!

Come Back, Charleston Blue (USA, 1972)

(Spoilers) While it doesn’t actually say much about the film itself, Come Back, Charleston Blue is probably the masterpiece of director Mark Warren’s entire career. Warren, who died in 1999 at the age of 61 due to cancer, was a TV director who started off at Laugh-In and then found a safe rent-paying niche in the realm of TV sitcoms, where he gave the orders on the set of such 1970’s staples as Sanford & Son, Barney Miller and Fish. Warren was seldom given a real film to direct, and those that he did make, like The Kinky Coaches & the Pom-Pom Pussycats (1979), a trashy teenage comedy, and Tulips (1981), a drama (or is it a comedy?) about suicide starring Gabe Kaplan and Bernadette Peters, tend to be excruciatingly impossible to sit through. Unbelievably enough, despite the man at its helm Come Back, Charleston Blue is an entertaining film in its own right, even if it is not the best of the genre.
Like many a film, Come Back, Charleston Blue does feature some pimp-mobile sized holes and inconsistencies in its plot, but then, continuity and logic never have been a strong staple in Hollywood, no matter what the genre. Starring Godfrey Cambridge as Gravedigger Jones and Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson, the first quarter of the film is particularly confusing, with characters of various importance being introduced and numerous seemingly unconnected events happening in quick succession, but after the initial chaos, the story becomes relatively clear-cut and simple. Between scenes of midgets stealing frozen chickens, black guys tossing bombs in the shape of footballs, nuns riding motorcycles and a number of killings done in the style of Charleston Blue (a gangster dead for 40 years), a "logical" plot slowly emerges. It seems that a top-notch, highly successful black photographer is engineering the theft of all heroin deliveries in Harlem, using Charleston Blue's "reappearance" as a diversion technique, not to rid the streets of the drug (as he claims to his girlfriend, the niece of the local Afro-American crime boss and Mafia patsy that he eventually has killed), but so that he can take over the business himself and, eventually, don the flashy wardrobe of a pimp (love that velor). Following a wonderfully over-the-top shootout in a cemetery in which, amongst others, a hearse full of Mafioso’s in black face bite the dust, Coffin and Gravedigger stage their own "death" so that they can get out from under the watchful eye of a dorky white cop their Uncle Tom chief has made them answerable to. Now free to destroy Harlem’s new drug source, the two cops manage to replace all the still-unsold heroine with some sort of powder that explodes into billowing clouds of Black Power colors. Of course, the bad guy dies in the end, but not before he does a James Cagney Public Enemy (1931) imitation and smashes a grapefruit into the face of his girlfriend.
A sequel to Ossie Davis’ 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem (trailer), which is viewed by some as being the actual initial impetuous behind and the first real industry-financed foray of Hollywood into the Blaxpliotation explosion of the 1970’s, Warren’s Come Back, Charleston Blue tries hard to follow Davis' strange, jarring but ultimately effective mix of comedy, action and social consciousness. Considering how badly his other movies are, Mark Warren did an amazingly good job. Both films are based on the violent, hard-boiled detective novels of Chester Himes, an ex-con and Paris-based writer who died in 1984, and feature his regular characters, Coffin and Gravedigger Jones. Unlike the cynical, corrupt and violent cops featured in the books, however, in the films the two are presented as (relatively) moral cops willing to tweak the law to see justice done. (Not at all like the corrupt Coffin and Gravedigger who make a brief appearance in the 1996 film adaptation of Himes' A Rage In Harlem (trailer).)

The House of Frankenstein (USA, 1944)

(Trailer.) Time to forget the artistic vision of James Whale’s first two films in the Universal Frankenstein cycle, to overlook the depth, pathos, wit and creativity that made both Frankenstein (1931/trailer) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935/trailer) such genre transcending masterpieces. By the time Universal gave the green light to The House of Frankenstein (1944), the series had degenerated to a pale shadow of its gothic, melodramatic past—though, unbelievably enough, worse was still to come, in the eventual form of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948/trailer).
In The House of Frankenstein, however, Abbot and Costello are not yet to be seen. Instead, mad Dr Niemann (Boris Karloff), a follower of Dr. Frankenstein, bides his time imprisoned deep in a stone fortress with his hunchbacked prison mate Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), dreaming of revenging himself upon those that put him there. A fortuitous bolt of lightning demolishes the fortress and the good doctor escapes into the raging storm with his new partner. Professor Bruno Lampini (George Zucco) happens upon the two while driving by with his traveling Chamber of Horrors sideshow and, in return for helping them, is killed. After assuming the identity of the professor and his coachman, the two set out for Visaria to continue Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments. Along the way they try, with varying levels of success, to kill or harm those who did Dr. Niemann wrong. Amongst the attractions of the Chamber of Horror are the skeletal remains of Count Dracula (John Carradine), whom Dr. Niemann revives by removing the stake. Forced by Dr. Niemann to be an instrument of revenge, the Count fails miserably and dies, but Niemann and Daniel make good their escape. Somewhere along the way they pick up Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), an attractive little hunchback gypsy gal whom Daniel falls in love with, but later, once Niemann has revived frozen the Frankenstein monster and werewolf in Visaria, she only has eyes for the cursed Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.). Love, pain, betrayal and destruction soon follow and everyone dies…. At least until the next sequel.
The House of Frankenstein is collectively the 6th Frankenstein film, the 4th Dracula movie and the 3rd Werewolf entry. Why the scriptwriters decided to leave out the Invisible Man and the Mummy is not easy to understand, for their inclusion could hardly have fit less than that of Dracula. (Actually, according to Gregory William Mank in It's Alive! The Classic Cinema Saga of Frankenstein, the original storyline did include the Mummy.) The whole sequence featuring the famed bloodsucker is so out of place and inconsistent to the rest of the film that it comes across as if fragments of some other aborted film project were added at the last minute to save time and money. The entire fifteen minutes that Dracula spends running after Rita Hussman (Anne Gwynne) starts and ends so suddenly that it becomes reminiscent of the first 15 minutes of that trash classic They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963). (That film, you might remember, was cobbled together from two separate projects and, as a result, all characters introduced within the first 15 minutes—including a VW bug driving secret agent—are suddenly killed and replaced by a bunch of new characters.) Carradine’s forgettable interpretation of the Count is also a detriment, as it is so fey that it almost achieves a campy level—“almost” being the key word here.
The mishmash of a script to The House of Frankenstein is credited to Curt Siodmark and Edward T. Lowe. Lowe reunited a year later with director Kenton for the equally abysmal The House of Dracula (trailer) and then — luckily considering how his writing skills were obviously decomposing — ended his decades long career as a second-feature scriptwriter (he had begun his career when movie theaters were still only nickelodeons). Director Kenton, who actually managed to direct one true film classic in his lifetime — Island of Lost Souls (1932/trailer) — continued his production of mostly lousy films into the fifties before carving a nitch on television, which better suited his lack of aesthetics. (Siodmark, on the other hand, is rightfully considered to be one of the greats of fantasy and B movies, and his named has graced many of film of A, B and Z credentials and quality. Born in Dresden in 1902, he began his career taking part in the German classics Menschen am Sonntag (1930) and F.P.1 antwortet nicht (1932) before finally fleeing the Nazis in 1937 alongside his brother Robert Siodmark, a filmmaker of much more upscale, respectful credentials. Curt’s resume as a scriptwriter also includes some definite classics, however, both trashy and not trashy, including The Invisible Man Returns (1940/trailer), The Invisible Woman (1940/trailer), The Wolfman (1941/trailer), I Walked with a Zombie (1943/trailer) and Bride of the Gorilla (1951/trailer).) In any event, The House of Frankenstein makes for good DVD fodder for your 6 year olds on a rainy afternoon. Aside from that, the best thing that can be said about the film is that although it may be worlds away from being one of the best Universal horror entries, whatever it lacks in style, flair, story, suspense or quality, it more than makes up for in laughs. Indeed, despite the massive number of fondly remembered names involved with the project, the movie is so ridiculous and second rate in every way that it becomes hard to believe that the project was ever seen as anything else other than occupational therapy for Universal’s numerous character actors. And what a list of faces grace this movie! Boris Karloff, J.Carol Naish, John Carradine, and Lon Chaney, Jr. all figure substantially in the movie, while Lional Atwill, George Zucco, Philip Van Zandt and the beautiful and once popular (but long forgotten) scream queen Anne Gwynne flit by in what can only be described as extended cameos. (Of course, Glen Strange is also along for the ride for his first turn as the Frankenstein monster, but though his career as background filler — primarily for westerns — was long, he is hardly a truly memorable blast from the past. Likewise, his interpretation of the monster is noteworthy only for its one-sidedness.) As to be expected of a film as bad as this one, The House of Frankenstein went on to eventually inspire a television miniseries of the same name in 1997.

Combat Shock / American Nightmare (USA, 1986)

(Trailer) After Buddy Giovinazzo made American Nightmare with the lowly budget of $40,000, he eventually sold it the legendary purveyors of contemporary crap Troma Films, who promptly re-edited parts of his film, cut in a bunch of rice patty fields and gave it the new title Combat Shock. Adding a Rambo inspired cover that has nothing to do with the actual film, Troma released the film into the lost world of cheap videos, where, against all odds, it didn't simply disappear. Over the years, Combat Shock has gained a rather vocal cult following, constantly referred to as some sort of skid-row hybrid of Eraserhead (1976/trailer) and Taxi Driver (1976).
While there are indeed aspects of this grimy, low budget and rancidly depressing strip of celluloid that seem to refer to the aforementioned films, Combat Shock is individual enough to be seen as something more than simply a "hybrid" of other, equally individual films. The famed baby, according to the filmmaker himself, was not part of the original script, in which the baby was meant to be heard off camera but never seen. The grotesque mini-E.T. was added to the film due to the desire of the special effects man, who claimed he could deliver a mutant on a budget of $60 and actually did so.
In March of 2001 in Berlin, Germany, Giovinazzo screened his own personal copy of the original edit of American Nightmare following a midnight reading of outtakes of his written works at the Xenon movie theater, a tiny movie house known for its interesting (but primarily of Gay interest) film scheduling. The rice paddies weren't missed, but the length, lethargic pacing, depressing tone and unadulterated ugliness of the film itself did manage to make half of the audience leave before the film's legendary finish. Simply said, American Nightmare is not everybody's taste. Still, for all its ugliness and pain, for all its first time filmmaker flaws (for which Giovinazzo seemed compelled to repeatedly apologize), the film still packs one mean sucker punch. Too slow to be an action film, not enough T&A to be exploitation, not enough war to be a war flick and not enough horror to be a horror movie, American Nightmare is a dirty, direct and aggressive slice of life gone to hell, it's obvious cheapness serving only to underscore the lost, pointless and painfully futureless lives of everyone involved. In all likelihood, no one in this movie would sing along with a Bruce Springsteen paean to the American way of life, for they live the American Nightmare. Troma wasn't all that wrong when they gave the video box the tagline: "Fighting, killing, maiming. Agent Orange and the torture cages were the easy part."
Buddy's brother Rick Giovinazzo does a surprisingly effective and convincing job as Frankie Dunlan, an unemployed, shell-shocked loser living in a wreck of a dumpy apartment located next to some subway tracks somewhere in the slummy backwaters of Staten Island. Saddled with a mutant baby that never stops crying and an ugly, nagging slob of a wife (Veronica Stork, who seems less to be acting than just being herself), Frankie suffers continual flashbacks to his Vietnam experiences as a P.O.W. and has a social circle consisting only of junkies and cheap, abusive and ridiculously dressed gangsters. On the eve of being evicted from his hellhole of a home, after another unproductive visit to the employment office — watch for director Giovinazzo as the guy with the ugly beard who briefly pops his head in asking about his Vegamatic — and an unproductive call to his estranged, sickly father who wants nothing to do with his "dead" son, Frankie finally loses it completely when the thugs he owes money to beat him up once too often. As to be expected, a bloodbath follows, the last scene being an excessive orgy of blood and unbridled tastelessness.
American Nightmare is one bent film, wallowing in its own filth and ugliness as it mirrors the deeper aspects of a futureless, scuzzland, USA. Uncompromising in every aspect, it is surprisingly well made considering its budget, though its ragged sleeves can be seen in the "Vietnam" scenes and most of the acting of its secondary characters. Often oddly funny, one ends up laughing and feeling disgusted at the same time. The film has a slow, almost monotonous pacing and camera work which, whether intentional or not, serves well to underscore Frankie's squalor and futureless situation. The music, supplied by the film's star, is unbelievably bad in a way only a low budget, 1980’s synth score can be. Less music than an unnerving dirge with an occasional rhythmic embellishment, it annoys and alienates, thus being oddly compatible to the whole distasteful cinematic experience.
Methinks Giovinazzo doeth excuse too much: American Nightmare might be an ugly, perverse film, but for a first film it is an exceptionally strong piece of work, far more interesting and honest than many a more celebrated debut (not to mention most follow-ups). It's a fat, stiff ten-inch dick shoved up the viewer's butt made in a land known for thin, limp one-inchers that never penetrate. Giovinazzo should be proud. Still, one has to wonder how a filmmaker goes from a movie like this to scripting She's Back (1989), aka Dead & Married, a seldom-screened black comedy starring Carrie Fisher.

Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy / Sharkman (USA, 2005)

(Trailer) Available in Europe on DVD as Sharkman, the original title of this Nu Image abomination is Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy. One of their many low budget B-films originally made for the SciFi Channel, the flick is also one of their worst. As directed by Michael Oblowitz, whose prior credits include two 2003 Steven Seagal movies — Out for a Kill (trailer) and The Foreigner (trailer) — Sharkman offers solid evidence that the fault that the two Seagal films both flopped is not alone the blame of the overage action blimp. Going by those two films, Oblowitz’s 2001 vampire film The Breed and this cinematic wreckage, Oblowitz would be doing the low-budget film world a favor if he were to go into early retirement, for a talented director he is not.
The story was thought up by Kennith M. Badish & Boaz Davidson — the same duo behind the plotlines of the indefinitely superior Nu Image B-flicks Larva (2005/trailer), Mansquito (2005/trailer) and
Creature (2004/trailer) — but to say the plot is by-the-numbers would be inappropriate because it would infer that the film displays more creativity than it actually does. The flick not only lacks the fun, guts, and directorial and technical proficiency of the three previously mentioned Nu Image productions, but it is also boring. On the whole, Sharkman plays out like a z-version of The Most Dangerous Game (1932, remake ad nauseum) intercut with the remnants of an incomplete mutant-shark flick. Populated by stock characters, the film is a poorly acted, incoherent mess that seems to have been edited by a mentally deficient epileptic.
The plot involves the usual group of fodder — 2 blondes (Elise Muller and, seen here, Maria Ignatova), 1 brunette (Hunter Tylo) with collagen lips and a lousy haircut, 1 older company boss (Arthur Roberts), 1 faceless young dude (G.R. Johnson) and 1 overweight “real” man (William Forsythe) — that go to an island where a former employee of the boss's major medical corporation (and father of the brunette’s ex-and-dead true love) and total all-out mad doctor (Jeffrey Combs), his Igor-like assistant (Velizar Binev) and ice-bitch female colleague (Lydie Denier) supposedly have found the cure for cancer. (That all is not well on the tropic paradise island we know from the opening scene of the movie in which some yachting yuppies become shark food when they take a swim in the island's harbor. Later on during the welcome luau another swimming couple also becomes shark food, but where they even came from is never explained.) Dr. Crazy has been screwing around with stem cells and has created a half-man, half-shark monster suit — the titular sharkman — and hasn’t really invited his guests to share his discovery, but rather to revenge past wrongs by feeding his guests to his creation (who is actually his mutated son, long thought dead). The group manages to escapes, but one by one they become shark food because the sharkman can obviously teleport and turn up everywhere all the time, no matter where the given person happens to be standing or floundering. Like the infamous Dr. Moreau, Dr. Crazy decides to mate the brunette with his shark son, but the hero shows up in time and saves the day and everything goes up in a really horrendously fake CGI explosion.
Sharkman is one of those types of films in which people (who have probably never handled a machine gun in their life) pick up machine guns and shoot better than professionally trained soldiers (who, in turn, can’t hit the side of a barn), but for all the shooting, explosions and people screaming, nothing either scary or suspenseful ever happens. Filmed in Bulgaria — although the landscape seems to change indiscriminately between Pacific Northwest pine forest, European mixed forest and Hawaii tropics — when watching the film, by the end of its running time one only wishes that the film had also remained in Bulgaria. Avoid at all costs, as it is not even good for a laugh.
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