Category: horror

Apr 05 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1′

If you’re arriving late to class, here’s the recap: director / producer / modern B-movie legend Lloyd Kaufman directed the original Class of Nuke ‘Em High, a flamboyantly grotesque parody of high school movies and radioactive mutant horror, in 1986. The premise: a high school in Tromaville, the most toxic city in America, is located right next to a nuclear power plant and the students gets contaminated when a dealer sells drugs irradiated from the plant. It spawned two sequels (produced and co-written but not directed by Kaufman), the last one released in 1994. Twenty years later, Kaufman revives the franchise with a new micro-budget epic so sprawling that it was split into two parts (ostensibly upon the recommendation of Quentin Tarantino, a la Kill Bill). Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 was shown at film festivals and played limited runs and special midnight screenings across the country before landing on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms, which is still the primary mode of distribution for Troma’s cult movies.

In Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, the old nuclear plant and its giant cooling towers (which loomed over the old high school thanks to cheap optical effects) have been bulldozed under (that’s what passes for environmental clean-up in the Tromaverse) but a new business has sprung up in its place. As guest narrator Stan Lee explains over the opening montage of clips from the earlier trilogy, “Tromorganic Foodstuffs, Inc, was built right over the old Tromaville Nuclear Power Plant. What could go wrong?”

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Mar 31 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Dead Kids’ (aka ‘Strange Behavior’)

Originally released in the U.S. under the name Strange Behavior, Dead Kids is the debut screenplay by future director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon (he Oscared for Gods and Monsters) and the directorial debut of producer Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop), two Americans who got their offbeat horror movie made by filming it as an Australian / New Zealand / American co-production in New Zealand. The title Dead Kids makes it sound like a slasher picture or a zombie film, and while there are some elements of both of those genres echoing through the film, it’s really a mix of mad scientist thriller and revenge movie dropped into a somewhat surreal recreation of small-town Midwest America.

Michael Murphy stars as John Brady, an easy-going chief of police (or maybe county sheriff?) in Galesburg, a small Illinois town close enough to Chicago to request help from the city’s homicide detectives. He’s a widower and a single father to Pete (Dan Shor), a smart, good-looking high school kid who wants to go to city college, despite Dad’s insistence he go to a major university and see a little of the world beyond this town. Dad has good reason to send Pete away: he blames a professor at the local college for the death of his wife. The professor is long deceased yet his legacy still hovers over the school through pre-recorded lectures and professors who continue his psychiatric research and experiments in behavior modification. Pete, eager to make a little extra money, signs up as their latest test subject in a vaguely-described study being run by the doctor’s protégé (Fiona Lewis, with an air of icy dominatrix about her). The project, of course, turns out to have a sinister side, as an outbreak of violent, inexplicable murders attest.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Mar 25 2014

Review: Larry Fessenden’s ‘Beneath’

Beneath was one of the best horror film of 2013. But most people never heard about it.

Produced by Chiller, a horror-themed sibling to the SyFy cable network still struggling for name recognition and access to cable systems, Beneath is the first feature in almost a decade directed by Larry Fessenden. It played a few film festivals and received a limited (very limited) release in July before hitting cable on a channel that few viewers know exists. Which means that hardly anyone has had an opportunity to see the film. With the movie coming out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, that should change.

'Beneath' - There's a monster fish in the water. Let's poke it with a stick!

The limited coverage it has received so far, at least on the horror-centric sites, seems to have missed the point, or at least became so complacent in their own superiority to the conventions of the genre that they never noticed how cleverly Fessenden, who has been turning classic horror genres inside out for over twenty years, and the screenwriters transformed the conventions of this genre—notably the idiotic behavior of potential teenage victims—into defining elements of story and character.

Beneath is both a tribute to monster-in-the-woods and the creature-under-the-water horror (the opening dream sequence turns the “Jaws” prologue into a teenage wet dream) and a genuine indie drama in the guise of a horror film. It springs from Fessenden’s love of reimagining classic genres in modern terms and real-world situations, and for using the conventions to tell character stories. And it was accomplished on a commercial cable movie budget.

Continue reading at Indiewire

Mar 08 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’

When British production studio Hammer Films first found success reviving the classic movie monsters with remakes of Universal horror films of the thirties in full, blood-dripping color and lurid Gothic style, they tried their hand at every iconic horror classic they could, but they found their biggest successes minting sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). The Dracula films turned into a curious mix of spin-offs, sequels, and modernized updates, with guest bloodsuckers filling in for Dracula until Lee returned to title role. The Frankenstein movies, however, became a more connected cycle of films, variations on a theme centered not on the creature (as in the Universal films) but on Baron Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing in all but one of the films. They followed a chronology (with minor exceptions) that charted the Baron’s monomaniacal obsession to create life at any cost and Peter Cushing defined him as a ruthlessly ambitious man of science, a pitiless rationalist ready to sacrifice human life in the name of scientific discovery. He was, in an odd way, both hero and villain of the series, and a very different portrait of the scientist than presented in either the novel or the iconic 1931 film.

The 1967 Frankenstein Created Woman, Hammer’s fourth Frankenstein film, is a loose sequel that finds the Baron in residence at a generic Bavarian village with a new assistant, Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), an old, amiably befuddled, apple-cheeked country doctor, and a whole new plan of attack. Instead of the familiar surgical patchwork bodies cobbled together from unwitting organ (and body) donors and reanimated with electricity, he takes a more metaphysical approach this time.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Mar 06 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘The Visitor’ Brings Satanic Incoherence with a Side of Bizarre

Visitor

The Visitor (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1979 Italian giallo-esque supernatural horror with an American cast and a former Fellini assistant taking the directorial reigns with more imagination than storytelling discipline, is not the first Exorcist knock-off to come out of the Italian genre factory. It may, however, be the least coherent. Opening on Franco Nero as a Django Jesus in a heaven with art direction out of Logan’s Run and populated with bald children, it quickly sends John Huston as a paternal emissary (or maybe a particularly grandfatherly God, who knows?) on mission to stop Santeen from taking over Earth through 8-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner, more creepy Bad Seed than possessed Linda Blair). There’s also a helping of The Omen, Carrie, The Birds, and the hall of mirrors of The Lady From Shanghai (among many other films), a basketball game with an exploding dunk shot, an abduction out of UFO lore, and Glenn Ford as a police detective who gets his eye pecked out by a falcon.

Giulio Paradisi (directing under the screen name Michael J. Paradise) came up with the story, which recasts the idea of a satanic thriller as a cosmic battle, and apparently keeps rewriting as it goes along. Katy has vaguely telekinetic powers and a strange sense of humor (in a game of tag at an ice rink she tosses a couple of teenage boys out of the rink and through a plate of glass) and somehow the evil corporate cabal’s mission to have Katy’s mommy (Joanne Nail) spawn even more devil children becomes a campaign of torture that lands her in a wheelchair and worse. The cast also drops in Shelley Winters as a cranky housekeeper, Mel Ferrer as the corporate devil, Sam Peckinpah as a doctor (completely dubbed into anonymity), and young Lance Henriksen as the Ted Turner of the Apocalypse. Okay, that’s a stretch, but it does actually take place in Atlanta (though most of it is shot in Rome).

Paradisi may not have a clue about directing actors (Glenn Ford walks through his performance in a daze, though in his defense he probably read the script and ended up more confused than ever) but he has picked up a few tricks from Argento on how to move a camera and from Fulci on how to stage a supernatural freak-out. It’s not particularly gory, mind you, and the cut-rate optical effects of the cosmic finale are so slapdash they become abstract, but that kind of works for this oddball trip.

The Visitor9

'The Visitor' - In heaven, everything is fine

I confess that this is the first time I’ve tried to review a Blu-ray release via streaming video. It may not have made that much of a difference, for despite the claims of being “restored” the print was filled with minor scuffs, scratches and abrasions and the picture looked a little soft. More likely this is a preservation rather than a restoration, an HD master of a high-quality print.

The press release insists that there are interviews with star Lance Henriksen, screenwriter Lou Comici and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri, but only Henriksen and Comici were accessible to me. Both artists describe a production where no one had any idea what was going on with the script or the story, including the director, who dismissed all queries when asked to explain. Henriksen is marvelously good-natured about remembering the experience, which he found a delight even though the film is such a mess (his story about getting direction from co-star John Huston is priceless). I did not receive a copy of the booklet that accompanies the disc.

More cult and classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Mar 05 2014

Blu-ray: Paul Schrader’s ‘Cat People’

Ostensibly a remake of the 1942 classic by the same name, Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People is a cat of a different species entirely. At the time, it was accused of being garish and gory and literal in its exploration of sexuality as an animal impulse, in contrast to the shadowy psychological suggestions of the Jacques Tourneur-directed original. Schrader, who was a brilliant film critic before he turned to writing scripts and then directing films, had written Taxi Driver and Obsession and Raging Bull and came to Cat People after American Gigolo, his third film as a director but his first big success. Cat People was the first project he had not written himself, a script that had been developed by other directors, and while he had screenwriter Alan Ormsby significantly rework the script with his own ideas, Schrader took no screen credit for it. Yet Schrader himself remarked years later that “when I look back on it, I see Cat People as being almost the most personal film I’ve done.” He reunited much of the creative team from American Gigolo–director of photography John Bailey, composer Giorgio Moroder, and most importantly visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti–and transformed a sleek, sexy horror remake into a Paul Schrader film.

The film opens on a dream-like scene in a desert of blowing amber sand where young women are sacrificed to leopards. It plays more like myth or metaphor than literal flashback, a beguiling, beautiful, terrible fantasy of sex and magic and flesh and fur in what could be the most magnificent cinematic snow globe ever shaken on screen.

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Mar 03 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’

Seven years after resurrecting Count Dracula for a new generation in Hammer Films’ The Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee returned to role under the direction of Hammer’s defining director, Terence Fisher, for a direct sequel. In fact, Dracula: Prince of Darkness opens a recap of the Horror of Dracula finale, which is the first and last time we see Peter Cushing in the picture. But while the film is a genuine sequel with a new story (scripted by Jimmy Sangster from an idea by producer Anthony Hinds, both using pseudonyms in the credits) it reworks many details from the classic novel and Hammer’s adaptation on a smaller scale.

This time the innocents are a group of English tourists–brothers Charles (Francis Matthews, speaking with a Cary Grant lilt) and Alan (Charles Tingwell) and their wives Diana (Suzan Farmer) and Helen (Hammer regular Barbara Shelley)–vacationing in the Carpathian Mountains. Dumped in the woods by a terrified coachman just before darkness falls, they are taken to Dracula’s castle in a driverless carriage and take refuge in the seemingly empty yet oddly kept up place, despite the warnings of travelling priest Father Sandor (Andrew Keir in holy monk warrior garb) and the ominous arrival of the castle’s sole living occupant, Klove (Philip Latham), servant to long-dead master. Klove delivers the film’s best line to his guests, who enquire about the Dracula legacy: “My master died without issue, sir, in the accepted sense of the term.” (Curiously, Klove is nowhere to be seen in the original The Horror of Dracula). He’s enough to put you off the main course, and it does exactly that to Helen, the only member of the party with sense enough to want out of there.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Feb 18 2014

Videophiled: JT Petty’s ‘Hellbenders’ 3D

HellbendersHellbenders (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, Digital HD) – It’s an unusually thin week for New Releases on disc, so I took the opportunity to grab something that might ordinarily get overlooked. I’ve been a fan of JT Petty since he made Soft for Digging more than a decade ago. He’s got a gift for unease and eeriness and prefers weird and creepy over explicit when it comes to his horror.

For Hellbenders, however, he takes a page out of John Carpenter’s Vampires (with a touch of Alex de la Iglesias’ The Day of the Beast) for his wild bunch of holy demon hunters. Clancy Brown leads the multi-denominational dirty half-dozen, a band of badass kamikaze exorcists who behave more like a motorcycle gang than ordained priests. Even their name sounds like a gang: The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints. Petty’s twist is that these holy warriors have a poison pill back-up: if they fail to exorcize their target demon, they can coax the demon into possessing them (a man or woman of God is a prize for Satan’s spawn) and then kill themselves and drag the demon with them back down to hell. Which means they have to be “damnation ready” by breaking a healthy percentage of the 10 Commandments and indulging in the Seven Deadly Sins—within boundaries, of course.

Great idea for a horror comedy but misguided in the execution. Petty isn’t—how shall I put this—funny. His previous films have spun webs of unease with his eerie imagery and offbeat horrors and controlled, underplayed performances. Hellbenders tries to leverage to contradictions inherent in the premise for laughs without actually giving his naughty priests anything clever to do. A bunch of debauched guys (including Clifton Collins Jr., The Wire‘s Andre Royo and an underutilized Dan Fogler) and one woman (Robyn Rikoon) in clerical collars blaspheming a blue streak, smoking dope and discussing sexual indiscretions does not a joke make, and his script doesn’t even come offer anything as clever as a tired Bruce Willis quip lobbed under fire.

Hellbenders_still

Not the Last Supper

As meticulous as his best films have been, Hellbenders feels as starved of creative attention as it is of budgetary resources. The direction feels haphazard, the characters lazily dumped into scenes where they shout their way out of the material, the demon battles staged with perfunctory fire and brimstone but little sense of anything actually at stake. If you think it’s worth it just to hear Clancy Brown commit himself to a stream of expletives with gusto for near-on 90 minutes, I won’t judge you. But it’s hard to believe such talented people made such a lifeless, laughless black comedy decades after Sam Raimi reset the bar with the Evil Dead films.

Blu-ray and DVD editions include commentary by Petty and the cast and the 26-minute “God’s Dirty Work: The Making of Hellbenders” produced by Red Shirt Pictures (which has been doing fine work for Shout Factory’s special editions), plus behind-the-scenes footage and the original “Exorcism” short films (glimpsed in the mock-documentary framing footage). The Blu-ray edition features the 3D version of the film for 3D-compatible monitors and players and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Jan 07 2014

Videophiled: ‘We Are What We Are’ in the ‘Key of Life’

WAWWA_3D

We Are What We Are (eOne, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital), Jim Mickle’s remake of the Spanish film of the same name, is a horror film by definition—an isolated family in rural America cloisters its teenage daughters in a religion/ritual that reaches back to their starving forefathers who turned to cannibalism to survive a harsh frontier—but a family drama at heart.

Bill Sage is the ominously protective father who serves as a severe keeper of tradition with glowering tough-love strictness while the two girls just want to fit in with the world outside. We’re not talking hanging at the mall and getting cute new outfits, mind you, just participating in the social world of their school peers, but when mom suddenly dies (the tremors that presaged her collapse are rippling through dad as well) the pressure is on the eldest daughter (Ambyr Childers) to carry on the ritual, which involves blood, butchery, and someone kept captive in the workshop basement. Given that build-up, the film is intimate and poignant, a human story of growing up and yearning to be like everybody else in cloistered culture that demands strict obedience and violent defense.

The Blu-ray and DVD features cast and crew commentary, interviews with director Jim Mickle and actors Bill Sage and Julia Garner, and the featurette “An Acquired Taste: The Making of We Are What We Are.”

keyoflife

Key of Life (Film Movement, DVD) is a lighthearted black comedy from Japan about a struggling, suicidal actor and an amnesiac hitman who swap identities after the latter whacks his head in a bathhouse accident and the former steals his wallet for a fresh start. Rounding out the cast is a highly-organized female magazine editor who plans out an entire courtship and marriage before even meeting her prospective boyfriend. She finds her well-ordered plans thoroughly upset when she helps the amnesiac try to piece his life together from the detritus of his doppelganger. Director/writer Uchida Kenji approaches with a deadpan whimsy and an optimism trumps all the potential disaster. Personality triumphs over circumstance, even when circumstances take some unexpected (and thoroughly entertaining) turns, like an amateur suddenly obligated to knock off a gangster. The disc includes the bonus short film Finale from Hungary.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital at Cinephiled

Dec 31 2013

New blood revived familiar genres in 2013

I love genre films: horror, science fiction, heist films, con games, crime thrillers, all those modes that entice audiences with a promise of familiar tropes and unexpected twists. Back in my high school days it was pure fan adoration and during my college evolution I embraced the subversive subtexts and mythic explorations. Today I’m a bit more discerning but no less charmed by a fresh take on or a spirited revival of a familiar genre. Those first loves never leave you completely.

Ironically, as the entertainment industry has promoted once unrespectable genres into blockbuster events, I find myself less satisfied than when they existed largely as filler to studio schedules or the domain of upstarts and exploitation producers. They weren’t always good, let alone great, but the possibility of being surprised always brought me back to find the next Terminator or Near Dark or Cronos. The budgets are bigger and the spectacle more lavish in the Star Wars and Harry Potter and Twilight and Hobbit franchises, but we’ve lost the quirks and creativity in the homogenization and gentrification of what were once outliers.

But the outliers are still there. They’re just harder to find amidst the smothering promotional campaigns of the franchises that devoured Hollywood. Here are some of the pleasures I found between the tentpoles.

'Stoker'

With vampires becoming so fashionable it’s refreshing to find something as unsettling as Stoker, the American feature debut of Park Chan-wook. It plays like a vampire movie without a vampire. At least not in the mythic sense of the term. Mia Wasikowska is dreamy and uneasy as a teenage girl preternaturally attuned to the world and Matthew Goode is creepily calm and seductive as her Uncle Charlie. Yes, it’s an offhanded reference to Hitchcock’s take on another dark uncle-niece relationship but she’s no small town innocent. Park sculpts the film beautifully, throwing the literalness of Wentworth Miller’s original screenplay off balance with every shot. There is blood and brutality and the icy threats under silent intimidation, but done with such elegance and eerie suggestion that it feels like a dream. Or an awakening.

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Dec 31 2013

Videophiled: ‘The Big Gundown’ and ‘Nightmare City’

BigGundown

It’s hard to believe that The Big Gundown (Grindhouse, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), easily one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made, has never been on home video in the U.S. in any legitimate form before. It features Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering and unforgiving sense of justice, and Tomas Milian as Cuchillo, the Mexican peasant outlaw accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl. Cuchillo is more con man and frontier rascal than hardened criminal, but his antics and his survival instincts still manage to get a few unsavory types killed in the proverbial crossfire while Corbett’s obsessive pursuit of justice brings its own collateral damage. But in the savage frontier societies of this spaghetti western culture, that still makes them the good guys.

Director Sergio Sollima is not the stylist that Sergio Leone was and doesn’t have Leone’s operatic approach to conflict on the desert frontier, but with his screenwriting collaborator Sergio Donati he certainly had a way with portraying the corruption of the American dream on the frontier. Van Cleef’s Corbett is a humorless, unstoppable force and Milian’s Cuchillo a wily, earthy Bugs Bunny playing pranks on his escape, but both are pawns in a game of power and money. Which, of course, they learn in due course as the pursuit crosses the border into Mexico and the forces of law and order sent by a would-be railroad baron become ruthless vigilantes. Ennio Morricone provides a suitably spare score and Almeria, Spain, and surrounding areas double for the towns and the beautiful but hostile desert plains.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

NightmareCity

Nightmare City (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) (Dec 31), also known as City of the Walking Dead, is the notorious goremeister Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 pseudo zombie thriller. These are actually radioactive mutants, the victims of a deadly spill from a local nuclear plant disaster, but they have an unhealthy hunger for human flesh just the same. Hugo Stiglitz (yes, the inspiration for the name of the Tarantino character in Inglourious Basterds) is the journalist sent to cover the accident and Laura Trotter is his medical doctor wife, who do their best the evade the flesh eating ghouls while the army (led by Mel Ferrer) just seems to annoy them. Previously on DVD in the US, this edition features a new HD master. Italian and English language versions with optional English subtitles, plus an interview with director Umberto Lenzi, trailers, and a booklet.

More releases at Cinephiled

Oct 27 2013

Videophiled Halloween Edition: Five Great Disc Releases for the Season

It’s not just the ghouls that come out for Halloween. Horror movies are a year-round genre but October is special, and perhaps not just because of the holiday. As sunny summer days gives was to the chill of autumn and early nightfall ushers in winter, maybe we’re more drawn to the cinema of shadows and the creatures lurking within. Or maybe it’s just a convenient marketing focus.

Regardless, tis the season for disc labels to bring out their marquee horror classics. Here are five stand-out horror releases for Fall 2013 along with a round-up of other burnt offerings for the season.

The Vincent Price Collection (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) is the season’s most impressive horror movie set. Price had a long and successful career before becoming an icon of American gothic horror but this set pays tribute to his later years, beginning with The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), the first of Roger Corman’s colorful Edgar Allan Poe films, and concluding with The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), the deliriously surreal revenge film of clockwork ingenuity and macabre humor. Six films on four discs in all, along with plenty of extras.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) established the tone and style of Roger Corman’s successful cycle of gothic horror film, most of them based on (or at least inspired by) the work of Poe and scripted by Richard Matheson. These are stories of madness and melancholia set in gloomy, crumbling mansions and shot in rich, bleeding color and CinemaScope by the great Floyd Crosby, and Price’s theatrical flourish gives his brooding heroes a sense of tragedy. In Pendulum, Corman creates something even more chilling in Barbara Steele’s savage eyes and feral smile, Price’s cackling transformation into a sadistic ghost, and the grandiose bladed pendulum set piece, but he saves his most chilling image for the wickedly ironic climax.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is the greatest of the Poe films and Price trades in his haunting, haunted portraits to play the demented, debauched Prince Prospero. His castle is the sole sanctuary during the plague, but the price to enter is to become a plaything of the sadistic tormentor and he wields the power of life and death with no pity: his subjects are toys and he revels in their humiliation and torture. Based on two Poe stories (“The Masque of the Red Death” and “Hop-Frog, or the Eight Chained Orang-outangs”) and influenced by Ingmar Bergman, it was scripted by Charles Beaumont, another specialist in takes of fantasy and horror but with a more macabre sensibility than Matheson, and shot in Britain with a largely British cast and crew. The combination of greater resources (Corman used some sets leftover from Beckett, giving him grander sets than ever before) and new collaborators (Nicolas Roeg was his cinematographer), and perhaps the distance from AIP offices, enable Corman to make his most daring character study, his bleakest portrait of human deprivation and resignation in the face of fear, and most stylistically impressive film.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

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