Friday, October 31, 2008

Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (2007)



Remember those blissful nights you spent, out in the forest, camping with your family? Remember the fire, the marshmallows, the storytelling? Remember your family being ruthlessly slaughtered by a forest troll? No? Well, Jack Brooks does. And he’s pissed. Since that time, Brooks (Trevor Matthews) has become a plumber (and my understanding is that this means he’s voting for McCain), one with an immense anger issue. How does he cope with his anger? Considering the title of the movie, you can probably guess.

The monsters in question--the monsters who Jack Brooks must slay--are led by Professor Gordon Crowley (Robert Englund), who teaches night school for a group of ne'er do-wells, Jack among them. Prof. Crowley is a well-meaning old chap who unfortunately runs afoul an evil black heart that takes him over, and gives him the power to create zombies. Or something. Zombies that Jack Brooks must slay. In the process, Jack overcomes his anger issues, and saves some members of his night class--but not all of them, or it wouldn't be gory enough.



Jon Knautz’s Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer is a harmless and fun creature feature, the kind of thing that you can pop on when you want a few laughs and a cheap thrill. It’s not really audacious, or ground breaking, or even particularly interesting, but it’s entertaining and it's reasonably well done. I guess this is damning it with faint praise, but all things considered, Jack Brooks doesn’t really screw anything up, and in the realm of low-budget horror films, that definitely counts for something.

The film is anchored around the performances of Englund and Matthews, and both are up to the task. Englund is able to give the sort of schlocky-yet-consummate performance you’d expect from an actor who has been living and breathing the genre for years--he’s practically this generation’s Vincent Price. He might not try very hard, but he doesn’t have to. Prof. Crowley’s an amiable guy, and Englund plays him in such a way that you can’t help but feel bad for him once he’s taken over by the ancient, evil force, making him the bad guy of the film.


Matthews, a relative newcomer, plays Jack as a high-strung loser, an average dude who can’t catch a break. His dialogue, though forced, is usually good for a laugh; complaining about his violent temper, he says: “Fuck man, I broke a bottle over my head once because I couldn’t open it! I mean, you know… that doesn’t even make any sense!”

There are no computer graphics in Jack Brooks, so some old timey horror purists should be happy--for instance, the monster that Prof. Crowley eventually morphs into is a gigantic puppet that took as many as eight handlers to operate at one time. In this sense, it has a definite old school feel to it; it’s kind of like a Stuart Gordon film (though less sleazy), or Evil Dead II (though less funny). Though low-budget, most of the monsters are quite impressive-looking; the cyclops and the Professor-creature are perhaps the most entertaining of the bunch.


The Anchor Bay DVD of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and contains a host of special features, including an audio commentary with the director, the writer, the composer, and Jack Brooks himself, Trevor Matthews. It’s nice to see a few behind the scenes videos; one that gives you insight into the monster-making process is interesting, but I’m not sure that anyone needs to see video from the World premiere at Sitges. Storyboard comparisons; a still gallery; deleted scenes; an art gallery; the trailer--all that shit is there.

Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer may not break new ground, but it’s good entertainment for anyone who wants to kill 80 minutes with some decent laughs, some old school monsters and gore, and a reasonable amount of bloodshed. Though I can see the humour falling flat for some, in most cases I think it hits its mark, and though the film might wait too long to bring on the real bloodshed, the final battle is gruesome and fun enough to make up for it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hot Wax Zombies on Wheels (1999)


A body waxing business opens in a seaside California town, run by the evil, cape-wearing Yvonne (Gwen Somers). Apparently, a side effect of the waxing is becoming a mindless, sex-crazed zombie, which starts cutting into the business of lingerie store owner Sharon (Jill Miller) and barbers Mick (Jon Briddell) and Sven (Trevor Lovell). After Mick visits the waxing salon, it's up to Sharon and Sven to travel to Beverly Hills and stop Yvonne's maniacal plot to take over the world (or at least California).


Hot Wax Zombies On Wheels is a pitiful entry into the already bloated horror/comedy field, and will elicit groans from the audience for both the juvenile humour on display (often in the form of wacky sound effects) as well as the technical ineptness that fills every frame. It's the film version of a wacky morning radio show, and the result is simply annoying when it's not flat out boring.

It's difficult to not be hard on a film which obviously had the resources, meager though they appear, to be better than it is. While the acting is amateurish, the production values are fine in a straight-to-video soft-core porn kind of way. It's the lame script and often incomprehensible plot which really drag things down, as well as a director who seems to honestly think fart noises and Bennie Hill-style sped up film are the height of comedy.

On the commentary, Jill Miller mentions a scene where her character is simply having a conversation but appears to be staring into space. She's right to question it, as the choice is both bizarre and distracting and, despite some awkward explanation from director Michael Roush, seems indicitive of the problems with the film as a whole. The best low budget films turn their obvious liabilities into strengths, while this one seems to desperately be trying to convince the audience that obvious errors or weaknesses are on purpose.

It also makes the usual error of spending it's (scant 80 minute) running time winking at the audience in recognition of its badness. From the lurid, drive-in title to the hammy acting from the leads, it's obvious that nobody is meant to take this material seriously, but it serves only to push away those who might be lured in by the title. There are no zombies here, only people wandering around mumbling about getting rid of "pesky body hair". Gore is completely non-existent, and the only real exploitative element is the copious amounts of nudity. However, even that is ineptly included as the director shot most of the scenes after the fact, tacking them in randomly throughout.

Miller gives a competent performance as the lead, and while the execution of the plot is pitiful, there's no doubt that it's at least original. In fact, in more capable hands a similar plot might have been massaged into a decent satirical horror film. The few gags that do work in this film work in spite of the direction, often because of the efforts of an obviously game cast.

The film is presented by Pathfinder Home Entertainment in a perfectly watchable full-screen transfer. Most of the film was shot in a single house, and though the settings are generally bland they look fine on the DVD.

The DVD features a Commentary with director Michael Roush, actress Jill Miller, actress Catherine Brewton, and actor and producer Bill Blum. It's good natured, featuring some fun stories from the cast, but everyone involved seems to be under the impression that the film is better than it actually is. Miller states at one point that she interprets the film as a feminist statement, and I may have missed the last twenty minutes from the constant eye-rolling caused by this remark.

Also included are cast and crew bios, as well as a short photo gallery.

If you're a fan of the genre, you've seen many filmmakers do much better with much less available to them. Hot Wax Zombies On Wheels is not fun, not scary, not entertaining, not gory, and not worth the time of anyone who might think of picking it up based on the title.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ils (2006)

As I mentioned before in my review of À l'intérieur, it appears that the Europeans have been on a roll when it comes to making sure that the horror genre stays viable.

For once, the French are leading a charge. The resurgance in Euro-horror seems to be primarily fueled by a modern revival of the Grand Guignol, now popularly known as De Nouvelles Brutalités (literally, the New Brutality).

The titles that seem to spring up in discussions of French suspense movies and horror films worth watching include À l'intérieur, Maléfique, Sheitan, Haute Tension (which I wasn't particularly fond of), Calvaire (which I found to be more weird, surreal, and disturbing rather than truly frightening), and of course, Ils.

Ils (English title: Them) is a 2006 film co-directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, and featuring Olivia Bonamy and Michaël Cohen.

The film takes place in Romania, where we're introduced to Clementine (Bonamy), a young teacher who has recently relocated from France to a rural area somewhere near Bucharest. Her erstwhile lover and semi-successful novelist, Lucas (Cohen), has come along with her presumably to find inspiration for future material.

One fateful night, Clementine hears noises downstairs and Lucas decides to investigate. A poor choice, as the pair soon discover that their house has been invaded by a group of hooded teens that are interested in more than valuables.

Ils carries the ever misleading "based on true events" tag with it, as does it's apparent US remake, The Strangers.

While it's probably true that it's highly likely that Ils does indeed draw inspiration from several high-profile home invasions (ie. the Tate-LaBianca murders, the murders in Holcomb, Kansas that were the centerpiece of Truman Capote's novel, In Cold Blood), films like these are so visceral that they should be able to stand on their own without such unnecessary gimmicks.

The events in films with such tags only add to the urban legends that surround such occurrences rather than factual accountings, and it distracts from Ils's own worth as a perfectly fine suspense movie.

Ils presses it's finger on your pulse to make sure it is racing through nearly the entire seventy seven minute runtime. Ils also follows proudly in the footsteps of Cronenberg's The Brood, by providing a setting where the most brutal acts imaginable are perpetrated by children.

As adults, we usually assume that children are incapable of such inhumanity, but the truth is that we've probably absolved ourselves of the memory of amoral playground politics.

Even in the best slasher movies, the most menacing dismemberer of teen victims isn't the adult that knows right from wrong and chooses wrong; it is the killer whose mind is trapped inside a child's rudimentary understanding of laws and society and commits murder with no sense of pity or remorse.

The dealing of death is little more than a game of Hide & Seek to them, and they can't be reasoned with or dissuaded from their appointed task.

So far, I am three for three when it comes to enjoyment of the new crop of Euro-horror movies. Here's hoping I can keep the streak alive through Halloween.

Monday, October 27, 2008

À l'intérieur (2007)

It seems like it wasn't too long ago that horror fans counted on the influx of Japanese angry ghost movies to resurrect the horror genre from oblivion. Nowadays, our beloved European allies are picking up the slack for a lazy Hollywood machine that appears to have run out of ideas.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed that brilliant, micro-budget Spanish pseudo-zombie mini epic, [.REC]. If you're in North America and are not tracking down a torrent of this movie to tide you over until a proper DVD release, then shame on you.

This time around, it is the wonderfully unapologetic French splatterfest, À l'intérieur, better known to North Americans as Inside and co-directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury.

The plot of À l'intérieur is stripped down and built for speed.

Maury and Bustillo have the gall to set this story near Christmas and set the stage by introducing us to Sarah (Alysson Paradis), a lonely pregnant woman mourning the loss of her husband to a terrible car accident. Poor Sarah plans on spending Christmas Eve alone and then checking herself into a hospital on Christmas Day to give birth to her child...

...or so she thinks...

Unfortunately for Sarah, she's being stalked by a completely psychotic woman (Béatrice Dalle) suffering the incredible delusion that Sarah's unborn child somehow belongs in her womb instead of Sarah's. In the fashion of proper movie psychos like The Shape from John Carpenter's horror masterpiece, Halloween, Dalle's character is referred to in the closing credits only as La Femme or The Woman.

So there you have it: One extremely vulnerable woman, one batshit insane stalker without a name, one unborn child, plenty of unlucky bystanders, and gallons and gallons of blood.

A twice-blessed event (Christmas and the birth of a child) transformed into as brutal of a struggle for survival as you'll ever see on film.

I've always maintained that movies with psycho killers frighten me the most because of the lack of a substantial amount of willful suspension of disbelief allowed to me. It's easy to wave off vampires or werewolves, but it doesn't work so much for "insane person with a pair of knitting needles lunging for your jugular." Chosing not believe in the existance of a homicidal maniac doesn't necessarily keep the homicidal maniac from believing in your existance, and if they do then you might not be existing for very long.

À l'intérieur is absolutely bone-jarring. Normally the gratuitous amount of over-the-top violence would tend to shove a movie towards the campier side of the spectrum. In this case, the violence coupled with the ruthlessness and relentlessness of Béatrice Dalle's character, La Femme, only serves to shock your senses more than usual.

As much as Sarah is determined to do what is necessary to save her life and the life of her unborn child, La Femme is even that much more determined to possess a life that she honestly believes rightfully belongs to her. The alchemy that occurs as these philosophies collide is nothing short of astounding, and Maury and Bustillo have enough faith in their script to let the action go where it will with no safety catch whatsoever.

The result is arguably one of the most memorable bloodbaths in modern horror cinema. It is Haute Tension done the way Haute Tension should've been done in the first place; all of the evil with none of the overdone melodrama.

I had to really work hard in order to track down a copy of this movie. Fortunately enough for the readers of this beloved blog, I've made pretty good time with the sales girl at Borders of Utica, Michigan and she spared no effort in transferring a copy of this DVD to her store.

Usually a film with this much notoriety or infamy is destined for a Holywood remake but personally, I can't see Hollywood touching this one with a ten-foot cattle prod.

Ironically, given the love / hate relationship that Americans have with the PG-13 rating, I don't think it's the amount of blood that would keep US audiences away from an R rated remake. I just don't think we're honestly ready for a premise this mean spirited.

Then again, if Hollywood bothered to remake Michael Heinke's Funny Games then perhaps anything is possible.

Session 9 (2001)

Crazy people in ghost stories are a horror staple as old as horror itself. Edgar Allan Poe nearly created the sub-genre singlehandedly with stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart and Stephen King honed it to a razor's edge with the 1977 novel, The Shining.

Brad Anderson's 2001 neo-gothic film, Session 9, is an interesting piece of work because it seems to want to be both a psychological thriller as well as a supernatural one, but ultimately leaves that final decision up to the viewer.

The film centers around the day to day interaction between the members of a freelance hazmat team that has taken on the daunting task of clearing out an old insane asylum of all traces of asbestos. The team consists of:

- Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), a down-on-his-luck Irish American small businessman and the boss of the company who is currently suffering from pressures in both his professional and private life.
- Phil (David Caruso), Gordon’s second-in-command and all around hard ass
- Jeff (Brandon Sexton III), Gordon’s mullet-clad nephew who isn’t the exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.
- Hank (Josh Lucas), a get rich quick artist currently sleeping with Phil’s old girlfriend
- Mike (Steve Gevedon), a would-be attorney frightened by success and currently slumming it by working for Gordon

Over the course of the next seven days of the story, a virtual cornucopia of sub-plots emerges. Not only are we privy to the less than perfect social dynamic of the team, but we also learn about the rather strange history of the asylum and most importantly, the history of one of its rather intriguing patients.

Despite the obvious parallels to Kubrick's film adoptation of The Shining (insanity, big spooky building, the threat from the unknown that is never really confirmed or denied to be supernatural in origin), if I had to pick a film that most resembles Session 9 in tone, it’d have to be the 2003 K-Horror movie Janghwa, Hongryeon, better known in North America as A Tale of Two Sisters.

Like Janghwa, Hongryeon, Session 9 is a very busy film.

The plot entertains asides ranging from the animosity between Hank and Phil to the mounting pressure on Gordon to provide for his family and keep his team on schedule, Mike’s professional curiosity getting the better of him upon the discovery of old records from the asylum, hints of the macabre, and so forth.

All of this action encapsulated in one of the eeriest set pieces in recent memory.

Fact being stranger than fiction, that set piece is the (now demolished) Danvers State Hospital for the Clinically Insane in Danvers, Massachusettes.

Also like Janghwa, Hongryeon, Session 9 is a very slow burn. It takes quite some time to digest the events as they unfold but once things spiral out of control, all hell breaks loose and then quickly coalesces into a bloodchilling epilogue.

One thing that struck me about this movie (and one of the things I found most disturbing about Kubrick's film version of The Shining) is that it isn’t the inevitable reveal that is the most frightening thing about the ending; it is the realization of just how long that things have been dysfunctional.

Brad Anderson admirably keeps from throwing the finale away via a constant blending of character development, red herrings, and a brief tease (or injection depending on your interpretation) of the possible existence of an otherworldly force.

The final curtain is heart wrenching and terrifying all at once.

The length of time it takes Session 9 to get going will no doubt scare off fans of immediate gratification, but if your idea of fun is scaring yourself witless with the premier entries of the psychological horror catalogue complete with subtle, occult overtones (Don’t Look Now, The Living & The Dead), then this is the movie for you.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)


This one might take a little focus. Dracula (Zandor Vorkov) is alive and well and living in California, where he's taken to digging up the corpse of Frankenstein's monster (John Bloom/Shelly Weiss). Meanwhile, the mad scientist Dr. Duryea (J. Carrol Naish), who moonlights as the operator of a fun-house in the local carnival, is experimenting with young women captured by his idiot man-servant Groton (Lon Chaney Jr.) in an attempt to discover the secret to eternal life (i think). One of these young women is the sister of Vegas dancer Judith Fontaine (Regina Carrol & her ample cleavage), who comes to California to track her down but ends up being drugged by bikers before being luckily rescued by some hippies, led by aging hippy Mike (Anthony Eisley).

Following so far? Ok. So, Dracula reveals that Dr. Duryea is actually the last of the Frankensteins and they work to resurrect the Frankenstein's Monster since Drac is interested in raising an army of the undead. Judith and Mike begin to suspect that Duryea is involved with the recent murders and disappearances on the beach, and find entry to Doctor's lair through the funhouse. Once inside, midget carny Grazbo (Angelo Rossitto) falls on an axe, and Groton is shot by the police and falls to his death. Dr. Duryea, in pursuit of Mike, somehow falls into his own guillotine contraption and gets decapitated. The end.

Huh? Oh yeah. Dracula and Frankenstein. Dracula hypnotizes Judith and ties her up, sending the creature after Mike who blinds it with a flare, causing it to attack Dracula. Dracula will have none of this and zaps Mike (to death!) with his fancy Dracula ring, before dragging Judith to a nearby Church as the sun begins to rise. Frankenstein, suddenly enraptured by Judith's beauty (or something), starts wailing on Dracula and they start beating on each other in the woods. Dracula rips Frankenstein apart, before finding himself unable to make it back to safety before the sun rises and turns him into a dusty old skeleton.


Al Adamson and Sam Sherman's work for Independent International pictures in the 60s and 70s displayed some real ingenuity for taking sometimes dreadful, tattered pieces of films and making with them something that delivered the goods for fans of drive-in flicks. Having already examined the twisted history of Horror Of The Blood Monsters, it's only fair to look at the pair's most well known pasted together oddity: Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

In some ways, the making of this film (from 1969-1971) is even more interesting. Oddly, the film didn't begin as a monster movie at all, instead beginning as a Mad-Scientist/Biker followup to Adamson's film Satan's Sadists called The Blood Seekers. Distributors decided to shelve the film since they felt it was unreleasable, but Sherman, feeling that the film had some reasonable acting and "star" power (in J. Carrol Naish and Lon Chaney Jr.), made it a pet project to recraft the footage into something commercial. The inspired idea of shoehorning Dracula and Frankenstein into the project led to the new title Blood Of Frankenstein, and Adamson shot new footage featuring Vorkov (actually stockbroker Engel renamed by Forry Ackerman) and cleverly inserted these scenes into the previous film.

Still feeling something was missing, the crew decided to change the original ending (which was quite anticlimactic) and instead have Dracula and Frankenstein have an all out brawl to finish things off. Filmed incredibly cheaply and without sound (and appearing quite dark in the final version), these final scenes capped off the film that was now finally known as Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

And it's not good. Not even close. It's confusing, and grainy, and the acting and special effects are often just over the level of a high school play. That said, it's certainly never boring, and there's something admirable about the patchwork way that the filmmakers took something that was going to be thrown away, and turned it into a viable commercial property that was able to make significant money.

There are things to recommend about the film. The opening credits effectively set up the weirdness we're about to encounter, and it's accompanied by a great old fashioned score by William Lava, who did the music for plenty of cartoons and Republic serials. The performances are uneven, but Anthony Eisley is perfectly capable as the male lead, and 7'4 John Bloom as the monster is suitably impressive (though his make-up certainly isn't). And it's always nice to see Famous Monsters Of Film editor (and horror mainstay) Forrest J Ackerman show up in a cameo. Regina Carrol isn't much of an actress, but the assets she does have are certainly on display (though, only in a PG fashion).

The film is certainly a product of the time it was made, though Adamson seems rather conservative in his portrayal of hippies ("What are we protesting tonight?". "I don't know. But I'll bet it's fun!"). There's also a group of bikers (led by Satan's Sadist's Russ Tamblyn), who are remnants from the original version of the film, and seem to appear and disappear randomly before they are messily dispatched. Even Dracula has an afro!

Speaking of Dracula, Zandor/Robert is required only to speak menacingly (with added echo) and occasionally point his ring at people, but his lack of acting chops (and inconsistent make-up) make his appearances more silly than scary. And there's something just plain odd about Dracula sitting in a car. J. Carrol Naish looks like he would rather be somewhere else, while Lon Chaney Jr. hams it up as best he can in his mute role.

The film's final scene lacks greatly in production values, and certain parts are difficult to watch because of the dark, grainy look of the film, but is a great improvement over the original ending (available in the special features). It actually features some ingenuity to overcome the non-existent budget, particularly in the death of Dracula which works surprisingly well, and in the death of Frankenstein which (as mentioned in the commentary) shares some resemblance to the death of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The film is given a surprisingly solid (and reverent) treatment from Troma, who present the film in a grainy full-screen print (which likely could not be helped since the film was originally shot in 16mm and blown up for the big screen), and have produced some informative features.

First is a full length commentary from producer Sam Sherman. Similar to his commentary for Horror Of The Blood Monsters, this one is packed with information and storied about the film's production. There are a few significant silent gaps, but it's a very worthwhile commentary (though sometimes a tad defensive) which relates much of this film's fascinating history.

We're also treated to the film's original Theatrical Trailer, a television spot, and a Behind The Scenes Gallery. A short featurette (Producing Schlock) on Sam Sherman repeats some of the information from the commentary, but also provides other entertaining stories regarding other Adamson projects.

The DVD also features a text feature on Dracula's Ring, test footage shot by Sherman of the church used in the climactic scene, and a series of deleted scenes including the very different original ending and a scene with Forry Ackerman introduced by the Ackermonster himself!

Also included are trailers for Angel's Wild Women, Satan's Sadists, Blood Of Ghastly Horror and I Spit On Your Corpse.

A film best watched as a Drive-In feature like it was intended, Dracula vs. Frankenstein remains entertaining even as it fails totally at being coherent or well made. The DVD provides necessary context, and it's not hard to see why audiences flocked to it upon its release. The perfect choice for a home version of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)


A young tax collector (Leslie Cheung) finds his documentation soaked with rain, forcing the poor scholar to take refuge in the local Len Ro Temple. There he draws the ire of Taoist monk Yen Che-hsia (Wu Ma) who warns him to stay away from the seemingly haunted temple. After a close scrape with some zombies, the young man is seduced by spirit Nieh Hsiao-tsing (Joey Wang), who spares his life. The two fall in love, but the young ghost is pressured to kill and is engaged to be married in a matter of days. The tax collector, with help from the now sympathetic monk, travels into the spirit world to stop the wedding and release Nieh's soul.


The stories of 17th century Chinese author Pu Songling have often laid the groundwork for Asian fantasy films. His collection Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio) contained the story Nie Xiaoqian (The Magic Sword) which is the basis for Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung's A Chinese Ghost Story. Followed by a number of sequels, rip-offs (often starring Wu Ma or Joey Chang), or television adaptations, the film provides an original mix of horror, comedy, martial arts and Spielbergian special effects to great effect.

While certainly dated, this mixture of impressive (for the time) Hollywood-style special effects with fantasy wuxia elements (which Hark dabbled with in Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain) and Evil Dead II-style Horror/Comedy has held up surprisingly well. In fact, its story of ghostly love is strangely affecting because of the two lead performances and the dreamlike glow which seems to exist throughout.

It's not surprising that Joey Wang was typecast as her ghostly persona from this film after its success, as she embodies both the forlorn ghost and vengeful spirit equally well. The late Leslie Cheung provides most of the comic relief as the bumbling tax collector, but is also disarmingly (and necessarily) charming and heroic in his attempts to save his lady. Ma Wu's expressive face gets a fully work out in the film, and he gets several opportunities to show off some impressive swordplay, as well as his singing skills in a rather bizarre musical interlude.

Similar to how Steven Spielberg gets a great deal of credit for the films he produced in the 1980s, this film's success is usually greatly attributed to producer Tsui Hark. However, director Siu-Tung Ching has had an impressive career in his own right, and deserves credit for some impressive choreography and influential visuals which seemed to have a great influence in future Chinese fantasy films (such as The Bride With White Hair). Both men also deserve credit for balancing elements of broad humor, kung-fu, horror, romance and fantasy in a way that still feels fairly natural.

While this is hardly a horror film in the traditional sense, it doesn't shy away from gruesome moments My favorite being when the ethereal ghost seduces a samurai, the camera sweeping into his mouth and through his body as we see him instantly age into a dried up corpse. Unfortunately, when the humor gets broad, particularly in a scene where Leslie Cheung's character attempts to contact the police, it betrays its subject matter into silliness. There's a tradition of this sort of humor in kung-fu films, and perhaps it's simply a cultural difference (combined with some shaky subtitles) which made these rare moments such a chore.

While certainly revolutionary for the time, it's hard to deny that some of the film's effects may appear slightly rough around the edges for modern viewers. The stop-motion zombies are a lot of fun, though more cheesy than scary, and some of the blue screen and rear projection effects look less than stellar. That said, the sheer scope of the film required a massive amount of special effects, and what is shown onscreen is admirable and even the more dated moments only add to the charm.

The currently available Region 1 DVD from Image Entertainment features a fairly clean, though dark, print of the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Audio is available in both Cantonese and Mandarin, though the English subtitles leave a lot to be desired. In a film as steeped in fantasy and Chinese mythology as this, a more accurate translation would have improved the experience, though an average viewer will still be able to follow the plot.

The only special feature is the film's trailer.

A Chinese Ghost Story created a new standard for mixing fantasy and martial arts, and remains a hauntingly romantic film. Certainly deserving of a better presentation on DVD, it's worth seeking out for fans of Chinese fantasy or swordplay films such as House Of Flying Daggers or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film was followed by two sequels, as well as an animated film in 1997.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)


Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) is quite the renaissance man. Not only is he a doctor of music and theology, but he's also a famous organist and has a beautiful wife whom he adores. Yep, life is pretty good. At least until Phibes is disfigured in a car crash when rushing home to his sick wife, who ends up dying on the operating table. Phibes, blaming the doctors for his wife's death, decides to murder each with complicated schemes based on the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt by God in the Old Testament. He saves his final punishment (killing the first-born! Natch!) for Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), the head doctor in his wife's operation, who is forced to operate on his son while a container of acid hangs overhead. Also, Phibes has a clockwork orchestra, and a beautiful, silent female assistant. For some reason.


I've never quite understood the aesthetic of "camp". Certainly, I recognize it when I see it. In the exaggerated stilted dialogue and rainbow sets of the 60's Batman television series, or in the caricatured performances and music of John Water's films, but camp value often seems to come from the perspective of the viewer. Should camp always be intentional like in those cited examples? Is it the realm of drag-queens and Paul Lynde? Or, is it traditional movie-making with the volume turned up?

The humor in The Abominable Dr. Phibes is certainly intentional, and it's obvious that director Robert Fuest is well aware of the ridiculous excesses onscreen. What is strange about the camp aspects of Phibes is how they mix with rather traditional elements of british humor (in the form of the antics of the police force) and the sometimes gruesome horror elements. Phibes is a sympathetic creature, a man whose love for his wife and grief over her loss has been driven mad. But his revenge plot is astoundingly complicated to the point of being silly. The odd elements (liks his mute servent and clockwork orchestra) serving to underline the fun.

Vincent Price is the camp figure of this piece, and while his performance isn't restrained, it's also not blatantly over the top in a Frank-N-Furter (or, even his appearances as Egghead on Batman) sort of way. Joseph Cotton doesn't get a lot to do, but his eventual face-off with Phibes is a lot of fun and he makes a convincing doctor. More active in the plot is Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout, though his investigations often cross over into "hijinx" territory, even down to other characters mistaking his last name for various other fish.

There's a rather odd decision to rob Vincent Price of his distinctive voice for most of the film, and indeed the first ten minutes of the film features no dialogue at all. Phibes is only able to speak through machinery, and even then only in stilted form. Still, this method of communication gives emphasis to Price's booming voice when it is heard, his threats blaring through loudspeakers.

Phibes is presented as a tragic, sympathetic character, though the motivation behind his revenge is never explored very deeply. His hatred and anger at the doctors who operated on his wife would be more understandable if there was evidence of some sort of negligence on their part. Still, he isn't motivated by greed or general malice, and wishes only to rest in peace after his revenge is complete. (Apparently not TOO peacefully, however, since a sequel to the film; Dr. Phibes Rises Again, was released a year later.)

The violence in the film is actually quite ingenious, and the colorful way in which Phibe's rivals are dispatched are reminiscent of the later italian giallos and horror films of Dario Argento (and the Mario Bava films of the time). A personal favorite is the gentleman whom Phibes bleeds dry, leaving bottles of blood on the mantle next to his drained corpse. Certainly a gruesome idea, but isn't played for significant amounts of tension or horror. More disturbing is the fate of the nurse, who Phibes coats in a slimy vegetable extract before covering her with locusts who proceed to eat her flesh. Icky.

MGM provides the DVD for The Abominable Dr. Phibes in a beautiful widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1 print that looks terrific. A film this reliant on outrageous visuals benefits greatly from the clean, colorful image.

Unfortunately the only other extra afforded is the film's original theatrical trailer which oddly reveals Phibes face. Considering the impressive make-up is saved until the end of the film itself, it seems strange that they would give it away in the advertising. It's appearance is a memorable moment in horror history, and still remains rather chilling.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an amusing black comedy with a startling performance by Vincent Price at its centre. The murders are suitably inventive, though rarely gory and often played for humor rather than straight chills. Worth pairing up with the similarly themed Theater Of Blood.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Chopping Mall (1986)


So, there's this mall. And it has a robot security system, which are sort of like those automatic vacuum cleaner-bots except they shoot lasers! Anyway, these things are fool-proof, until the mall gets hit by lightning turning them into KILLBOTS (Chopping Mall's original release title). Eight teenagers (including Barbara Crampton from Re-Animator, and Tony O'Dell from, uh, Head Of The Class) are having a late night party and start to get picked off one by one by these metallic monsters, until they arm themselves with supplies from the mall and attempt to get some revenge. The whole thing takes 77 minutes, which is just long enough.


It's difficult to be too critical of a film like Chopping Mall, since it has such modest goals. It's essentially a dead teenager slasher film with Short Circuit-like robots, and (despite a general lack of suspense) it delivers on that front. Lots of teens getting naked and having sex, and a reasonable amount of gore with a few cameos from the Roger Corman crew for cult-credibility. And at less than 80 minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Its gains are still rather meager, however, and doesn't serve to separate the film greatly from the hundreds of similar films released at the time. Because of the strangely short running time, the pacing seems a bit off and we're faced with a semi-climactic battle taking place 45 minutes in. With things moving forward this quickly character development tends to take a back-seat.

The robots themselves are quite impressive for such a low budget feature, and the director Jim Wynorski (director of too many films to mention) speaks highly of their maneuvering ability on the commentary. They have arms with clamps on the end that they raise threateningly, as well as the ability to shoot darts and (the considerably more effective) laser beams. Some effort is made to give the killbots a measure of personality, though it sometimes serves to make the main cast appear even more bland.

The in-jokes are fun, with appearances from Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov (reprising their roles from the cult classic Eating Raoul), Dick Miller (reprising his role from A Bucket Of Blood), Mel Welles (Attack Of The Crab Monsters), and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance from Angus Scrimm (Phantasm). Wynorski also throws in shots of his own movie posters because.. heck, why not?

The shopping mall location (Sherman Oaks Galleria, used in Commando!), brings unfortunate comparisons to Dawn Of The Dead, though if there's any subtext in this about our consumer culture, it's well hidden. The setting is used to good effect, though, with some well executed fire stunts and explosions.

The gore in the film is minimal, though the famous head explosion really does look quite outstanding. The filmmakers obviously realized this, since they put the shot in the trailer. Mostly the effect seems a bit out of place, however, as the film relies more on its rapid pace than extreme violence.

Chopping Mall has been difficult to track down on VHS for years, so it's nice that a few features were included on the long awaited DVD. Unfortunately, the film is presented in a rather rough looking full screen transfer that is only marginally better than a good home video copy. Sound is adequate, with the synth-heavy score (by B-movie music regular Chuck Cirino) coming through loud and clear.

The commentary by Jim Wynorski and (producer/writer) Steve Mitchell is a lot of fun, with them not being afraid to poke a little fun at their film while still remaining very complimentary about their cast and crew. There's plenty of great stories about working with Roger Corman (and his wife), and the two men have a strong memory for details which make them a pleasure to listen to.

We're also treated to a short featurette Chopping Mall: Creating The Killbots which focuses on the efforts of special effects man Robert Short to bring the killer robots to life. There's a good deal of information repeated from the commentary, but the added perspective of Short keeps things interesting.

The original trailer (/w head explosion) and a photo gallery (/w original poster calling the film Killbots) round out the special features.

Chopping Mall is a disposable example of 80s schlock, rising slightly above average thanks to a novel concept and decent production values. A lurid cover and appearances from cult faves have given it a strong reputation, but it does little to distinguish itself from the bloated genre.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jacob's Ladder (1990)


Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam veteran, begins to have strange demonic visions that seem connected to his experiences during the war. Discovering that the surviving members of his platoon are experiencing similar dreams, Jacob begins to believe that his unit were the subject of tests by the American military. As the walls of his reality break down, and his hallucinations become more frequent, Jacob begins to uncover what seems like a massive conspiracy. Haunted by visions of death, including that of his young son, what is fantasy and what is delusion soon become difficult to discern.


Director Adrian Lyne is best known for erotic thrillers like Fatal Attraction, but with Jacob's Ladder he proves to have some serious chops when it comes to psycho-horror. Hanging off an amazing performance by Tim Robbins, the film creates some wonderful tension with its dream within a dream state, and has a memorable shock ending that still remains a bit shocking even after the audience has been bombarded with decades of of M. Night Shyamalan twists.

Admittedly, some of the fun of the film comes from picking out the many actors in the cast who went on to some degree of fame. Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), Eriq La Salle (E.R.), Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone), and even blink-and-you'll-miss-'em appearances by Lewis Black (The Daily Show) and Kyle Gass (Tenacious D!). However, at times this is a relentlessly bleak film with some rather disturbing imagery in the Cronenberg vein. It's often only Robbins' boyish charm, along with a winning supporting performance from Danny Aiello as Louis, Robbins' chiropractor, that add a little light to the subject matter.

In the most telling dialogue in the film, Louis (Aiello) tells Jacob (referring to Meister Eckhart):
Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and... and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.

This surprising bit of enlightenment informs the second half of the film greatly, and is a hint at Jacob's final fate.

Robbins plays Jacob as a disturbed, but very sympathetic character unable to deal with his reality slowing melting away. It's a charged performance, particularly in the scene (burned into my young consciousness) where he's wheeled into an operating room, tied to what appears to be some awful piece of medical equipment, and told that he's dead before they start operating on him. In the commentary, Lyne says that Robbins' acting in this scene made himself and his cameramen weep, and it remains a very disturbing, powerful scene.

The supporting cast is fine, with Elizabeth Peña giving a strong performance as Jezzie (short for Jezebel), Jacob's girlfriend. She has to strike the right note of sympathy, while maintaining moments of anger and frustration with Jacob's state, and her character has a strange sexiness even as her demonic tendencies are hinted at. Jason Alexander has a nice turn as a ice-chewing, frustrated lawyer, and Eriq La Salle gets a few nice character moments late in the film.

Lyne chose to go with all practical effects for the film, and the choice proved to be a strong one. The repeated effect of a person's head wailing around in fast motion (created by filming the actor at 4 frames a second) works exceedingly well, and is a technique aped in countless music videos and films (and video games, it would be hard to imagine Silent Hill without this film as reference). The choice to show some of the demonic imagery in flashes, or for just a few frames, makes the slow descent into hell feel very real.

The bad trip imagery can be effective, but sometimes (like in the appearance of tentacles in the subway scene) come off as a little hokey. The jumping around in time (and, apparently, reality) can be a bit difficult to take as well, sometimes coming off like an average Twilight Zone episode rather than a fully fleshed out film, but things tighten up in the final act. The religious imagery (particularly in the naming of the characters) can be a little obvious, but Lyne seems very comfortable with his pretensions and is deftly able to deliver the psychological goods.

The Special Edition DVD was originally released in 1998, and while the film is shown in it's original 1.85:1 format, the print is very grainy looking. Still, for a film that originally bombed, some care has been taken with the supplementary materials.

First, we have a commentary with director Adrian Lyne. It's screen specific, and often quite interesting, but there are long gaps (particularly near the end) that slow the whole thing to a crawl. Lyne is obviously quite fond of the film, and his memories of the production are sporadic but very entertaining.

Unfortunately, most of the interesting information is repeated in the half hour Building Jacob's Ladder featurette which also features talking head interviews with writer Bruce Joel Rubin (writer of Jacob's Ladder and Ghost) as we as some small interview snippets with Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña and Danny Aiello. Rubin seems appreciative of the changes which Lyne brought to his script, but is critical of the removal of a scene with Peña late in the film. The behind the scenes footage, particularly of the terrifying decent into hell, is quite interesting.

We are also treated to three rather significant deleted scenes with optional director's commentary. All come near the end of the film, though it's the Peña scene which is most significant. Its inclusion would have made the film a bit easier to interpret, but I don't think the film feels like it's missing the scene. The other two would have made the transition to the ending less abrupt, but would have slowed the pace at a critical time.

A theatrical trailer, television spot, cast & crew information and production notes round off the package.

Looking back, Jacob's Ladder seems to have had more influence on popular culture than one might think. While the director was going over territory mined by directors like David Cronenberg and David Lynch, this Vietnam variation on An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge remains slightly more palatable while still featuring some shocking and disturbing imagery. A terrific psychological horror film featuring one of Tim Robbin's most impressive performances.