Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #11: Hellbound: Book Of The Dead (aka Cadaver Bay) (2003)


There's a lesson to be learned from Hellbound: Book Of The Dead, a well made but slow-moving horror effort from director Steve Sessions (Dead Clowns). If you're going to make a moody, deliberately paced horror film that relies on suspense rather than fast paced thrills and gore, it's probably best not to title your film in a way that recalls both The Evil Dead and Hellraiser. The film's alternate title, Cadaver Bay, has its own issues but at least doesn't set expectations that the film has no possibility of reaching.

Which is not to say that Hellbound is a bad movie. In fact, it looks terrific for a low budget film with strong camerawork and cinematography from start to finish. Sessions obviously has a strong vision of how he wanted this film to look, and used inventive camera angles and filtered lighting to achieve the proper atmosphere throughout. It's the muddled, stretched story that really lets the film down, stretching a slight plot beyond it's breaking point to fill out the 80 minute run-time.


Diane (Elizabeth North) is in mourning following the unexpected hubcap-related death of her sister. Her boyfriend Lane (Jeff Dylan Graham) has been looking after her during her recovery, but worries that things may take a turn for the worse after Diane receives a call about a book that her father, a practicing witch, had been looking for before his death. This book, once matched with it's pair, has to power to bring the dead back to life. Things go haywire once Diane kills the bookseller, recognizing that if the book is sold it will lose its power, and after a failed attempt to bring him back to life, Lane is tasked with disposing of the body (via circular saw and encasing the bits in concrete). Unfortunately, as he finishes he discovers that the corpse's hand has returned to, um, life and running around getting into all sorts of shenanigans. Diane, convinced that the spell works, tries to bring another corpse to life with predictably tragic consequences.

Structured like a thirty minute episode of Tales From The Crypt, Hellbound suffers greatly from a dreadfully slow first hour packed with exposition delivered stiltedly and seemingly endless shots of character's looking forlorn. A subplot regarding the often-naked neighbour goes absolutely nowhere, and by the time things start to pick up slightly after the hand starts running around, most viewers would have already abandoned ship.


The acting certainly isn't anything special, but I hesitate to put the blame on the two main performers. The dialogue often seems robotic and unnatural, often abandoning natural sounding contractions, which make the performances seem amateurish. This isn't helped by the choice to deliver the lines almost totally without emotion, even in situations where the average person would be hysterical. Jeff Dylan Graham has fashioned an impressive b-movie career for himself, but shows little to distinguish himself here. Elizabeth North is mostly catatonic throughout, making the pair a bit painful to spend a majority of the running time with.

On a brighter note, the special effects (by Jonathan Fuller) throughout the film are quite good. The effect of the crawling hand is achieved brilliantly, with some minor computer effects and deft editing creating a strong illusion. While the film uses gore sparingly, when it kicks in (as in the scene where a character is assaulted with a corkscrew) it's appropriately messy. When the corpse is finally revealed near the film's end the make-up is quite impressive, and features quite an excessive amount of maggots for those who enjoy that sort of thing.


As with many of the film's in this collection, the image quality of Hellbound suffers from some excessive pixelation, likely as a result of fitting as many of these films onto the DVD as possible. It's always watchable, and quite cinematic despite being shot on digital video, but there are a few glitches in the video and audio. The soundtrack is sometimes excessive, particularly since it's required to underscore a number of slow scenes of suspense. It sounds quite good, but doesn't always appropriately serve the visuals.


An atmospheric, stylish horror movie that suffers from a lack of plot and uninteresting characters, Hellbound: Book Of The Dead shows a lot of promise but proves to be tedious to get through. Still, with better material i'm confident that director Steve Sessions could craft a stronger, more entertaining horror film.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Being There (1979)



Hal Ashby's 1979 masterpiece Being There stars comedy legend Peter Sellers in his finest hour. Chance (Sellers), a simple-minded and TV-addicted gardener, has been living and working on the property of a wealthy old man in Washington D.C. for as long as he can remember. When the old man passes away, Chance is thrust into the real world--a place he seems hardly suited to survive in. Within a few hours, though, a lucky accident introduces him to Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), wife of the wealthy and powerful industrialist Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas). The Rands are quite charmed by Chance, and take each of the inane and dim-witted things he says as gems of Zen-like wisdom. Because he is white and well-dressed, they assume that he's a gentlemen of property, a professional. Oblivious to all of this, Chance soon finds himself a confidant to Mr. Rand, a TV celebrity, an adviser to the President of the United States, and a potential lover to Eve.



Chance watches television, all the time, every day. This is not because he is a member of the younger generation; on the contrary, it’s the 60s, and he’s already old. No, Chance watches so much television because he is so empty inside. There is nothing to him, only surface. It’s as though, in watching TV, he can momentarily fill himself up with the flashing images and inane chatter. It's his only teacher.

It's fitting that, when Chance finally leaves the house of his employer, entering the world for seemingly the first time, a revised version of the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme starts playing. This is, indeed, an epic journey for the simple gardener, no less life-changing than Dave's journey to--well, whatever happens in 2001.


I think that one of the reasons the Rands accept Chance as one of their own--mistaking his name, "Chance the gardener" as "Chauncey Gardiner"--is that Chance himself would never think negatively of anyone else. His perspective effects others. But of course, that's not the main reason for the confusion. Louise, the African-American maid who used to work with Chance at the old man's residence, spells it out pretty clearly:

"It's for sure a white man's world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th' ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!"


Visually, one thing I found striking about Being There was how much of the background was let in to each shot. It seems to me, in today's Hollywood, that films are shot almost entirely in close-up, and instead of close-ups we get extreme close-ups. Being There is filled with master shots, with scenes composed so that the true size and weight of the Rand's mansion is felt by the viewer. It helps to evoke the wealth of the Rands, and it helps to show how small each individual is when compared to his or her surroundings. On a more psychological level, it helps situate Being There in the real world. This isn't the comedic world that so many films inhabit nowadays, where the insane antics of the main characters are somehow normalized; this is the real world, and so the jokes resonate on a different, deeper level, even if they aren't the laugh-out-loud howlers you might expect in today's comedies.

As a comedy, Being There is, essentially, a one-joke movie. Chance is an imbecile, but everything he says is accepted as wisdom. The laughs come from seeing how each of his simple-minded observations are taken as stunning and honest insights, how people bend over backwards to accept Chance as brilliant and profound. It should be repetitive and dull. But it isn’t. It speaks something to the brilliance Sellers and the craft of the screenplay that Being There never overstays its welcome, and even on repeated viewings it always seems fresh.


Chance sees the world with a fresh perspective, with new eyes. People see him the same way, unable to accurately place him. He accepts people at face value, and expects the best of them, unable to think otherwise, and his outlook seems to have a reciprocal effect. After becoming immersed in the film, something miraculous happens: the viewer begins to see things the way Chance sees things--simplistically, honestly, without judgment. You are not just watching the film, but seeing it (and the people in it) a new way. You see Benjamin Rand and the President of the United States as people, as humans, rather than as the roles they fill. That they are wealthy, powerful white men--ruthless capitalists, part of the machine--becomes secondary, and their existence as people, just people, comes to the forefront.

We’re supposed to laugh, at the idiocy of Chance, at how people accept his words without question, with a critical response. But the last time I watched Being There, I couldn’t help but think: what if he isn’t stupid? What if he is professing wisdom, and giving it out honestly, and freely, without a thought of himself? What if Chance is some modern-day Buddha, providing enlightenment to those who will listen? The evidence is there, after all.


The recently released and hilariously-titled “Deluxe Edition” of this fine film is a bare-bones affair with the following special features: Memories from Being There with Ileana Douglas. That’s right, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas vaguely recalls some stuff about the filming of the movie, which took place when she was 14. Great. But it doesn’t matter, because Being There is one of the best films of the 70s, or any decade, and you should own it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #10: Hell's Highway (2002)


When I started viewing the films in this collection, I was expecting more of them to be like Jeff Leroy's Hell's Highway. High on energy, sex and gore, but low on budget, the movie aims low and hits again and again, providing the goods for those with reasonable expectations going in. Certainly not fine art, but a fun, entertaining slasher film (with some fun effects) that, once it gets going, barely stops to take a breath.

Phoebe Dollar is Lucindia Polonia, a psycho hitchhiker serial killer that targets motorists on the stretch of road in Death Valley known as.. wait for it.. Hell's Highway. Apparently the reborn spirit of a pioneer woman, Lucindia targets a group of young folks on a road trip after they pick her up and and soon starts killing them off in various nasty ways. There's a twist at the end that I honestly didn't see coming, and is actually a bit original in an odd sort of way.


In order for a horror film to have a modicum of suspense, you really need to have a likable or relateable set of protagonists. The biggest flaw (depending on your point of view) of Hell's Highway is that the main characters are almost completely unlikeable. We're introduced to them driving down the highway, smoking pot, drinking and driving and throwing garbage onto the roadside crosses that litter the road. While this is all done with a modicum of humor, it does make it hard to have sympathy for them when they start dropping.

The acting is surprisingly solid all the way through. Phoebe Dollar is hardly intimidating, but she delivers her psycho lines well, and she obviously doesn't mind being coated in fake blood. However, she's less convincing when she has to swing a chainsaw around Leatherface style. Beverly Lynne (from the recent The Bewitching) is a lot more fun here, and shows off the required skin as a dimwitted cheerleader who gets to say "This is the worst trip ever!". But it's Kiren David as Sarah who has to do most of the emoting, and she's the only one who truly comes off worth caring about. Also, she gets sexually assaulted by a slimy demon in a dream sqeuence.

Ron Jeremy pops up in a fun cameo as a sleazy low-budget director who finds his famous member on the recieving end of Lucinda's knife. Also, he gets blown up.


The violence in the film is quite impressive for what was obviously a low budget, and the director doesn't hold back when it comes to death and dismemberment. Shovels, chainsaws and a car are all used to inflict varying amounts of carnage, and things are appropriately gooey and messy. Leroy is obviously inspired by the horror comedies of the 80s like Re-Animator and Evil Dead II, and manages to occasionally inspire that level of zany violence quite well. While the effects are inconsistent, they are generally well done (by fellow low budget director Joe Castro) and even feature a few scenes with miniatures. They are unconvincing, but I certainly appreciate the attempt.

Leroy isn't overly flashy as a director, and he sometimes wears his influences a little too obviously on his sleeve, but he keeps things feeling quite cinematic despite the Z-grade origins. This would never be mistaken for a Hollywood blockbuster, but would sit perfectly nicely on the shelf of your local Blockbuster.


An entertainingly silly and gory slasher flick, Hell's Highway raises almost no suspense and is a far cry from scary, but delivers plenty of gore and a few laughs for low budget conniseurs. A fun cast, decent effects and a fast pace makes this a winner and worth checking out.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #9: High Desert (1994)


A well made but particularly badly acted biker film, Charles T Lang's High Desert certainly looks cheap, but there are some solid production values supporting what is generally a rather dull story. There's too much padding, especially considering the 73 minute running time, but at times it's an interesting break from the run of bad horror films.

Pam (Alice Davidson), a waitress, manages to humiliate Frank (Edward B. Glinkski) in a game of pool, leaving the unhinged biker gang leader aching for revenge. Discovering that Pam is going camping with her husband Dan and friend Linda (Tyleen Roberts), Frank decides to follow them into the woods and have some fun. Once the two groups confront each other things escalate quickly, with Frank killing Dan and then shooting Joe (Ron Jason), a member of the gang, when he tries to calm him down. Linda escapes during the melee and Frank rapes Pam before he, with the remaining gang members, drags her back to his cabin. Linda returns to nurse Joe back to health in order for the two of them to have their (bloody) revenge. Eventually Frank & Joe, both Vietnam vets, have to square off.


Biker films are a strange sub-genre of exploitation, as the rebellious lawbreaking is usually supposed to be appealling to the audience, but the gangs are also shown as genuine threats and full of unpleasant, violent people. The gang in High Desert is particularly displeasing, with Joe being only partly respectable compared to the idiot Tee, the bland (and hard to understand) Rio, and Frank, who seems out of control from the start. Our discovery that Frank saved Joe's life in Vietnam at least explains Joe's loyalty to the group, but we never get a sense from the other two of what is enjoyable about the gang life. Except Frank's awesome Cabin, which does seem pretty nice.

The credits seem to imply that most of the main cast were genuine motorcycle enthusiasts, which seems to explain why they ride a lot more convincingly than they act. Only Ron Jason as Joe gives anything resembling a decent performance, while Edward B. Glinkski is just comically awful as Frank. He looks the part, but comes off as almost entirely unpleasant and is never a convincing leader. The bad acting is particularly crippling as there is a lot of talking in the film, and comparitively little action. In fact, for a biker film, there's surprisingly few scenes of the gang actually riding their motorcycles.


Director Charles T. Lang obviously got a lot of cooperation in the film's production, and we get more ambitious filmmaking than we've seen in most of the efforts in this collection so far. There are dolly and crane shots, and the pre-credits sequence features some nice driving footage on a deserted stretch of highway. Lang shoots very cinematically, using a lot of different angles and set-ups, but this tends to look a bit silly when he's presenting something rather pedestrian. The pool game montage at the beginning is particularly over the top, and while it's sometimes impressive it's also unnecessarily showy.

While at heart a biker film, High Desert spends most of its second half in revenge mode, as Joe and Linda track down the rest of the gang to get their retribution. While we're treated to some extended scenes of the pair walking through the woods, these scenes do build some nice comraderie between Linda and the surprisingly likeable Joe, though the whole climax happens a bit too quickly and isn't able to build up the necessary tension for when Joe and Frank finally confront each other. It also doesn't help that this confrontation ends in a rather ludicrous fashion, with two of the remaining cast shot accidentally.


The soundtrack is unremarkable, though features some actual songs by musician Will Rose. Dialogue is thankfully clear, with only a few scenes where better micing would have helped. The violence, which is minimal, is cheap but effectively done. Except for a few gunshots (and the prescence of a tarantula), there are very few special effects. There are two scenes of topless nudity, but the rape scene is mostly implied rather than shown.

Video is ocasionally grainy, and there is one awful day-for-night scene, but the film (90% of which takes place in the woods) is generally well lit. I noticed a few video glitches throughout, which is likely a problem with the transfer, but doesn't distract much. This is a shot on video effort, though, so don't expect stellar video quality.


A biker revenge flick that could use a little more biking and a lot more revenge, High Desert occasionally rises above its low-budget ambitions but is sunk by bad acting and a pedestrian storyline. The direction shows promise, but the padding makes watching to the end a chore. Not awful, but doesn't distinguish itself enough to be worthwhile.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #8: The Bewitching (2006)


Soft-core porn masquerading as horror, Gary Sax's The Bewitching is competently made but offers little to genre fans aside from a parade of nude women in never-ending sex scenes. Not that there's anything wrong with that. However, if you're hoping for more than a skeleton of a storyline, you're likely to be disappointed.

What plot there is can be summed up rather easily. Gretchen (Beverly Lynne, The Zombie Chronicles, Terror Toons) is a witch who annoys her coven by taking on a corporial form and heading to Vegas. There, she has sex with a bunch of dudes, eventually trapping them in her mirror for some unknown reason. Jezebel, another witch, travels to Vegas to retrieve her, but flirts with some dork (Lysander Abadia) until Zenda (Mary Elizabeth), the head witch, shows up. Unrecognizable to Gretchen, the two of them get down and dirty before Zenda kills Gretchen and releases the guys in the mirror. SPOOKY!


Director Gary Sax has had a lot of experience with low budget nonsense and the movie looks perfectly fine for a shot on DV effort. The visuals are helped along by a nifty soundtrack of surf rock, much of it composed by the director. That said, the film only really takes advantage of two locations, a bar and a bedroom, and they quickly become repetitive. Sax shoots the sex scenes like a pro (pornographer), but whatever directorial talents he may have are hardly stretched.

It's almost a little unfair to compare the acting in this to the acting in the previous films in this collection, as this is almost a semi-professional production by comparison. Most of the acting here is really hammy, even if the performers are handicapped (figuratively) by an incredibly awful script. Beverly Lynne is fine as Gretchen, particularly since her main requirement is to look good in various states of undress. She performs admirably. The rest of the cast range from passable to awful, particularly Lysander Abadia as Cedric the awful comic relief, and the throaty Mary Elizabeth as Zenda. Both are bad at delivering lines, though Cedric doesn't have an all girl sex scene to fall back on.


Lighting and sound are both servicable, and generally much better than the other efforts in this collection, though there are some weak special effects whenever the men are shown trapped in the mirror. An overuse of filters throughout is likely supposed to add mystery to the half baked plot, but often makes things look like a cheap 80s music video.

If you're looking for naked ladies, then the film delivers the goods. More than half the running time is devoted to sex in one form or another, including a completely random scene of a woman servicing a television repairman. The final sex scene between Gretchen and Zenda does seem rather anticlimactic however, if that's the right word.

Image quality is fine throughout, and the sound is balanced enough to make most dialogue easily distinguishable. Not that anyone is here for the witty discourse.


With more sex than brains on display, The Bewitching delivers exactly what it promises. Lots of softcore sex featuring plenty of attractive women, and a silly plot that only exists to get the audience from one act of copulation to the next. Sure there are witches, but there's nothing scary here except some of the acting. Not really worth your time, unless you're desperate for T&A.