Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Isle Of The Damned (2008)

Comedic tributes to zombie films have gotten all of the ink (and films) over the last decade or so, but the zombie film's neglected Italian cousin - the cannibal film - has been left to stew on the sidelines. Perhaps this is because that cannibal films have never crossed over into the mainstream the way that a Dawn Of The Dead or a 28 Days Later have been able to, and they've never led to the level of slavish devotion from fandom, where even the most notable film - likely Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust - can only negligibly be referred to as a quality film. Thankfully, we live in the age where a group of motivated individuals on a small budget can create a comedy tribute to an unfortunately derided, and often ignored, genre. Isle Of The Damned is presented as an actual product of the early 80s, directed by the mysterious Italian Antonello Giallo and banned in (as the poster screams) 492 countries! In reality, it's the folks at Dire Wit Films who have crafted the film: part parody, part excuse for general silliness, but all with tongue firmly in cheek. While the success rate of the humor is mixed, the very fact that such a film exists - and has been put together with such an obvious love for the genre - is quite the accomplishment.

P.I. Jack Steele (Larry Gamber) is, along with his adopted son Billy (Peter Crates), helping the devious explorer Harold Thompson (Patrician Rosa) track down the lost treasure of Marco Polo in Argentina. The final stage of their trip takes them to a (not quite) deserted island filled with the Cannibal Yamma Yamma tribe, who proceed to chow down on their crew in a variety of gruesome ways before the three are rescued by the mysterious Alexis Kincaid, an anthropologist with a mysterious past. The villainous Thompson refuses to leave the island without the treasure, leading to a gory finale where the cannibals dish out punishment to those that remain.

Shot on video, the Dire Wit crew have added various bits of grain and film damage to make Isle Of The Damned look appropriately aged, and the opening credits - featuring a plethora of (fake) Italian names and a funky, synthy main theme - work well to capture the look of the films being aped. The actual characters, however, wear ridiculous fake mustaches and wigs, and are - in tribute to the bad dubbing of most Italian genre films - dubbed with ridiculous, often inappropriate voices. The dubbing gag gets a bit tiresome after a short while (except for the Ewok sounds that come from the tribe members) and the rather broad humor - with its reliance on sodomy, rape, and poop jokes - doesn't always work and it's a shame that it wasn't a bit more subtle. That said, there's an obvious attempt to gain appreciation outside of the small audience that enjoys cannibal films, and that is certainly understandable.

It's no surprise that a film about people being eaten would be pretty violent, and there's plenty of inventive - and thankfully not too realistic - gore to go around, most notably a nasty scene of a fetus being cut from a woman's stomach (slightly more realistic than Las Vegas Bloodbath), and a penis severing that might still make a few folks squirm. There's also lots of folks' insides being pulled outside, as well as other various scenes of debauchery. There's some brief nudity, and some rather ridiculous sex scenes - consensual and otherwise - but it's the gore that takes center stage.

Acting quality is a little difficult to judge, as the performers are obviously doing their best to over-act, gesticulating wildly to go along with the dubbing. Surprisingly, though perhaps thankfully, there are no direct references to the real animal violence which often goes hand in hand with the genre, though there are some great scenes of exotic animals, obviously filmed elsewhere, edited into the exploits - as well as perhaps the (intentionally) least convincing spider in cinema history.

The most impressive aspect of the film is the terrific soundtrack, available for free on the DVD in mp3 format, which appropriately emulates the synthesizer and prog-rock fueled scores of Italian zombie, giallo and cannibal films. It sometimes gets a little too disco funky, but it's a lot of fun and adds a lot to the proceedings.

The DVD for Isle Of The Damned comes with a number of special features, but unfortunately most are pretty flimsy and don't contain much content. First up is a short "interview" with Luigi Giallo, the supposed son of the director of the film. It's ridiculous, but amusing and thankfully short though not something you're likely to return to. Next is The Shameless Art Of Self Promotion, which features the (actual) creators going to an horror convention to attempt to sell merchandise. It's actually a fascinating idea, and could have been rather enlightening, but aside from a few brief interviews with those wandering by it's pretty lame. A great teaser trailer for Isle Of The Damned, taking some elements from the trailer for H.G. Lewis' Blood Feast, is included, as well as the full length trailer. Best of all is a fake trailer for Post Modem, a terrific looking tribute to Italian giallos with a little sci-fi thrown in for good measure. There's also a teaser trailer for Antonio Giallo's previous film Pleasures Of The Damned which seems to tread similar ground as the main feature. There's also a short message from Professor Livingstone assuring us that we are witnessing real acts of cannibalism. Thanks, Professor.

While a legit commentary would have been great, we instead get an abbreviated commentary from The Insultor (the dubbed voice for Jack Steele's character) and his cousin Clarence. Not very amusing, unfortunately, and quite tiresome after a short amount of time.

Far from restrained, Isle Of The Damned is an amusing, sometimes inspired spoof of the cannibal genre that eventually wears out its welcome, but still has plenty to enjoy for patient fans of the genre. A great soundtrack, plenty of gore, and enough amusing moments certainly merit a watch. It's just a shame that the special features couldn't be a bit more illuminating, as the film looks like it was a blast to make.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #18: Las Vegas Bloodbath (1989)


If you've spent your life up to this point begging the universe to combine your loves of misogyny, extreme violence and hot oil wrestling into one piece of entertainment, then I have some very good news for you. However, if you're anyone else it's possible that Las Vegas Bloodbath might be missing some of the elements that you typically associate with “quality” or “competence”. Revenge fantasies don't get much messier and more unpleasant than this, but those with a love for Z-grade movies will find enough scenes of jaw-dropping awfulness and bad-taste to make a watch worth your time.

Ari Levin stars as Sam Butler, a young businessman who has just closed a big sale in Sacramento and decides to surprise his wife in Las Vegas with a new sports car before taking her on a vacation. These plans are interrupted when he finds his wife – sporting some of the worst hair i've ever seen – in bed with a local police office (his suspicions are peaked by smelling a strange pair of shoes he finds in the front porch). In a fit of anger he gesticulates wildly with the officer's gun, before two vaguely gunshot-like sounds ring off on the soundtrack.


Sam – now insane – decides that he's going to teach all females a lesson by randomly killing all that he encounters. The first target is a prostitute who Sam immediately calls a whore, before parking in a filthy alley and tying the classy temptress to some errant pipes. Pulling out his wife's severed head, he hits us with the classic “you give me head and i'll give you head”, before stabbing the women through her mouth and tying her leg to his car. Luckily, the woman is held together with clothespins as her limb flies off as soon as the vehicle tugs on it.

After some lovely scenes of late-80s Vegas locales – usually featuring a bunch of confused looking tourists staring at the camera – Sam randomly kills a bartender before stumbling upon the home of pregnant Barbara, who is having a get-together with some of her hot oil wrestling buddies that have just got back from a big match in New York. These gals – with names like Tuff Tiff, Bambi, and Cherry Blossom – eat doughnuts and drink beer before playing a ridiculous game of Poker Truth or Dare and watching an episode of B.L.O.W. (Beautiful Ladies Oil Wrestling). We're treated to long clips of women rolling around on garbage bags while men hoot and holler in the background. Classy. “I'm so glad the match went national”, says one, and I have to pause the DVD until my eyes stop rolling.


Eventually Sam interrupts the love-in and has Barbara (incompetently) tie up her friends before being led upstairs into a very odd bedroom featuring walls that have obviously been covered with white fabric. This will become important in a moment. They make small talk and Sam reveals that, like Barbara, his own wife was pregnant before he murdered her. Unfortunately, this reminiscing leads to some hallucinations which send Sam off the deep end, and he proceeds to cut her stomach open, pull out her unborn fetus, and throw it at the wall!

Yes. This happens.

Not finished, Sam kills the other women via power drill to the head, claw hammer to the stomach (which is provoked when, after the young lady admits her profession, Sam yells out “Ruth LOVED oil wrestling!”), and, um, arm pulling. He literally pulls a woman's arm off after fending off a rather random baseball-bat swinging vigilante. Coming downstairs, Sam decapitates a Jehovah's Witness via swinging door (“You're not a witness anymore”) before heading back to the bathroom and bathing in the blood and limbs of his victims. A not-so-real looking police officer finds him and tells him to get his hands up, but Sam is wearing falsies and shoots the police officer. The credits roll over a still frame of the actor's face, as the worlds worst theme song (“Las Vegas Blood Baaaaath”) plays in the background.


Shot on video, Las Vegas Bloodbath often looks like a particularly seedy porno movie, with dialogue that seems almost entirely improvised – particularly in the seemingly endless “party”scene featuring literally twenty minutes of small talk. Ari Levin seems to be trying hard, but effort doesn't quite make up for lack of talent, though he's Olivier compared to his oil wrestling co-stars who laugh when they should be terrified, make small talk when they should be screaming, and somehow fail to even die convincingly. Director (producer, writer) David Schwartz effectively manages to point a camera at the things that are happening, though every other element of production seems beyond him.

I should give some credit to the special effects, which are terrible but plentiful, and remain amusing in a Troma kind of way. The abortion scene is mercifully silly, but there are plenty of perfectly serviceable rubber limbs and the stabbings are appropriately nasty looking. Sound is muffled and picks up plenty of ambient noise, but the dialogue is generally intelligible.


Image quality is about what you would expect for a shot-on-video feature from the late 80s. Fuzzy with a few tracking issues, though at least the lighting is consistent throughout. The music (by Chris Crump) is totally forgettable, except for the title theme that runs over the closing credits, which is endearingly goofy. From watching the trailer, this version seems to be missing a few minutes of footage - most notably a shovel face smashing - but I can't imagine it affects the plot very significantly.

As is usually the case in this collection, there are no special features. Not even chapters. How am I going to jump to the fetus scene whenever I want?


Rather shockingly entertaining in parts, Las Vegas Bloodbath is repulsive and fun in about equal measure. Nobody seems to be taking the proceedings too seriously, and though the actual film-making is almost entirely without merit there are moments here that show a surprising amount of inventiveness. Certainly not good in any objective sense, there is a decent amount of bad-taste fun to be had as long as you leave your brain at the door.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #17: Invitation (2003)


We all know the impact that John Carpenter's Halloween had upon filmmakers (particularly genre directors) in the late 70s and 80s. The slasher film dominated the horror box office in the 80s, and the postmodern horror boom of the mid to late 90s, as irritating as it sometimes was, generally developed as fans of these films came of age. In the last few years revisionist slasher films, as well as a near constant slate of remakes, have kept the stalk and slash genre clearly in the public's consciousness. Even smaller efforts like Hatchet and Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon have managed to find small but devoted cult audiences, and it stands to reason that ultra low budget filmmakers would continue to return to a genre that has spawned both continual success and has proven to be kind to smaller budgets. Invitiation's twist on the genre is that there really is no twist – the film follows the slasher formula to a tee – which ends up being both its greatest strength and biggest weakness.

Embracing many of the cliches established in Friday The 13th and (many) others, Invitation centres upon a group of friends who witnessed a childhood accident – the death of an unpopular kid via truck during a game of baseball – coming together after a number of years apart to spend a few days in a spooky cabin in the woods. Do they start to get picked off one by one? You bet they do! Do they all have flat, easy to categorize personalities? Uh-huh. There's the guilty good guy with the newly pregnant girlfriend, the goofy jackass, the hunky musician, the eye candy, and the bitch – though to director/writer Jeff Burton's credit there is some effort to give a few of the characters slightly more depth.


The ending takes things in a supernatural, and not very satisfying, direction. While the Ten Little Indians style of most slasher films almost inevitably leads to a disappointing reveal, here they just seem to give up in favor of some colorful imagery which brings to mind Italian horror – particularly Fulci's The Beyond – more than the slashers referenced by the rest of the film. On the bright side, there are a few interesting deaths, though gore is kept to a minimum, and unlike most of the efforts in this collection the director was able to convince a few members of his cast to get topless. You take what you can get in situations like this. Genre legitimacy is also helped by a small role for Bill Vincent , who worked as a fake Shemp on a couple of the Evil Dead films (and co-wrote Burton's later film The Final Curtain). That this was lensed in Michigan should not be a surprise.

Acting is actually quite solid across the board, particularly for a low budget effort like this, though nobody really distinguishes themselves. Where the film really falters is in its direction. It's not that Burton doesn't have any skill - he obviously knows a few tricks - but he seems to be compelled to throw them into every scene whether they are appropriate or not. This becomes particularly egregious in the final twenty minutes, as the supernatural elements are more pronounced and out come the colored filters and camera effects. I actually generally appreciate these visual pyrotechnics, since most of the efforts in this collection are so visually bland, but here it's quite distracting.


The film was shot on video, but the quality is quite good compared to similar entries on the DVD set - though you should take into account that the previous film I watched was Hip Hop Locos. There are a couple of digital glitches throughout, but despite a plethora of night scenes there isn't a lot of noise in the image. Jeff Burton did the music for the film, but I honestly don't recall it besides the main theme which - shockingly - brings to mind Halloween.

No special features at all. Not even chapters. We're through the looking glass here, people.


It's hard to give Invitation too much grief It's not scary in the least, but it's competently made and would fit in perfectly with some of the lesser 80s slasher films it tries to emulates. Burton has potential as a genre filmmaker as long as he can reign in some of his flashier impulses, and he obviously knows how to work on a low budget. He's put together an attractive cast, decent special effects, and enough creepy moments to warrant a rental. Average, though exceptional compared to its immediate competition.

The Chaser (2008)

Chaser Title

Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser is one gritty, nasty piece of filmmaking. And I mean that as a good thing. This is a crime film where violence is glamorized or sanitized; where life and death hurts; and where the concept of “good guys” is totally ignored. It’s not the first film to take this stance, and it’s not the only one that can make these claims, but Jesus Christ, it’s pretty fucking brutal.

Chaser 1

The story goes something like this: Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) is a pimp. He’s the hero of the story. Two of his prostitutes have gone missing. First, he thinks they’ve run off: he’s “the chaser” of the title, looking for his women. Joong-ho is a former cop, but this almost seems like a detail added just to make sure that there’s something about him that the audience can identify with. In one of the few instances of him doing detective work, Joong-ho discovers that his two missing gals both had the same last client, who turns out to be Yeong-min (Ha Jeong-woo). Joong-ho assumes that Yeong-min has sold his women out from under him, and wants vengeance. After realizing that a third prostitute, Mi-jin, is currently with Yeong-min, Joong-ho calls her and convinces her to go the guy’s house (they only have his cell number), excuse herself to go to the washroom, and to call him and tell him the address. Mi-jin reluctantly agrees, only to be captured by Yeong-min, who isn’t a flesh-peddler but a total fucking psychopath. What follows is one of the more horrific scenes I’ve witnessed on film.

And then things take a strange turn; strange, that is, considering the genre. Because, by about 30 minutes into the film, Joong-ho catches Yeong-min, and they both end up in police custody. With only a quarter of the movie finished, the killer has been captured. Better still, he even admits to his crimes. Except that he provides them with no evidence, and they’ve already arrested someone for earlier crimes which Yeong-min is now claiming to have committed. Added to these problems is the fact that, in apprehending Yeong-min, Joong-ho beat the ever-loving shit out of him, and now it looks like the cops are brutalizing some poor, innocent man just to pin some serious crimes on him.

Chaser 2

So, due to a mixture of police incompetence, and some bizarre police rules and procedures that, for all I know, are actually real, Joong-ho only has 12 hours to find Mi-jin--that is, if she’s still alive. To be sure, his interest isn’t out of sympathy for her situation; rather, Mi-jin is his property, and this pimp wants his fucking money.

The Chaser is actually based on a real case. Yoo Young-cheol killed his victims in similar fashion, and (to some extent) pimps were involved in actually bringing him to justice. Over the course of Young-cheol’s crime spree, he has apprehended by police more than once, generally on different charges, and ended up getting away, so I assume that the difficulties that the police have in The Chaser are a condensed version of these problems.
(Read about the real case here)

Chaser 3

The Chaser is quite remarkable, in it’s grim outlook and gritty aesthetic. The narrative has the affect of making its protagonist, no matter how reprehensible, into a sympathetic character, and so you actually have to look past your naturally-occurring connection to Joong-ho to realize what an utter piece of shit he is. Certainly it’s easy to empathize with him over Yeong-min, who is such a crazy weirdo that he’s almost alien. Yeong-min isn’t a Hannibal Lecter-style murderer, who is as brilliant as he is maniacal, or even a stoic badass; rather, he’s a pathetic, insignificant fuck who gets his rocks off killing women, and only gets away with it due to police incompetence.

Rumour has it that The Chaser is being remade in America, probably sometime next year (2010). I have a hard time believing that the bleak outlook of the original will remain. I don’t know if the general movie-going audience will be able to swallow a movie with such an unremittingly dreary aesthetic and emotional view of humanity, where your only choice is between sleazy and psychotic.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Capsule Review: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo Del Toro has always shown an affinity for fantasy and strange, dream-like imagery, but here he finally manages to meld the themes with a more personal, dramatic story set during the later days of World War II. Doug Jones, a usual Del Toro player, dons some heavy make-up to play some of the strangest, most fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) creatures to be put on film, and the young Ivana Baquero is very impressive as the 11 year old Ofelia. The two sides occasionally don’t quite fit together, but the film constantly feels like a director really hitting his stride.

Capsule Review: The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese finally netted a directorial Oscar for this remake of the Infernal Affairs series of Hong Kong films. It follows the undercover exploits of a Boston cop digging himself into a group of gangsters run by Jack Nicholson’s underworld boss Frank Costello. Meanwhile, Costello has a rat in the police force in the form of Matt Damon. The all star cast sometimes seem to be drowning in ridiculous Boston accents, but Scorsese pulls out all the stops in keeping things tight and –as things come to a head – extremely suspenseful. Mark Wahlberg gives what may be his very best performances, and Scorsese , as always, makes some great choices for accompanying music.

Capsule Review: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

2006’s surprise hit met, as surprise hits often do, with a rather cruel and unfortunate backlash – particularly after its Best Picture Oscar nomination. It’s actually a real winner of a road movie, with terrific performances and a warm finale, and a smart, genuine script which keeps things on the road no matter how “quirky” it threatens to get. Steve Carrell is surprisingly restrained in his role as the highest regarded Proust scholar in the US, but it’s Alan Arkin who is most impressive as the crotchety, profane, drug addict grandfather.

Capsule Review: Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood’s final (at this point) western remains one of his very best, and a triumphant meditation on violence, revenge and myth. Retired ruthless gunslinger William Munny, settled down with two children after a life of bloodshed, comes out of retirement to track down and kill a young outlaw who cut up a prostitute’s face. Pairing up with his old partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and the young, hotshot Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), the trio run up against the equally ruthless Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) who wants to keep bounty hunters out of his town. Beautiful Alberta landscapes, and a fine bookend to Eastwood’s amazing western career.

Capsule Review: Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

Often criticized for borrowing from his influences, Quentin Tarantino decides to embrace his pop culture mash-up style to bring the audience a gonzo combination of kung-fu, Samurai films and various weird exploitation fodder mixed with his usual dialogue heavy style. While the film still feels truncated by splitting it in half, for many the first Kill Bill has a more satisfying climax with the infamous House of Blue Leaves sword battle. Deliriously violent, with some trademark great performances and set pieces, the film is even better once paired with its sequel.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Capsule Review: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

A shockingly funny examination of cultural ignorance (and bigotry) in America, Sasha Baron-Cohen’s Borat takes his television character and supplants him to rodeos, humor classes, driving instruction and other opportunities for semi-improvised mayhem. Combining real footage with a flimsy plot about a documentary about American life, Cohen creates a film that represents a new style of film-making - one where the audience never knows quite how much reality they are watching.

Capsule Review: Once (2006)

An emotionally honest film that deftly avoids clich̩, Once rode an astoundingly good soundtrack (which, in a rare fairy tale ending, ended up winning an Oscar) and a romantic plot that didn't rely on needless conflict or even an actual romantic relationship, to significant worldwide success. The hand-held, shaky camera adds to the legitimacy of what is on-screen, beautifully complimenting the cobbled together nature of the relationship between a lonely busker and fiercely independent flower seller Рwhich never blossoms beyond friendship but which fills a hole that has left both of them yearning.

Capsule Review: The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth, who after the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) faces harsh criticism because of the royal family’s reaction to the death of Diana. A balanced affair, The Queen doesn’t point fingers or attempt to make vast political statements, but instead is a character study about how characters with extreme influence deal with a national tragedy. Mirren is astounding, though Sheen holds his own as a sympathetic, grinning version of the Prime Minister. Stephen Frears direction is restrained, keeping the focus on the constant confrontations by the heavyweights and their handlers.

Capsule Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Originally conceived as an American film starring Johnny Depp, this adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's autobiography – focusing on the stroke that paralyzed his entire body except for one eye, which led to him dictating the book through an incredibly laborious set of blinks – works because of its willingness to embrace the little details of the man's recovery. Devised by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat ) as a way to deal with his father's death, the film begins with several first person scenes dealing with Deau attempting to come to terms with his terrifying new situation. What could become tedious in the hands of someone less skilled becomes fascinating as we witness the slow growth of communication while Jean deals with his past one blink at a time. A testament to humanity and its ability to endure.

Capsule Review: Atonement (2007)

Tremendous production value and an appalling cast – particularly the young Saoirse Ronan – buoy a sometimes stodgy drama based on the novel by Ian McEwan, A sense of dread pervades up to the accusation by the confused 13 year-old Briony Tallis, one which sends Gardner Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) off to prison, and eventually off to war where the movie picks up considerably. Director Joe Wright evokes photographs of WWI, and shows a great deal of visual panache – particularly in an impossibly long tracking shot featuring hundreds of extras. A tad overblown, but a fine examination of the nature of guilt, and the retribution that often never comes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Capsule Review: No Country For Old Men (2007)

After a series of critical disappointments, the Coen brothers made a major comeback with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country For Old Men. Featuring one of cinema's most memorably terrifying creations in Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the twisting plot – about Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and his attempts to hide the money he finds in the aftermath of a mexican stand-off, as well as the retiring Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) coming to terms with his place in what he sees as an increasingly violent world – comes to a surprising climax which confused some viewers not used to the Coen brothers style. Featuring some great supporting performances, the Coens punctuate scenes of surprising violence and intense suspense with their usual twisted sense of humor. A wonderful balancing act that rewards repeat viewings.

Capsule Review: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino's breakthrough mash-up of exploitation films and pulp crime novels established him as a directorial force to be reckoned with, and created a crop of equally quirky ensemble films which somehow never managed to capture the spark of the original. A series of stories told out of chronological order, though often featuring the same characters, Tarantino gave all of his lead actors – including John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel and Bruce Willis – chances to show off their abilities. A film by a movie geek for movie geeks that somehow still sparked the public's attention, Pulp Fiction remains impossibly entertaining and introduced a new cinematic language to young filmmakers.

Capsule Review: Into The Wild (2007)

Sean Penn’s adaptation of the story of Christopher McCandless, who starved to death in Alaska after abandoning society for a life in nature, is beautifully filmed with tremendous performances, but gets a bit tedious in the face of the sheer wrongheadedness of the central plan. With almost no wilderness training or supplies, Christopher (Emile Hirsh) manages to keep himself alive in an abandoned bus he turns into a makeshift home, but when food runs low he finds his way back to civilization blocked. Much more interesting are the people he meets on his journey, particularly Hal Holbrook who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. But the sense of dread – and Christopher’s attempts to jettison his relationships – can make watching the film a frustrating experience.