Monday, June 27, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #37: Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank (2006)

When pondering these Bloody Nightmares films, I often start to wonder about the motivations that led to them coming into existence. It takes a lot of passion, sweat and teamwork to make a film - not to mention generally (hopefully?) a modicum of talent - so when I see so much obvious work go into something so terrible, it makes me truly curious about the thought process behind it. I know well how the development of a movie can change from the initial writing to the actual production (and post-production), and how you're often at the mercy of factors beyond your control. These issues are amplified when dealing with low (or no) budgets and inexperienced actors and crew. In the end you simply want something you can be proud of, something that hopefully can provide status for everyone involved, and maybe, just maybe, make a little money off of the proceedings. Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank seems to have fairly modest goals - blood and boobs with a few laughs thrown in is a time-tested tradition - but somewhere between conception to birth something clearly went off the rails.

I mentioned some of the issues regarding working with low budgets, and here it appears the filmmakers had to deal with a nightmare situation: a lead actor leaving the production before it was finished. I'm only guessing on this as I haven't read anything confirming it, but when a seemingly major character dies half way through the movie in a scene which makes little sense in context - and the director just happens to hide her face throughout - it's not difficult to work out what occurred. I'll give director Kirk Bowman credit for at least trying to piece things together - another character is quickly introduced and given lines almost certainly meant for the original actress - but it makes an already shaky production nearly incoherent. Even worse, it makes it look unprofessional. It would be neglectful to not mention that the "replacement" actress also bares her breasts, which may have been a contributing factor.

For a film with such seemingly simplistic motivations, the actual plot is baffling, which isn't helped by the massive number of characters introduced at the beginning. We start with the lovely Samantha (Heidi Brucker, who acquits herself well and really deserves better), an archaeology student who finds herself joining a team searching for an ancient jewel-box in the mountains of Burbank. Supposedly the jewels are cursed - a theory quickly confirmed when two of the students wander off before almost literally tripping over them. The gal opens up the box which leads her to immediately strip down to her underwear, rubbing the jewels all over herself and growing some (really terribly looking) plastic fangs. She eats her male companion, while the rest of the party ignores their disappearance and head home.

However, Samantha's dickish boyfriend Gary (Danny Kitz) has (somehow) smuggled the jewels back in the hopes of trading them for some heavy petting. Samantha - offended - runs off in a huff, leading Gary to go to a competing archaeology group who are only too happy to accept the artifact, which rapidly leads two of them to turn into the titular bloodsucking babes. They strip down and eat the gardener, which is displayed in some jaw-droppingly awful special FX. Seriously. Check out this screen shot.

But that's not all! During all of this Chelsea (Christina Caporale), the head of the first archaeology group, is accosted by mountain man Zack (Danilo Mancinelli) - who had been spying on the group and knows how quickly the awful curse can spread. Discovering that Gary has the jewels, the two try to track him down but their efforts are quickly thwarted when - wait for it - Chelsea (or someone that looks an awful lot like her) is randomly stabbed to death in a parking lot. All seems lost, until Zack's friend Felicity shows up and somehow fills exactly the role that Chelsea's death left empty. What luck!

Samantha, searching for Gary, wanders in on the competing group chowing down on their gardener and attempts to call Chelsea for help. But Chelsea is really, really dead (are there no police in Burbank?) so she reaches Zack and fake Chelsea instead, who come to her rescue and explain to her that the jewels (and curse) can only be destroyed by throwing them into the ocean. This bit of exposition comes with the three characters just hanging out at the beach, even though they KNOW that Gary has the jewels. Somehow, a few random characters also dig up a few of the jewels out of the sand - this part is particularly confusing -  which leads to a few more rubber body parts being spread around.

After that there's some exposition, and Gary shows up at a bar with the jewel box leading to MORE people getting eaten. Thankfully, Samantha tracks him down and - after Zack and Felicity have a shag session - the whole bunch get together and toss the jewels into the ocean. But wait! Before all that we get a cameo from the director as someone from the "archaeological society", who proves to actually be an actor hired by the competing archaeological group in an attempt to steal the jewel box. Bowman actually does really well in his brief role before being chased off when our intrepid heroes discover his true motivation. Foes vanquished, the box gets tossed into the ocean - making use of the worst hammer throw ever caught on film - and everyone lives happily ever after.

Actually, there's an eye rolling "trick" ending before all is said and done. Let's never speak of it again.

Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank wants to be something that it's not - namely, a legitimately funny and gory thrill-ride with smatterings of cheesecake nudity. Unfortunately the comedy is almost wholly unsuccessful, and the gore is generally pathetic with a few notably awful "special effects" scenes which look to have been assembled in MS Paint. There are lots of indistinguishable women prancing around in their underwear (and gamely nibbling at rubbery limbs), but there's nothing titillating about the amount of needless padding and confusing exposition shoe-horned into many scenes. There are also some obvious continuity issues - once scene has a character come out of a shower only to have dry hair as she rounds a corner - and sound recording issues plague many scenes, making the whole production seem rough and unfinished.

It's not a total waste, however. While the acting is inconsistent, at least most of the cast give a strong effort, with Heidi Brucker (as Samantha) and Danilo Mancinelli (as Zack) doing an excellent job under the circumstances. The music seems to be a mix of original material (by a number of different artists) and library material, but it's introduced well and punctuates a few scenes impressively. It's also shot in a number of attractive locations throughout Burbank, and the choice to film most scenes in the daytime at least helps avoid many of the lighting issues which affect many low-budget productions.

Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank is presented in its original 1.78 : 1 aspect ratio, though the transfer is surprisingly rough considering it's a comparatively recent film. Obviously shot on digital video, there is constant haloing throughout and the usual glitches and skipped frames that have appeared in a number of these productions. It's important to remember that by attempting to fit four films on a single DVD, the Bloody Nightmares collection doesn't present most of them at near optimum image quality. It's watchable, but unimpressive. There are some significant sound issues in a few scenes with background noise and poor recording making dialogue difficult to hear, but if you've watched up to that point it's unlikely to be the thing that tips you over the edge to stop actually watching.

It's part of the Bloody Nightmares collection, so don't go expecting chapter stops or bonus features. Would actually be quite interested to hear some behind-the-scenes dirt on this one. Guess I'll just have to stalk Kirk Bowman on Twitter instead.

An ambitious, though unsuccessful, attempt at horror comedy, Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank wears its intentions on its sleeve, but is neither funny enough - nor scary enough - to be anything but a confusing mish-mash of genres. While rarely boring, production issues are distracting enough to keep most audience members away, and the story is confusing and rarely engaging. While there are flickers of talent from the cast and director, this one is best left dead and buried. 

Semum (2008)

The weight of professional and personal responsibility has been crushing as of late and it has all but completely denied me the ability to do the things I enjoy most. This malaise I have developed over the past six months is probably the driving force behind my recent focus on broadening my horror movie horizon.

My primary focus as of late has been on Turkish horror films. As formulaic and derivative as movies can often be, I still find foreign films to be fascinating windows into the culture of countries I've never visited and this was my main reason for seeking out these particular motion pictures.

As wonderfully addressed in the ongoing Turner Classic series, Race & Hollywood: Arab Images In Film, the onscreen persona of the Muslim has always been less than flattering and I saw my journey through Turkish horror as an opportunity to see Turkish society and Muslim culture through their lens rather than the lens of Hollywood.

I had heard quite a bit of chatter about a 2008 film entitled Semum, so I decided that this should be the first one I watched. I knew I was in for some rough chop when my research turned up the notion that Semum was "based on actual events."

Hasan Karacadağ's Semum starts off rather ominously as the defiant forces of Hell and damnation (the Djinn in Islamic mythology) issue a direct threat to the more benevolent forces in the cosmos. Their intent is to rebel against the mandate of Heaven by taking out their frustration over being banished from the sight of God by tormenting the beings in the universe most beloved by God.

Naturally, that's us.

Humans... wonderfully oblivious to the machinations of the cosmic forces acting against us...

The very next scene may as well be from Poltergeist as we peep in on Canan (Ayça İnci) and her husband Volkan (Burak Hakkı) as they go through the final bit of financial wrangling needed to purchase their brand new house in the suburbs near Istanbul.

All seems bucolic, but we know that won't last for long. As time progresses, Canan begins to have odd experiences that start off as isolated noises and progress dramatically from hallucinations to wild, out-of-body experiences.

Before too long, poor Canan's mind and body become the battlefields in the war between the forces of good and evil.

My experience with Semum was a mixed bag to be honest; a journey filled with remarkable extremes.

The best thing about this movie is the portrayals of the characters. Semum is chock full of horror staples. Everyone is present including the fearful wife, the doubting husband, and even the creepy gardener.

Derivative though it may seem to be, I found these depictions to be refreshing. Here were folks that, for better or worse, acted like "normal people."

The trappings of stereotypical depictions of Muslims were stripped away and replaced by a husband that loved his wife, a terrified wife helpless against the demon that ravages her soul, and a creepy gardener acting suitably creepy.

Things in Semum started to break down for me at the worst possible time...

When the movie was supposed to be frightening...

What started off as an interesting premise ultimately devolved into a formulaic possession film not quite as horrible as Exorcist The Heretic but not even on caliber with lower range but entertaining fare like the blaxsploitation classic, JD's Revenge.

The CGI climactic showdown between the film's version of Father Merrin and the evil Djinn seems to draw more inspiration from Street Fighter II Turbo than it does the Koran and it is so campy as to be completely laughable.

I forgave this transgression, though. If you expect every horror film audience around the world to accept the same standards as North American gore hounds do, you'd be quite wrong.

Turkish horror is a genre still in search of its identity. Though the genre makes admirable strides to present itself in a more progressive light, cultural forces still hamper its development.

Directors like Karacadağ are fearful of making these films too scary as they might either frighten off a slowly developing fanbase or draw the wrath of fundamentalist schools of thought that are entrenched in Turkish society. Hence, there is always a bit of humor, camp, or "edutainment" thrown in for good measure.

As much as I'd like to consider myself to be a connoisseur of world cinema, I still wrestle with some of the cultural nuances. This is perhaps a bit of hypocrisy on my part as I commend Karacadağ for giving me non-stereotypical Muslim characters yet blast him for not crafting a film more in line with my American expectations of what a horror film should be.

Therefore, as much as I found experience with Semum to be somewhat disappointing, I cannot completely condemn the film. If I do, I may as well write a scathing review of Ring and base my critique on the grounds that Rinko does not act in a manner befitting a person with American sensibilities concerning the unknown.

To fully appreciate the Turkish perspective when it comes to horror films, I clearly need to watch more Turkish horror films.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Capsule Review: The Evil Dead (1981)

No movie had a bigger impact on my love for films and film-making than Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead. The sequels got bigger, funnier and more off-the-wall, but my heart belongs to the original film, which is a lunatic fun-house of scares, gore and truly inventive camerawork. In fact, on re-watching it I was struck with just how much energy the film-making brought to what was really a very standard tale of a group of young people being attacked by some malevolent force. While Bruce Campbell would become a cult icon, here he's just a kid, but takes the massive punishment dished in his direction like a champ even while his friends are possessed, (controversially) molested by a tree, or dismembered. There's a wild sense of freedom on display, a sense that anything can happen, that few films have been able to match, and the consistent inventiveness on display inspired an entire generation of horror filmmakers - and eventually made Raimi a blockbuster filmmaker. And while it's funny - sometimes screamingly so - it remains at heart a true horror film, and a very effective one.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #36: 13 (aka City in Panic) (1987)

A Toronto-lensed slasher film with a twist, City in Panic has some misguided morality (and an awfully dated view on homosexuality) but at least tries to do something unique in what was already a tired genre by the late 80s. While it rarely succeeds, and becomes rather ponderous before a final reveal that - while predictable - proves to be somewhat satisfying, there are a few interesting ideas (and tributes to other, better films) that prevent the film from being a complete waste. However, perhaps a low-budget slasher film isn't necessarily the best way to approach controversial issues regarding homosexuality and AIDS, and even forgiving viewers may be left with a bad taste in their mouth.

The film opens - just like Blood Cult - with another tired tribute to Psycho's famous shower scene, except a) this is filmed much more professionally and accurately and b) this time the victim is a male. In fact, one of the things that separates City in Panic from the many, many similar slasher films of the period is that the victims are almost exclusively male. More specifically, the victims are almost all homosexual males who happen to have AIDS - and the portrayal of homosexuals avoids many of the limp-wristed flamboyant stereotypes common at the time. Alas, the victims are still hanging out at steam baths and gyms, or trolling public washrooms for sex so it's unfortunately not as progressive as you might hope. This shower scene also gives us a brief look at our killer who, wearing black gloves and trench-coat and carrying a huge blade, looks to have stepped directly out of a 70s Italian Giallo film.

Not only is the killer targeting AIDS-infected men, but is also cutting the letter M into the flesh of each victim - the immortal Fritz Lang film M is actually referred to by name - though the reason for this isn't revealed until the end. We are quickly introduced to Dave Miller (a wooden David Adamson), a radio talk-show host who spends most of his time condemning conservative newspaper columnist Alex Ramsey for demanding that the police reveal all of the information they have about the recent killings. Miller's ratings are low - and his bills are mounting - and it's not hard to understand why since the long scenes of his talk show make it seem awfully dull. Even worse, we're forced to spend way too much time on these scenes, which never really get across the supposed mounting hysteria the murders have created. Eventually the killer calls in to the radio show and Miller is asked to act as bait, but that possibly interesting plot strand goes nowhere and the actual killer ends up being someone (not surprisingly) close to home.

It's a bit difficult to figure out what director Robert Bouvier is actually trying to do with his film. Is he trying to turn the conventions of the slasher genre on its head by making the victims mostly men? Is he making a comment on the fear and confusion regarding the AIDS virus in the late 80s? Is he making a statement on yellow journalism and fear-mongering in the media? I admire the attempt to add depth to an often banal genre, but frankly whatever point is being made is swallowed by stiff acting and endless talk radio sequences.  Even more damaging, the stalk-and-slash sequences are generally tensionless and, aside from a memorable scene where a security guard gets his dick sliced off after an unfortunate glory-hole session, quite unimaginative. Bouvier is obviously a competent director, and the final chase scene through a factory full of mannequins is quite effective, but there is very little here for a horror fan to grip on to.

City in Panic has been senselessly (and confusingly) re-titled 13 for this release, but aside from an obviously modern title card, and the removal of any and all credits, it seems to be intact. It's presented in a particularly shoddy full-screen transfer quite obviously taken from a VHS tape, and features all of the expected glitches and visual problems you would associate with that format. But even with that in mind this is a particularly flat and murky looking film, looking a lot like another 80s Canadian export: Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare (which just happened to share this film's cinematographer). Sound fares better, though there is some minor crackling on the soundtrack during the opening narration. There's a competent synth soundtrack from Dave Shaw that underscores the action nicely, but is forgettable.

This is a part of the Bloody Nightmares collection, so you don't get chapter stops. You don't get extras. You don't even get the original title.

The film ends with a call for tolerance and understanding, which is a nice sentiment but rings a bit hollow after the gay slaughter that has occurred for the previous 90 minutes. Indeed, the whole film feels a bit like a missed opportunity, as the idea of comparing the AIDS panic - and the fear promoted by the media of the time - with the hysteria created by a series of killings has some real potential. Unfortunately, this potential is snuffed out by lifeless acting, bland writing and dull direction. It's all competent (for the most part), but there's so little of interest here that watching it from start to finish - along with writing about it - can be a frustrating experience. City in Panic obviously wants to be more than it is, but doesn't bring enough to the table to rise above an already overstuffed genre.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Capsule Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a tough sell for a modern audience. Based on a wartime comic strip detailing the simplistic, often pompous views of a moustached (and typically British) Colonel, the film begins with a wraparound segment displaying the titular character (never referred to as "Blimp" in the film) being upstaged in a training exercise by a group of young soldiers who have ignored the rules of combat, believing that following order against an enemy who does not is senseless. It's a comical, emotionally charged beginning, but one that leads into a flashback, detailing how the young Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) developed into the bald, comical figure through his experiences from the turn of century, through World War 1, and finally back into World War 2. The emotional depth given to the character is astounding, as we see him develop a lifetime friendship with the German Theodor Kretschmar-Schul­dorff (a brilliant Anton Wal­brook) while regretting the loss of his love Edith Hunter (Deb­o­rah Kerr, who is excellent in multiple roles). When we finally return to modern day (meaning 1942), all of the actions from the beginning are replayed but are through an entirely new perspective and given much more resonance. Directors Michael Pow­ell and Emeric Press­burger took a caricature and - over a period of a very brisk 160 minutes - slowly add flesh and substance to him until we are left as shaken and devastated by his eventual realization - that his simplistic views on life and combat have been usurped by a younger generation -  as the character himself. This is an expertly acted and paced film, filled with dry (and enduring) British humor that ranks among the very best of the time. Tragically edited for American release - which was itself delayed because of objections from Winston Churchill - and often only seen in battered prints, the gorgeous technicolor cinematography and expert film-making can now be appreciated fully on DVD and Blu-Ray. A wonderful achievement, and a movie that any cinema lover should make time for.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #35: Wishbone (2000)

A standard spin on W. W. Ja­cobs' The Monkey's Paw (or, perhaps more directly, Richard Matheson's Button, Button) Wish Bone starts out quite strongly - with better production values than many of the films in this collection - but eventually fails simply because the plot is dragged out to tedious lengths. By the time the third "party montage" comes along, all but the most patient viewers will be looking at their watches. Director Timothy Gaer simply doesn't capture the spirit that made those original stories - which have already been adapted dozens of times, with "Button, Button" getting a recent Hollywood adaptation as The Box - so fascinating, though there are enough examples of talent both in front and behind the camera to think that with a better and more focused script, this could have been something memorable.

About to graduate college and moving into her own apartment, Lori (Tiffany Lancia) is given an odd statuette known as a "wish-bone" as a present from her aunt and uncle. After a drunken party where several of her friends make joking wishes while holding the item, people in her neighborhood begin to mysteriously vanish and, even more strangely, the wishes begin to come true - starting with her friend Donna winning a million dollars. Skeptical at first, Lori soon discovers that the strange shop-owner who sold the statue to her Aunt and Uncle warned that any wish made on the statue would lead to a death, and (along with her fiance and friends) she tries to track down what has been causing all of the mysterious disappearances.

Starting with a reliable Twilight Zone premise - an object of immense power in the hands of ordinary people - Wishbone simply doesn't develop any of the characters in a way that makes them (or their decisions) worth caring about. Lori seems perfectly nice, though her eventual decision to start hunting potential kidnappers with a gun was a bit of a head-scratcher, and the sub-plot of her relaxing her virginal ways because of her near-death experience could be interesting in a different movie, but a plot like this should rely on internal turmoil and the struggle about whether to use the power that has been given, and that simply never happens. And since nearly all of the deaths occur to random people - and, with a few exceptions, tend to not be very stylish or interesting to watch - it's simply difficult to remain interested.

These pacing issues are exacerbated by the usual technical issues and oddities expected on low-budget productions, particularly the distracting editing choice to fade to black as a way of ending most scenes. This is a common mistake with young filmmakers who enjoy the smoothness of this transition, but actually demolishes any momentum that might have been built.  Even worse is that much of the film's dialogue is drowned out by the film's soundtrack, which is impressively diverse but adds nothing to most scenes. Thankfully the actually dialogue - when not being overwhelmed - has been adequately recorded. Add in the usual glitches and lighting issues during darker scenes (combined with the quality issues that come from squeezing four films onto a single disc in this collection) and it makes for a sometimes frustrating viewing experience.

To Gaer's credit, while there isn't much camera movement, there are efforts to expand the visual style away from just master shots cutting to close-ups. His direction show an eye for composition usually lacking in this collection, and there are a few scenes which effectively use some unique color and lighting. I was also generally impressed by the quality of acting, despite obviously being a group of amateurs. It's not exceptional quality, and there are still a few shaky performances, but the leads really do give a strong effort. Kudos as well for the surprising number of different locations, a rarity for such a low budget. Gaer was obviously able to get a lot of cooperation from the people of Scranton, PA and he makes good use of the various locales.

Wishbone is presented in a very shaky full-screen transfer which shows off plenty of digital artifacting, particularly in the darker scenes. While it's possible that the original source was this murky and glitchy looking, it's more likely that the compression necessary to fit this film on a disc with three others was the cause. Even outside of this rough transfer, the original video - likely DV - has a blurry softness to it that doesn't allow for much detail. I've already mentioned some of the sound issues due to the music being unnecessarily loud, but the soundtrack itself - while distracting because of the technical issue - is at least pleasantly diverse.

This is part of the Bloody Nightmares collection, so we're denied even the dignity of having chapter stops. There are, however, some weak outtakes that play during the closing credits. I'll take what I can get, but I would hope that there were more amusing errors made during filming than this.

There's something inherently fascinating about the idea of an object that grants wishes - more-so when the result of that wish concurrently creates some sort of tragedy. While the original Monkey's Paw involved the dangers with interfering with fate - the wishes were granted but inevitably led to a tragic event - Matheson's version took things a step further, where the titular button would grant a wish but would lead directly to the death of someone the pusher didn't know. This brings up some interesting questions regarding morality and desperation, and is at least closer in spirit to the wishbone of Timothy Gaer's film. Unfortunately, since almost the entire 90 minute running time of Wishbone is devoted to actually discovering the link between the random disappearances in the town and the granting of wishes, these themes are barely touched upon. What could have been a fascinating look at greed instead becomes sluggish, leading to a unsatisfying supernatural ending. Stronger writing doesn't cost anything except time and talent, and this film could have used a little more of both.