Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 8

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)

Despite not being that good of a movie, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” grossed an incredible 125 million against a budget of 17 million. There’s no way a sequel wasn’t happening. Besides, “Scream 2” proved that sequels to self-aware slashers could be just as successful as self-aware slashers. After deciding against the logical working title of “I Know What You Did Two Summers Ago,” the ridiculously entitled “I Still Know What You Last Summer” was released to similar commercial success.

Like “Scream 2,” this one opens with the survivors of the first film now in college. Julie is still recovering from the trauma of Ben Willis’ revenge-killing spree. It’s putting a strain on her relationship with Ray, even if he’s considering proposing to her. Unexpectedly, Julie and her roommate win a radio contest for a paid vacation to the Bahamas. Ray is invited but, the night before the trip, he is attacked by a mysterious man in a slicker. The group arrives in the Bahamas during hurricane season, to an empty hotel on an isolated island. Soon, people begin to die. The Fisherman has seemingly survived and continues his quest of vengeance against Julie and her friends.

A complaint I had against the first “Last Summer” is, for a slasher movie, it had surprisingly little blood. “I Still Know” definitely corrects this. For that matter, the sequel follows the slasher formula to a tee. The characters are trapped, via a hurricane, in an isolated location, a small island resort. The script introduces multiple minor characters that exist just to increase the body count. The kill scenes are far gorier. Unimportant cast members receive hooks to the chin and back, before being dragged around. The Fisherman mixes up his method too. Garden shears, meat cleavers, and fishing spears (in a double impalement, no less) are employed. There’s way more blood and the death scenes are far more extended. More so then before, the dead victims have a tendency to pop out at unexpected (but not really) moments. And, once again, the Fisherman never breaks a sweat when pursuing his prey, always walking slowly and causally. No, there’s no nudity but the movie at least has the good sense to get Jennifer Love Hewitt in a bikini. For someone who enjoys junk-horror slasher snack food, “I Still Know” is more then willing to indulge.

Another aspect holding back the original was its annoying cast of characters. The sequel fixes this too. Brandy’s Karla is less gimmicky and obnoxious then her pop star casting suggests. Mekhi Phifer as Tyrell, her boyfriend, is funny. His tendency to pursue food or sex, even in a crisis, seems realistic. Mostly, the supporting cast is full of goofy, one-note joke characters played by likable character actors. Jack Black plays a white guy with dreads who sells pot, hamming it up ridiculous. (He goes uncredited, probably to maintain his dignity.) Jeffrey Combs shows up as the asshole hotel manager, grimacing at the young cast every time he’s on-screen. Jennifer Esposito brings some ballsy gusto to the thankless part of the sarcastic bartender. Bill Cobbs plays this movie’s variation on the Crazy Ralph character. He’s a creepy old man, a blatant red herring, and introduces a completely dumb voodoo subplot. All of these characters are as thinly written as can be. It’s incredibly easy to guess who will die and even in what order. Yet the talented actors and goofball script add enough color to make for campy entertainment.

I suspect dumb camp may have even been the intention. The titular message is printed on a karaoke screen, at one point. It takes four characters to undo a plastic zip-tie, in maybe the movie’s most melodramatic scene. The person occupying the Fisherman’s slicker this time is obvious. Just through process of elimination, you can guess the killer’s identity. When the reveal comes, via the actual capital of Brazil, it’s hysterical. Also dumb is Freddie Prince Jr.’s entire subplot. He spends the whole movie trying to get to the Bahamas, escaping a hospital, pawning the engagement ring, and hi-jacking a boat. He shows up just when he’s needed but isn’t smart enough to turn the safety off on a gun. Jennifer Love Hewitt growling “Why won’t you fucking die?!” is just one example of this movie’s endearing dumb streak. Another example: The inevitable shock ending building tension via toothbrush.

Guys, I think I finally get it. “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” is stupid as hell, in the same way the later “Friday the 13th” sequels are. Most of the expectations you have for an underachieving slasher sequel are fulfilled. Gorier kills, goofier characters, and a script that is gloriously unaware of how derivative it is add up to make a sequel exponentially more entertaining then the dour original. May it enliven last summer and every last summer of the future. [7/10]

Necromancy (1971)
The Witching

This past weekend at Monster-Mania, I stopped by the VHSPS society booth, the coolest place to buy DVDs at the convention. The booth was running a “buy three, get one free” deal. I asked them to recommend something “weird and eighties” to me. One of the guys handed me “The Witching,” saying it wasn’t eighties but was definitely weird. Some horror movie starring Orson Welles and Pamela Franklin? And, as a glance at the back of the box showed, it was directed by Bert I. Gordon? I’ll take a risk on that for six dollars! An internet search showed that “The Witching” was merely a re-release title for an earlier movie called “Necromancy.” The VHSPS guys didn’t lied. “Necromancy” is certainly weird but that, unfortunately, doesn’t always mean good.

Lori and Frank, who have recently suffered a miscarriage, move into a new town called Lilith. Frank has come to work at the local toy factory. Lori finds the town unnerving. All of Lilith is watched over by a strange man named Mr. Cato. There are no children in Lilith. The townsfolk are open about practicing witchcraft. Soon, Lori realizes she’s been summoned to Lilith and that Mr. Cato has some bad plans for her.

“Necromancy,” or “The Witching” or whatever you choose to call it, has a seriously incoherent script. On the way into town, Lori and Frank witness a car crash. The crash’s victim ties into the main plot, in a way that’s not made clear. Mr. Cato’s ultimate goal is to resurrect his dead son and Lori may or may not have this power. But if Lori was the objective, why has Mr. Cato invited other people to town? Why does he put the girl through so many antics, if this one ritual is his ultimate goal? How come no one else in town can have kids? Why did the witches perform a ritual to give Lori a miscarriage? Why is Lori receiving visions of a demonic woman? Or visions of the past or future? A lot of things happen in “Necromancy” and few of them tie together in any sort of logical way.

I have a theory about why the script is so incoherent. Bert I. Gordon wrote a movie about witches and necromancy. At some point, he decided to mash that idea up with a low-budget rip-off of “Rosemary’s Baby.” “Necromancy” is blatantly derivative of Polanskis’ film. (One of the movie’s many alternate titles was “Rosemary’s Disciples.”) In both, a young woman enters a new home and suspects something weird is up. No one will believe her and she doubts her own sanity. In both, her husband is involved in the cult. Gordon’s version ladles on the exploitation elements. There’s lots of nudity in “Necromancy.” The female Satanists are frequently topless. One, absurdly, wears a robe with cut-out boob holes! There’s even a little light S&M during one sequence. There’s not much gore though, probably because boobs are cheap but corn syrup is expensive. The weird thing is that “Necromancy” gets some things about paganism right. The Horned God is referenced and the point is made that paganism isn’t synonymous with Satanism. Sadly, most of this is dropped by the end, in favor of typical devil movie shenanigans.

So what about that promised weirdness? There are many odd scenes in “Necromancy.” As previously mentioned, a strange woman floats over many of the scenes, whispering vaguely ominous threats. What her purpose is or why she’s there is unanswered. Franklin’s character has many odd visions. She’ll imagine herself nude, being burned at the stake. One dream has her floating out of a casket, foreshadowing the downbeat ending. A baby goat puts in a cameo, tied to an alter, and never appears again. During the rituals, one person wears a cow head, which is probably the movie’s only real moment of unintentional humor. One cult member bares an uncanny resemblance to Gene Wilder. Disappointingly, “Necromancy” is short on what-the-fuckness or laughable moments. Mostly, the movie is just boring.

Pamela Franklin is as talented a scream queen as you could’ve asked for. However, she seems as confused by the script as the viewer is. No amount of mumbling or obesity could rob Orson Welles of his natural gravitas. His hushed line readings provide a smidgen of creepiness in a few scenes. Look, I’m all for seventies devil worship movies. I’m a card-carrying member of the “Brotherhood of Satan” fan club. But “Necromancy” is a mess, an disjointed script combined with a muddled execution. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Revenge is the Nuts

Very few episodes of the “Tales from the Crypt” TV series shared their source material with segments from either of Amicus’ film adaptations. Season one’s “And All Through the House” and this episode, “Revenge is the Nuts,” are the exceptions. Arnie Grunwald operates a home for the blind but runs it like a prison. He turns off the lights, heat, and plumbing for the blind residents. They have no other option then to take the abuse. When Shelia, a young blind girl, shows up at the home, Grunwald becomes especially sadistic. His behavior forces the blind folks to take drastic actions.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Amicus’ “Tales from the Crypt.” I can’t really recall if the movie’s “Blind Alleys” is superior to this episode, which adapts the same story. Jonas McCord’s direction is moody, the whole show bathed in blackish blue colors. The cast is talented. Anthony Zerbe is especially despicable as the villain, dripping sadistic intent in every word. Teri Polo is resilient as the combat boots-clad Sheila. Isaac Hayes, Bibi Besch, and John Savage are all likable as other characters in the home. Zerbe’s character is so hateful, and the blind victims so put-upon, that seeing him get his punishment is especially satisfying. The episode’s grisliness seems totally deserved. Once again, it’s that inevitable punishment that keeps this tale from coming off as overly mean-spirited. [7/10]

So Weird: The Great Incanto

After the last episode was so promising, season three swings back around to sucking. While out on the road, a young magician calling himself the Great Incanto bums a ride with the Philips. At first, Incanto seems to be an especially talented stage magician. Soon, he reveals that he’s literally magical. His name isn’t actually Incanto either. Turns out, he stole a bag of tricks from the real Great Incanto. Now, the more powerful wizard is on the kids’ trailer, determined to get back what is rightfully his.

I fully expected “The Great Incanto” to instill some cheesy moral about how stealing is wrong. Nope, it turns out. The faux-Incanto, whose real name is George, defeats the real deal in a magical duel and gets to keep his abilities. What kind of message is that sending to the kids? Once again, a season three “So Weird” episode winds up reminding me of “Goosebumps,” the inferior kids’ horror show. The episode is heavy on the cheesy CGI effects. A hula girl bobble head springs to life. A floating face forms in a pile of pepper. These are, at least, honest attempts are horror. In a better episode, these moments could’ve been mildly spooky. Moments like this are lessened by far goofier scenes. Any time George sneezes, wacky shit happens. A duck, a lava lamp, old-timey wigs, or bagpipes appear. It’s a gag the episode leans on way too much. On top of everything else, Kaj-Erik Eriksen – how’s that for a name? – is fairly annoying as George. As limp as “The Great Incanto” is, it’s still mildly effective which is more then you can say for most of this season. [5/10]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 7

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

In the early nineties, the slasher film craze had long burnt out. The most prevalent horror subgenre of the eighties had long since passed its peak. Even the undisputed kings of the slashers, Freddy and Jason, had been killed off. But “Scream” changed all that. Suddenly, self-aware slasher riffs were all the rage. The films were slick, had hit soundtracks, and starred model-pretty actors plucked from popular TV shows. The first, and most popular, of these “Scream” clones was “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Furthering the connection, both films were written by Kevin Williamson.

Julie, Ray, Helen, and Barry are all long time friends who are celebrating their high school graduation. During their party, they all have too much to drink. Driving home, they strike a man. Fearful of being convicted of a crime, they toss the body into the crab fishing town’s bay. A year later, June receives a threatening note reading “I know what you did last summer.” Soon, the four are being stalked by a dangerous man in a rainslicker, wielding a meat hook. Julie has to unravel the mystery of the man’s identity before he eliminates all of them.

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” will inevitably be compared to “Scream.” However, this does not do the later film any favors. “Scream” was a meta-riff on the genre. “IKWYDLS” plays it straight. Aside from an early conversation about urban legends, the movie functions as a typical who-dun-it slasher flick. “Scream” also had likable or memorable characters. “I Know,” meanwhile, is full of shrill or annoying people. Ryan Phillippe is incredibly obnoxious as Barry, the meat-head jock that instigates this whole mess. He spends the whole movie yelling at everyone around him. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Helen is shallow and haughty. Her sister/boss, played by Bridgette Wilson, is a bully. Jennifer Love Hewitt is a thin horror heroine, with little defining her, and Freddie Prince Jr. has zero character development. Even the lovelorn nerd, played by David from “Roseanne,” is kind of a jerk. (Also, why the hell was the thin, athletic Gellar cast as the beauty queen while the notoriously shapely Hewitt is the sleuthing final girl? Someone was confused.)

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” isn’t focused so much on the hacking and slashing. It was loosely adapted from a YA mystery novel by Lois Duncan, the same person who wrote “Summer of Fear.” (Duncan, whose daughter was murdered in real life, didn’t appreciate the adaptation.) As such, large swaths of the movie is devoted to unraveling the mystery. This stuff is fairly dull. Hewitt and Gellar pursuing leads, like chatting up Anne Hache in a small role as a redneck sister, isn’t especially compelling. The film spends too much time setting up red herrings that won’t amount to anything. At the end, Julie stumbles upon the mystery’s answer, the facts being flatly explained to her. So all that sleuthing was for naught. Considering Duncan’s book was for the young teens, I suspect some of the killer’s ridiculous threats were carried over from the book too. Mysterious haircuts or a trunk full of crabs are more laughable then sinister.

So the characters suck and the mystery is lame. Is “IKWYDLS” any good as a horror movie? Not really. The sequences of suspense aren’t very balanced. Phillipe being chased by a car is alight but ends on a whimper. Gellar being watched during a parade is another promising scene that builds to a false start. As a slasher flick, “I Know” can’t even provide many cheap thrills. The Fisherman has a cool look and a nifty killing implement. However, the movie is awfully low on the red stuff. We only get one or two decent hook stabbings. Everything else happens off-screen, the audience only seeing a little blood splattering. Like many late nineties slasher, the movie also features none of the required sex or nudity. Unlike the subversive “Scream,” Williamson’s script is all to willing to play genre conventions straight. Authority figures don’t believe the kids. Bodies pop out to surprise the heroine. There’s a jump-scare ending. The killer even walks slowly while pursuing his victims!

So “I Know What You Did Last Summer” isn’t scary, thrilling, funny, or even all that gory. Why was this movie so popular at the time? I guess it just latched its train to the cultural zeitgeist. For years, real horror fans dismissed this flick and its imitators for their softness and lameness. Now, the tide has shifted, and people enjoy these movies as items of nineties nostalgia. Resist this temptation. Aside from some pretty photography and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s heaving bosom, there’s no reason to know what happened last summer. [5/10]

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Valerie a týden divu

“Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” is a movie I had never even heard of until a few years ago. Suddenly, Netflix was telling me to watch this weird Czech movie from the seventies. It popped up in a few books, including “101 Horror Movies to Watch Before You Die.” Obviously, the film’s domestic DVD release raised its profile. I’m sure there’s writing about it that predates its 2004 home media release. Yet I still find it odd that the movie went from being a complete obscurity one day and became essential viewing the next. I guess I don’t run in circles that discuss the Czech New Wave. Having caught up with “Valerie” now, I’m not quite sure what to think. It’s not truly a horror film. Instead, it’s an odd dream, somewhere between a fantasy and a nightmare, committed to celluloid.

Valerie is a thirteen year old girl, who has just entered puberty. Vampires lurk in her hometown, often hiding in places of authority. Valerie has a crush on a boy named Eaglot, despite her grandmother’s disapproval. Eaglot’s employer is a vampire who promises the grandmother eternal life and restored youth in exchange for Valerie’s innocence. Valerie attempts to survive the perilous situations around her, fighting or embracing the various adults who attempt to claim her as their own.

“Valerie and her Week of Wonders” is, without question, an art film. The movie’s narrative is surreal. The roles of characters shift several times, the same actors playing multiple roles. Lovers become brothers, grandmothers become cousins or maidens, bishops become vampires or fathers. Characters shift between living and dead without much overture. The film concerns itself with symbols. Within the opening minutes, Valerie picks a white flower that is stained with blood. Right afterwards, she gets her first period. While shirtless men rampage through the town, Valerie holds onto a white dove. Those same men whip themselves, self-flagellating into a frenzy. The vampire is referred to as a “polecat.” Later, a weasel is shown dragging a white chicken from a coop. She eats red berries, her lips stained with red liquid. Not long afterwards, she has a lesbian encounter. A hand reaches through a vulva-shaped window in a carriage, handing out flowers. What does it all mean? Obviously, a lot of it is about a young girl coming into adulthood, discovering her sexuality, and navigating a world full of people who would take advantage of her. Not all of it is so easily understood.

The vampires are of the “Nosferatu” variety. Their skin is a pale green, their ears pointed, and their mouths are full of pointed teeth. They wear concealing black hoods. Instead of two discreet pin pricks, they leave ugly, circular bite marks. The vampires seem to symbolize adults that abuse children. Many of the creatures in the film are preoccupied with scooping up Valerie. Her grandmother is told that, in order to restore her youth, she most feed Valerie to the head vampire. Later, the grandmother appears as a cousin, attempting to seduce Valerie. All throughout, adults are willing to abuse or sacrifice the young in order to further their own life. Not all the predators are undead. A balding monk, who is also the grandmother’s lover, attempts to rape Valerie. When she rejects him, he paints her as a witch, burning her at the stake. Yet Valerie survives the fire, seemingly developing healing powers as she enters adulthood. Who’s to say what it all means but the film is definitely preoccupied with how adults treat children and how they respond.

What it all means is certainly interesting but I think unpacking all of “Valerie’s” symbolism perhaps misses the point. Near the end, Valerie lays down in bed, slipping into sleep. As she awakens, most of the film’s events seem to have been undone. Yet this leads us into an even odder ending, her parents revealed as alive, her brother or boyfriend becoming a wondering actor. She wanders a lake-side field, cast members from throughout the film reappearing, many of them frolicking with the vampires. The last image of the film is Valerie asleep in bed again. Obviously, the movie is meant to be take as a dream. In that way, it replicates the pacing of a dream. Strange events happen without explanation, roles and faces shifting freely. The plot frequently meanders away, replaced by a specific feeling of exploration, desire, and uncertainty. Yep, sounds like the dream of a confused teenager to me.

Obviously, “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” isn’t for folks who roll their eyes at inscrutable, European art flicks. As Valerie, Jaroslava Schallerova has the face of an angel and exudes innocence, which makes her nude scenes very uncomfortable. The musical score is as odd and dreamy as the film that accompanies it. Going in expecting a traditional horror movie won’t put you on the correct wavelength. Taken as a dream-like exploration of young adulthood, it’s certainly a beguiling, infuriating, fascinating watch. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Operation Friendship

Without knowing it, the “Tales from the Crypt” guys made an episode about tulpas, ambulatory hallucinations generated by one’s own mind. Nelson is a computer programmer who lives alone. He is belittled by his boss and has been pushed around his whole life. As a kid he dreamed up Jack, an imaginary friend that is everyone Nelson isn’t. He’s loud, boisterous, dresses in flashy clothing and makes lewd comments about women. But now Jack won’t go away. When the adorable woman who just moved into the apartment across the hall expresses an interest in Nelson, Jack becomes jealous. And dangerous.

“Operation Friendship” isn’t your typical “Crypt” episode. There’s no infidelity or ghouls in sight. Instead, it’s mostly built around a trio of likable performances. Tate Donovan embodies the likable side of a lonely, shut-in nerd. He seems like a genuinely sweet guy and gives the character some cute quirks, like stacking candy bar wrappers. (Instead of Hershey Bars, they’re Silver Bars, a likely reference to the show’s producer, Joel Silver.) Michelle Burke is lovely and nice, a pure ball of sweetness and charm. John Caponera is suitably obnoxious as Jack. Dressed a bit like Buster Poindexter, Caponera hoots, hollers, and is generally as funny-annoying as possible without sliding into annoying-annoying. The whole episode walks a careful balance like that. Probably the nuttiest sequence is Jack presenting Nelson with tormentors throughout his life, including his grade school bully, a stern nun, and his boss. The ending is equally funny and slightly disturbing, when you consider the implications. By going to odder places then the usual “Tales,” “Operation Friendship” becomes a high-light of the still young sixth season. [8/10]

So Weird: The Muse

As a refreshing change of pace, here’s a season three episode that’s not really about Annie. Molly feels like she’s lost her inspiration. In hopes of regaining it, she returns to the club where she first met Rick, her late husband. When the building she’s staying in is being noisily renovated, the plan doesn’t seem to have worked. Meanwhile, Annie has met a strange man that claims to be Molly’s muse. He displays possibly magical powers, seemingly proving his statement. However, Molly still can’t quite grasp inspiration.

Every story arc from the previous two seasons were dropped suddenly at the start of season three. So to have an episode repeatedly referencing Molly and Rick’s marriage, and her grief over loosing him, is a major surprise. Focusing on Molly – a character we actually care about – raises the stakes considerably, her simple search for inspiration resonating emotionally with the viewer. A subplot about Jack developing an interest in photography, and looking for his own muse, ties nicely into this.  “The Muse” is still full of lots of goofy, season three antics. The young muse makes a dinner lady break out into a rap. (This, tortuously, plays in full over the end credits.) Afterwards, he makes a dog dance. It’s obvious where the business with the noisy repairman is headed. The comic relief remains awfully broad and the ending is overly concise. Yet this is the only Annie episode thus far to have any real heart, making it one of the best in a while. [7/10]

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 6

Death Kappa (2010)

There’s no hackier joke on the internet then pointing out how wacky Japanese pop culture is. I can’t tell you how many jokes about tentacles, panty vending machines, and wacky game shows I’ve skimmed through. However, it seems there’s a certain portion of Japanese filmmakers that cater to these expectations. Movies like “Tokyo Gore Police,” “RoboGeisha,” and “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead” double down on over-the-top gore, bizarre plots, and outrageous content. In the states, many of these films are distributed by Tokyo Shock. One such flick is “Death Kappa.” It has been described to me as “what a kaiju movie made by Troma would look like.” This is an only slightly misleading statement. “Death Kappa” is definitely wacky and over-the-top. However, it’s more measured and better looking then you’d expect from that logline.

Kanako’s attempts at pop idol stardom have fizzled out. Rejected by Tokyo, she returns to her sea-side home town. Within minutes of arriving, her grandmother is run over by a group of rambunctious teens. With her dying breath, the grandmother asks Kanako to look after the family shrine. She discovers a kappa, a cucumber-loving sea monster from traditional Japanese folklore, lives near-by. Kanako and the friendly kappa are soon abducted by a rogue group of Japanese extremists who want to create a race of half-human, half-kappa super soldiers. Following a nuclear explosions, both monsters grow to massive sizes and wreck havoc in Tokyo.

“Death Kappa” is split fairly evenly into two halves. The second half features lots of goofiness but the first half is even wackier. Kanako and her brothers immediately bond with the kappa. Unlike the rest of the world, the kappa loves Kanako’s saccharine pop music and dances frequently to it. The rebellious teens act very strangely while eating hot dogs on the beach. When the monsters attack them, the camera goes into a frenzy. The film’s villains want to bring back the glory of Imperial Japan. (For no particular reason, one is played by Hideaki Anno, director of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and Toho’s new Godzilla movie.) Their leader is a teenage girl who talks with a high-pitched moe voice and wears a leather bikini. She carries her grandfather’s corpse around in a wheelchair. When the kappa shows up to rescue her, a karate fight ensues between the monster and the villains. There’s slow-motion machine gun shooting and sudden naginata swinging. It’s nuts and fairly consistently amusing.

After the nuke goes off, the fish-men fuse into one giant beast named Hangyolas. He immediately marches on Tokyo. The military responses with jets, tanks, and giant laser beams which are powerless against the beast. I like the Hangyolas suit, which looks a bit like one of those dragons you see in a Chinatown parade. Yet the long scenes of the monster wrecking the vehicles gets a little tedious. Things pick up considerably when the kappa, transformed into the giant Death Kappa by the explosion, appears. Despite the kappa suit’s inexpressive face, the suits prove surprisingly flexible. The kaiju fight is acrobatic, full of flips, body slams, clotheslines, and flying kicks. One fun moment occurs when Death Kappa pulls Hangyolas’ tail off, like a gecko. A factory's smokestacks are improvised into nun-chucks and a dome is used like a volley ball. The fight takes up the last ten minutes of the film. The battle is silly but still functions as an entertaining kaiju brawl.

At times, it’s hard to tell if “Death Kappa” is just an especially wacky kaiju flick or an out-right parody of the genre. The film is sprinkled with references to kaiju films of years past. As a likely nod to “Godzilla Raids Again,” the monsters’ heads are replaced with hand puppets for one scene. Like Godzilla, Death Kappa’s head-plate glows before he sprays his atomic breath. A possible reference to “Godzilla 2000” occurs when, after his victory, Kappa sets the city ablaze. The tank-mounted death ray is right out of any Showa monster movie. Some moments are more purposely funny then others. The action is periodically interrupted so that a monster expert can dryly explain what’s going on. The jets, tanks, and cityscapes are intentionally fake looking. When Hangyolas attacks the city, some teens stop to get a selfie with the beast. A reporter is burned to a crisp by the monster’s flames, while the news ticker dryly comments on the event. The movie is most funny when nutty things are simply happening on-screen.

Though indecisively placed between parody and wack-a-doo homage, I still had fun with “Death Kappa.” Something insane is happening most every second of its short 79 minute run time. The effects are cheap but charming. The movie moves along at a nice pace, smoothly going from one crazy set-piece to another. On the short list of kaiju movie parodies, it’s far more consistent then “The Monster X Strikes Back” but never reaches the giddy heights of “Gehara.” That’s a comfortable half-way point to be at. [7/10]

Zombeavers (2015)

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s actually a market now for horror movies with intentionally ridiculous threats. People are making bad movies on purpose. We’ve reached peak irony saturation, you guys. Occasionally, this idea will produce a gem like “Lost Skeleton of Cadavra." Usually, it produces trying-too-hard, obnoxious crap like… “Zombeavers!” Obviously conceived as a title first and everything else second, the film was written by Jon and Al Kaplan. The two run a delightful Youtube channel, full of musical versions of macho eighties action flicks. Disappointingly, their feature film has none of the charm or humor of those shorts.

Jenn, Mary, and Zoe are a pair of college girls who go on vacation to a lake-side cabin. Due to Jen’s boyfriend breaking her heart, this is a weekend without boys or cellphones. That lasts for about a day, until all the girls’ boyfriends show up. The day before, a truck had dumped a barrel of toxic waste in the lake. The chemicals have transformed the lake’s harmless beavers into undying monsters that attack viciously and spread their virus through bites or scratches. Now, a relaxing weekend has turned into a struggle to survive.

“Zombeavers” apparently went to the Eli Roth School of Character Development. From the moment the characters are introduced, they are making crude sexual references. Dick pics, sexual history, and pee are all brought up within the first ten minutes. The dialogue is full of profanity. Relatively early into the film, a character murders a dog. Amazingly, he stays alive for most of the rest of the movie. What’s the purpose of such obnoxious characters? Are their loudness suppose to be funny? Were the writers substituting personality with F-bombs? If we’re supposed to laugh at the cast, why does the movie get weirdly serious about them sometimes? The mystery of who is cheating on Jenn comes up repeatedly. When the mystery girl is revealed as one of the friends, “Zombeavers” is all too willing to treat the affair seriously. If the film is meant to be a parody, why are the characters’ taken seriously at all? If the characters are meant to be jokes, why are their serious scenes of them? All questions without answers.

“Zombeavers” is clearly meant to be a horror/comedy. Yet the film frequently underplays the “comedy” side of that equation. There are jokes. Like the truck drivers who are way too open with each other, played by John Mayer and Bill Burr for some reason. Or the teenage boy with a hat that says “#1 Dad,” one of the film’s funnier and more subtle gags. There’s a horny hunter who becomes more important later and a bear that is obviously taken from stock footage. For the most part though, “Zombeavers” seems to think merely the premise of “Zombie beavers!” is enough to power a whole comedy. Most of the movie plays like a straight horror film, the teen’s being attacked by the creatures, boarding up the cabin, or trying to make an escape.

Truthfully, you could switch out the beavers for most any woodland animal and the plot wouldn’t be changed that much. The movie doesn’t really utilize its titular critters that well. Yes, the beavers tunnel into the cabin after a while. However, there’s only one scene where we see them chew down a tree or hang out in a dam. Otherwise known as the things beavers are best known for. The beaver puppets are mildly amusing though their charm quickly wears out. Worst yet, the zombeaver’s condition is contagious. Thus, most of the movie’s last third is devoted to humanoid beaver zombies. This removes the film’s central gimmick, making it a generic zombie flick. Despite being so obviously committed to the “zombie beaver” idea, the film doesn’t seem to understand that concept’s appeal very well.

The girls are all pretty cute and usually in one state of undress or another. There’s plenty of sex and nudity in the movie, if you’re looking for that kind of thing. I could even imagine Rachel Melvin or Cortney Palm being entertaining in a much better movie. (Lexi Atkins is a bore though.) “Zombeavers” proves what we already know. A goofy premise and a knowing approach is not enough to build a film upon, especially if crass vulgarity and annoying characters is the only other thing you bring to the table. Jon and Al should stick to Youtube videos. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Whirlpool

This is the second time loop story I’ve seen this season. What the odds? Anyway, Rolanda is a writer for the “Tales from the Crypt” comic. (This is also the second time this show has done that meta-reference, previously seen in season two’s “Korman’s Kalamity.”) Rolanda’s boss doesn’t think much of her work and, after an especially bad story, fires her. That night, she returns to the office, murders him, and is gun down by the police. The next day, Rolanda awakes and experiences the same events again. After every death, the day starts over. Attempts to break the cycle only further muck it up, trapping Rolanda in an unending cycle of defeat and murder.

On a story level, there’s not a lot to say about “Whirlpool.” Once the time loop idea is introduced, it’s easy to see where this is going. That the day will start the same but the main character will find some new way to end up dead. There’s some fun curve balls tossed at the audience. I like the opening scene, which progresses like a typical “Tales from the Crypt” episode before we see that… It’s actually a page from a “Tales from the Crypt” comic book. The last scene is an interesting switcharoo as well. Mick Garris, a director who has always had more luck then talent in my opinion, contributes some decent visuals. Mostly, “Whirlpool” is about the performances. Rita Rudner is funny as the put-upon Rolanda, who is cracking apart with stress, then confusion, and finally madness. Ricahrd Lewis plays a very Richard-Lewis-y part as her abrasive boss. It doesn’t break any new ground but “Whirlpool” puts a decent spin on its idea while maintaining that “Tales from the Crypt” sense of morbid humor. [7/10]

So Weird: Pen Pal

So here’s another episode of “So Weird: Season Three” that has an interesting idea but a juvenile execution. The Philips household receives a letter from Annie, detailing her trip to Washington D.C. with her friend, Jennifer. In the pictures, Annie wears black, has a lip piercing, and talks about getting a tattoo. This all runs counter to how Annie actually looks, acts, and lives. Soon, Annie realizes that a version of herself from an alternate reality has somehow crossed over into this one.

“Pen Pal” begins with the idea that every decision we make, no matter how small, creates an alternate universe. This is fascinating. We’ve all made mistakes that wouldn’t have happen if we had done something differently. However, “Pen Pal” simplifies too much. Instead of being a studious teenie-bopper, the other Annie ditches school, gets tattoos, and uses words like “dank,” “dawg,” or “wiggin’.” (That she dresses like a goth but uses hip-hop slang shows that the writers were… Confused.) The confrontation between normal Annie and Other Annie is resolved bluntly. Annie grabs her other self. Instead of dissolving into goo like Ron Silver in “Timecop,” this causes Other Annie and her bad influence friend Jennifer to vanish. Did Annie just casually wipe out an entire universe? Also, that stupid spirit panther shows up in a pointless appearance. The episode’s emotional heart, about Molly wondering if Annie feels accepted in her new family, is buried under overly broad writing and simplistic understanding of complex issues. In other words, business as usual for this season. [5/10]

Monday, October 5, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 5

The Blob (1988)

I was just thinking about this the other day. Why are modern day remakes usually dismissed as crass cash-ins while the horror remakes of the eighties are looked back on fondly, many considered masterpieces? I think it was to do with time. The original versions of “The Thing” and “The Fly” were made in the fifties. The remakes were made in the eighties. That’s about the same amount of time dividing today’s remakes from the seventies or eighties originals. The difference is that American society changed a lot between 1958 and 1988. Our values, perceptions, and ideas changed. (Special effects changed a lot too but that’s not quite the point I’m making.) Those older stories didn’t resonate quite the same anymore so remaking them, re-calibrating those tales to modern sensibilities, made sense. No remake shows this difference quite as clearly as 1988’s “The Blob.”

Arborville, California is a ski-resort town experiencing an unusually warm October. Meg is a wholesome cheerleader, even if her little brother sneaks out to see nasty horror movies. Brian is a would-be biker from the crappy side of the tracks. Social divides become irrelevant when something falls from the skies. Inside the spherical shape is an overgrown amoeba-like life form, who burns, devours, and absorbs anything it touches. It isn’t long before the town is in the grip of the Blob. However, the government agents who arrive to contain the creature may not have the people’s best interests in mind either.

When reviewing the original “Blob,” I high-lighted its most likable aspects: The small town setting, full of eccentrics and funny behavior. The 1988 version maintains this. Despite moving the story from Pennsylvania to California, there’s plenty of interesting local color. The small town sheriff is trying to pursue a relationship with the local diner’s waitress. Meg’s dad is the owner of the pharmacy, which pays off fantastically when he sees her date for the evening. Brian’s co-worker at the auto shop has some funny dialogue. Even the town pastor is more likable then most, with his clandestine drinking habit. However, times have irrevocably changed. The theater isn’t showing “Daughter of Horror.” Instead, it’s showing a gory slasher movie. The star quarterback plies his girlfriend with alcohol. When the old man, the Blob’s first victim, is dragged into the doctor’s office, the nurse asks if he has life insurance. The class divide between good kids like Meg and bad kids like Brian is more sharply emphasized. The cops don’t trust him, just because he’s from the wrong side of town. The remake successfully updates the original’s setting.

That’s all well and good but 1988’s “The Blob” has a more obvious update. The original’s Blob was a rolling, red glob of silicon. The remake’s, meanwhile, is a writhing mass of fleshy matter. It less resembles Jello – a comparison the remake points out – and more resembles the pulsating walls of interior organs. What the Blob does to its victim is also shown far more graphically. Skin burns. The human form is melted to gory, bloody slurry. The bum is reduced to half a body, his organs trailing from his rib cage. A girl in the theater is melted into the floor, split right down the middle. The Blob grabs a plumber by the face and yanks him into the pipes of a sink, his bones cracking and twisting on the way down. Limbs are softened and pulled from people by the creature’s corrosive qualities. Victims trapped inside the Blob have their skin slowly dissolved away. The effects are disturbing and graphic, even by the standards of eighties horror flicks. There’s none of the campiness of the original here. This Blob is dead serious.

Director Chuck Russell, whose work I’ve recommended in the past, co-write the script with Frank Darabont, a guy who’s made a few movies people like. The writing is actually far stronger then you’d expect from a monster movie. Little incidents, involving a broken bridge or snow-maker, are paid off on later on. Even minor characters are given defining traits, like the projectionist with the yo-yo. Mostly, Darabont’s script and Russell’s direction shine in moments of intense horror. A stand-out scene involves a woman trapped in a phone booth by the Blob. The fate of her attempted rescuer is shown in a grisly, clever way. The Blob pursues its victims doggedly, over walls and through the sewers. The way the Blob’s presence is revealed during that sewer chase is especially clever. After the theater sequence, the entity’s size is really emphasized. The final act feels practically apocalyptic, as the Blob begins to overtake the whole town. Most surprisingly, the remake breaks one of the often unstated rules of horror: It kills a kid. “The Blob” doesn’t just go for gory special effects. It also creates genuine thrills.

The change in attitudes between 1958 and 1988 is most obvious in the subplot the film adds. Midway through the film, government agents – clad in white containment suits that recall Romero’s “The Crazies” – descend on the town. At first, they appear helpful and kind. However, it soon becomes clear that the well-being of the townsfolk is irrelevant to them. They are there to capture and contain the Blob. Which, we discover, isn’t an alien life-form, as in the original. Instead, the Blob was created as a biological weapon, designed to be dropped over Soviet countries. The government conspiracy angle is overused today. It had even been done before in 1988, with the “Alien” films. However, it does add an extra angle to “The Blob.” The authorities can’t be trusted. Meg and Brian have to put aside their differences if they want to stop the monster. The original has been read as about the Red Scare and communism. The remake is, instead, about distrust of the government. Time changes, indeed.

It’s not often that a remake outdoes the original. The original “Blob” is still a charming, well-made creature feature. The remake, however, takes the same premise to far more grotesque and frightening places. The cast, led by Shawnee Smith and Kevin Dillion, is likable. Russell’s direction is clever and inventive. Really, the overdone score is the only thing I don’t care much for. Though not successful at the time – it grossed 8 million against a 19 million budget – “The Blob” has definitely garnered a cult following. I’ll be surprised if the next remake overcomes it. [8/10]

Evil Bong (2006)

Let me tell you a story. Back in 2013, I got to meet Full Moon mastermind Charles Band at one of those Monster-Mania cons I go to every year. Though I’ve heard plenty of less than flattering things about Mr. Band, he was nice to us. JD happened to ask Charlie about the origins of the “Evil Bong” series. He laughed and replied that his son came up with the character while – you guessed it – smoking a bong. And from those ignoble roots emerged “Evil Bong.” Because weaving the thinnest of stupid jokes into on-going franchises of increasingly cheap direct-to-DVD movies is apparently what Full Moon Features does these days. Really makes you miss all those killer puppets movie, doesn’t it?

Here’s a stupid question. What’s the plot of “Evil Bong?” Alistair is a stereotypical nerdy college student in search of a cheap place to live. This brings him to Larnell’s apartment. Larnell is a massive stoner. His other roommates, ex-jock Brett and surfer dude Bachman, also smoke way too much pot. Despite not sharing this interest, Alistair stays in the apartment. The girl he has the hots for, the friend of Brett’s main squeeze, may be the reason why. Anyway, Larnell orders a haunted bong out of the back of High Times magazine. Turns out there’s still such a thing as truth in advertising, as the large bong is indeed an entity of evil that slowly drains the life force of all who suckle upon it.

Because I’m gunning for the Most Obvious Statement of the Year Award, I’ll say the following: “Evil Bong” is a dumb movie. That dumbness mostly manifests in the form of ridiculously broad characters. You’d think in 2006, an exaggerated nerd stereotype like Alistair wouldn’t exist. Yet there he is, with his antiqued language, weirdly parted hair, button-downed shirts, glasses, and pocket protector. To the movie’s credit, at least he’s the hero of the film. Brett is a typical asshole jock, with his pot-smoking being the only thing distinguishing him. Larnell punctuates every statement with “bro,” but his occasional pot-fueled rants are sort of funny. Even the supporting cast of “Evil Bong” are excessively obnoxious. Larnell’s wheelchair-bound grandfather drops ridiculously detailed insults. Brett’s girlfriend, played by “The Gingerdead Man’s” Robyn Sydney, does an insane dance/dry hump combination which has her jumping on a pogo stick. It’s all stupid and doesn’t even amuse but at least it’s mildly memorable.

As for the Evil Bong itself, it’s not the most active antagonist. It can’t move and the prop is barely animated. Someone named Michelle Mais provides the vulgar voice over, which is the Bong’s primarily form of communication. Once someone has partaken of the Bong, the smoker is transported to an alternate world. Otherwise known as a strip club. Inside the club, the doofus dudes are killed by strippers wearing Monster Bras, real accessories Band used to sell through his website. Because nothing has to make sense when you’re stoned, the club is also full of references to older Full Moon movies. The Gingerdead Man and Jack Attack from “Demonic Toys” show up. Full Moon regulars Phil Fondacaro, Tim Thomerson, and Bill Moseley all drop in for cameos. Thomerson reprises Jack Deth, his “Trancers” hero. Bill Moseley plays a loud-mouthed mob boss before directly asking the audience what he’s doing here. That may be the comedic peak of the movie. Mostly, these scenes just remind you of the days when Full Moon movies sucked in a far more charming way. But at least there’s the cheap thrill of naked boobs.

“Evil Bong” is cheap but it is admittedly less cheap then “The Gingerdead Man.” Like that movie, the entire film seemingly takes place on all of two sets. In this case, it’s the bros’ apartment of the Evil Bong’s strip club netherworld. However, the actors seem to be slightly more professional. At least they bring some life to their roles. “Evil Bong” has a full soundtrack, composed of pot-themed rap songs. Sometimes, the music is so loud that it drowns out the dialogue. The scenes in the strip club always have a border of swirling pot leaves around them. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why they’re wacky scene transitions, also composed of swirling pot leaves. Charles Band’s direction is still incredibly flat and stationary. At least there’s a recognizable movie star in the movie for more then four minutes. Tommy Chong is hardly a big name but the performer still has a molecule of comedic ability in him, slightly enlivening his handful of scenes.

So yeah, “Evil Bong” is pathetic schlock. You don’t need me to tell you that. Yet the standard for modern day Full Moon is so low that “Evil Bong” comes off as slightly better. Really, it’s not. It’s dumb, lazy, cheap, crass, and manages to make 86 minutes feel like four hours. But I laughed twice, which is more then I can say for “The Gingerdead Man.” I’m still not bothering with any of the film’s four(!) sequels. Even if their increasingly punny subtitles – King Bong, Wrath of Bong, Evil Bong 420, High 5 – tempts me. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Only Skin Deep

“Only Skin Deep” is a surprisingly dark episode of “Tales from the Crypt.” Carl is a physically abusive asshole who crushes a friend’s Halloween party, despite his battered ex being there. There, he meets a masked woman called Molly. The two head back to her apartment in an abandoned building. They make an agreement not to take off their mask or tell each other their full names. After a night of rough sex, Carl makes a startling discovery about Molly.

“Tales from the Crypt” is usually about assholes getting their comeuppance. Carl, however, is even more of an asshole then usual. He’s short-tempered, violent, gruff, and mean-spirited. The episode deals with his resentment towards women and his dark desires. The sweaty, extended sex scene confronts his issues head-on. He only sees women as a way to meet his sexual wants and, when they transgress against that, he smacks them around. In short, he’s your typical sexist piece of shit. There’s also a layer of sleazy, discomforting body-horror to this episode, with its focus on sweaty flesh and physical deformity. William Malone has never impressed me with his features but his work here is moody. I like the opening shot panning out from inside a jack o’lantern. The performances are ratcheted pretty high but Peter Onorati and Sherrie Rose are effective. Though pretty nasty, “Only Skin Deep” definitely succeeds at its goals. [7/10]

So Weird: Grave Mistake

“Grave Mistake” starts off promisingly before falling to many of the same mistakes other season three episodes have. An old friend of the family named Margaret requests to stay with Molly and the kids. She claims that a ghost is threatening to kill her. Annie is sympathetic but the rest of the family doesn’t believe her. Until the words “You’re dead” begins to appear all over the house. It seems the ghost has followed Margaret to her new location.

“Grave Mistake” has a decent first act. There’s a decent sense of foreboding as the old woman moves in. The start is mildly spooky, as we see the door open on its own and footsteps appear across the kitchen floor. However, the episode soon lays down too many cards, too soon. It’s immediately obvious that the ghost is Margaret’s deceased husband, trying to make her understand that she’s a ghost too. When we hear an old man’s voice coming from a half-seen spectre, the audience has already figured it out. The first appearance of “You’re dead!,” written on a foggy surface, is somewhat startling. But the episode returns to that too often. By the time the word is appearing in dropped Legos or spilled tomato sauce, it’s become silly. Maxine Miller’s performance is definitely overdone. The ending flat-out explains what is going on. Once again, it’s evident that the season three writers don’t respect the viewers’ intelligence. “Grave Mistake” has an interesting idea but handles it in a clumsy, obvious manner. [5/10]

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 4

The Blob (1958)

A few years back, I reviewed Irvin S. Yeaworth’s “The 4D Man” and “Dinosaurus!” Those two films form the latter half of a rough trilogy of sci-fi/horror films Yeaworth made in the fifties. This trilogy began, of course, with “The Blob.” “The Blob” may be the definitive fifties monster movie. It has nearly all the clichés we associate with the genre. There’s the small town setting, the monster arriving inside a comet, the teenage protagonists, the drag racing, and the disbelieving cops. The only thing missing is the bugged-eye alien villains. Instead, “The Blob” features a far more insidious threat which has become iconic in and of itself.

Steve and Jane are two normal teenagers, enjoying a night out in their quaint small town. While outside, they see an unusual shooting star streak across the night sky. An old man discovers the meteorite, a strange gelatinous substance bursting forth and attacking him. Soon, it becomes apparent that the blob is an intelligent, predatory creature. The invader stalks the town, only Steve and Jane knowing for sure what it is. Will the kids be able to convince the local police in time before the Blob has consumed everyone?

“The Blob’s” lasting contribution to popular culture is its titular entity. Though a low-budget creature feature, full of occasionally laughable moments and cheap elements, it produced a movie monster unlike anything anyone had seen before. It’s a simple creation really. The Blob is an ambulatory glob of red fluid with acidic properties. Anybody that touches the Blob is dissolved upon contact. The devoured flesh is adsorbed into the Blob, making it grow larger after every meal. Though an alien lifeform, the creature has no defined purpose, instead consuming everyone it gets a hold of. Because of its slime-like qualities, the Blog can ooze under doors, through grates, and into all sorts of small areas. Though the special effects that brought it to life are simple, the Blob is a totally convincing creation, moving and functioning like a living being. Blob-like monsters have become standard fixtures in all sorts of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction. And “The Blob” did it before all the others.

On paper, “The Blob” is essentially no different then any of the other locally produced, low budget monster movies made in the fifties. This is not detrimental to its quality. A great deal of “The Blob’s” appeal is its small town setting. There’s a lot of funny, small characterization to the townsfolk. One of the deputies keeps a fully-stocked chess board in his desk draw. When sirens blare through the town, an old man gets up. He slips on a helmet for the bombing raid before he hears fire truck sirens, slipping on a firefighters’ hat. The old man, who becomes the Blob’s first victim, has a pet dog that hangs around for far longer then expected. Jane has to convince her little brother to lie for her so she can sneak out. The kid gets more characterization then you’d expect from such a small role. These little details make the world of “The Blob” feel more fully realized, adding more color and enjoyment.

Despite its hilariously catchy and purposely tongue-in-cheek theme song, “The Blob” is not all that humorous. The slimy monster is played entirely straight. In a weird way, the Blob is still kind of creepy. Just the way it moves it slightly off-putting, the creature sauntering right into the uncanny valley. By film’s end, the Blob is giant, a huge consuming mass that is nearly unstoppable. The scene of the creature stalking Steve and Jane through the department store is mildly suspenseful. The Blob attacking the movie theater, the most iconic scene in the film, is highly memorable, if nothing else. The way the being is defeated is kind of brilliant too, the film devising a way to stop a seemingly unstoppable threat.

Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut are both charming in their lead roles. By some accounts, McQueen didn’t think much of the film. Irvin Yeaworth would make better films, as “The 4D Man” is a more mature, nuanced story. “The Blob” is so of its time that it borders on kitsch. That’s another thing people associated with fifties B-flicks, that super wholesome attitude. Despite this and a few other corny elements, “The Blob” definitely struck a chord with audiences. The main monster is still unforgettable. Maybe that’s why people keep remaking it. Other elements may become dated but the appeal of the Blob is ever-lasting. [7/10]

Black Sheep (2006)

New Zealand has a good pedigree when it comes to gross-out horror/comedies. This is the country that produced Peter Jackson, after all. Before taking us to MiddleEarth way too many times, Jackson created brilliantly grotesque and hilarious splat-stick comedies. Following that proud tradition is Jonathan King’s “Black Sheep.” New Zealand is a country with lots of sheep in it. Having the woolly critters becoming man-eating carnivores actually makes sense, since there’s more sheep then people on the island. However, sheep are silly looking creatures, with their fluffy coats, vacant faces, and stupid baas. So killer sheep is a solid foundation for a horror/comedy. “Black Sheep” is clever enough to milk that concept for all the laughs and grisly effects it can.

As a kid, Henry suffered two traumatic events in one day. Firstly, his older brother Angus murdered his pet sheep and jumped at out him wearing the animal’s bloody husk. Secondly, the boy’s father died in a herding accident. The events have left adult Henry with an intense phobia of sheep. Now, Angus has transformed their father’s sheep herding business into a million dollar company. His genetic tampering has produced a new species of sheep. When some meddling animal rights activist stumble in, the new sheep breed is unleashed. It hungers for human flesh and can turn men into weresheep with a bite. Trapped on a farm with killer versions of what he fears the most, Henry and his friends have to survive the woolly nightmare.

“Black Sheep” does a good job of fusing the low-brow and the high-brow. For example, the movie is something of a satire of corporate greed and hippy activism. Angus is a cartoonishly evil business. He completely disregards moral in his quest for a better… Sheep. He has a lab full of scientists, performing all sorts of grotesquely unethical experiments in order to further this goal. Yet the activist aren’t portrayed as much better. An early, funny line makes it clear that the two hippies’ last attempt to free animals resulted in the death of those animals. Grant rushing in to free the sheep is what results in the outbreak. The ridiculously named Experience rambles about chakras, auras, and hulls a candle into a pit of offal. Among the high-minded jabs are jokes about animal farts and sheep fucking. Both of those pay off really well at the end.

Mostly, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of how goofy sheep look. Look at these stupid things. Watching woolly, fluffy sheep run around as vicious animals makes me giggle every time. Unlike some horror movies with ridiculous threats, “Black Sheep” is aware of how silly its monsters are. It exploits the silly looking sheep for lots of humor. A favorite moment has a sheep behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Another has a sheep lunging at a victim, tackling him to the ground. “Black Sheep” piles on the gore too. Intestines are yanked from bodies repeatedly. Limbs are chewed off. One poor bastard even picks up his severed leg, tossing it at the sheep attacking him. Yes, we even see a penis tore off by a vicious sheep. “Black Sheep” is as gory as any zombie movie from the same period. Contrasting such grisly effects with the naturally dumb-looking sheep ends up providing lots of laughs. The effects from Weta Workshop are top-notch too, of course.

A good indicator of just how damn far “Black Sheep” goes can be seen in its were-sheep. Yes, were-sheep. I’m a big proponent of other were-animals, besides wolves. In addition to sheep tearing people apart, one of their bites can also infect people with the sheep virus. After getting nip on the foot, a victim discovers a hoof inside his boot. After decimating a whole gathering of folks, the survivors awaken as half-human/half-sheep abomination. Two major characters morph into full were-sheep. The usual stretching and morphing you expect from werewolf flicks are ramped up to goofier levels. The were-sheep are actually pretty cool designs, with their hunched over backs and extended snouts.

When I first saw “Black Sheep,” my response was so enthusiastic that I actually ranked it among my favorites for the years. I’m, perhaps, a little more nuanced in my film criticism these days. The cast is relatively game, especially Peter Feeney as Angu and Danielle Mason as Experience. However, the script is fairly thin, most of the characters being relatively thin sketches. Not all of the jokes land. A reoccurring joke about the family cooks’ meals, most of which seemingly involve animal intestine, gets old real fast. The resolution to the weresheep problem is a little too neat for my taste. Lastly, director Jonathan King occasionally lapses into some shaky-cam style theatrics. Not sure why that was needed for a flick like this.

You’d be hard press to call “Black Sheep” a classic and the film retreated from the minds of cult/horror fans pretty quickly. But it’s still worth a look. The effects are clever and well-utilized. The sheep are cut-ups. The script has more then a few amusing ideas inside of it. I mean, any movie that features a were-sheep and mass-death via exploded flatulence can’t be bad. Watched with some friends and the assistance of alcohol or salty snacks, “Black Sheep” goes down very smoothly indeed. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

The sixth season of “Tales from the Crypt” gets started on a high-note. Geraldine is the very definition of an ambulance chasing scumbag lawyer. While traveling through a small town, she’s detained on a minor moving violation. The judges and cops in the town turn out to be unusually harsh. Minor infractions are retaliated against with public punishment. Out-of-date punishments, like the stocks or public hangings, are still enforced. Geraldine doesn’t know this though. She finds the hardcore world of local law difficult to navigate.

While Russell Mulcahy’s previous “Tales” were entertaining episodes, he really outdoes himself with this one. The episode begins with a low-angled walk through the court’s waiting room, setting the tone as comical if cruel. Mulcahy’s exaggerated style is well-suited to this story. Walks down the halls are heavily shadowed. Dutch-angles are employed. The script is classic “Crypt” stuff. A bad person receives an ironic punishment for their crimes. An extra layer of absurd comedy helps things along. The judges pick apart ridiculous details. Catherine O’Hara plays Geraldine as a delightful scumbag. Peter MacNicol is hilarious as her put-upon, if slightly naïve, public defender. The horror elements come not just in the form of the court’s cruel and unusual punishments. While in the stocks, O’Hara is greeted by grisly phantoms of the people who have died because of her frivolous lawsuits. It’s not great art or anything but it’s funny, gory, goofy, and a good time. In other words, an ideal “Tales from the Crypt” experience. [7/10]

So Weird: Still Life

Molly and the kids had planned for a weekend camping trip but a freak thunderstorm ruined those plans. Instead, Annie, Jack, Clu, and Cary are stuck inside. Earlier in the day, Molly had purchased a painting of a pleasant lake scene. The painting is so compelling that, one by one, the group disappears inside. Annie realizes that the painter has crafted some sort of magical world, where people can be sucked inside. She has to convince everyone to leave the painted world before it’s too late.

The last couple episodes of “So Weird’ have been such major stinkers that “Still Life” actually comes off pretty well. There’s no obnoxious comic relief or ridiculous antics from the antagonists. Alex Zahara, as the painter, actually gives a thought, laid-back performance. While the premise is entirely unexplained, it’s interesting enough. The painter’s ability to change the environment by painting something else is a nice touch. Annie’s attempt to get every out of painting involves her bringing something important to them, like a picture of Fiona for Molly or an old baseball mitt for Jack. This roots the story in some sort of emotional heart. The ending is easy to see coming. The leak in the house makes the eventual conclusion easy to guess. Yet there’s a sense that something serious is at stake here, unlike the last few shows. Characters are in actual danger. It’s not up to snuff with the strongest episodes of seasons one or two but “Still Life” lacks most of the things that have annoyed me about this season thus far. [7/10]

CON REPORT: Monster-Mania 32

I’ve been going to horror conventions for about five years now, having been to seven events in that time. I don’t know if I’d consider myself a veteran of these sort of things but I figured I was at least experienced. While JD and I were waiting in line to meet Matthew Lillard Friday evening, five convention goers I definitely recognized from prior years were in front of us. We couldn’t help but listen in on their conversation. One declared that he drove all the way from Ohio. One came from Connecticut. Listening to the guys discuss conventions they’ve been to in the past, they mentioned driving as far south as Georgia and as far west as Indiana. Further on, they mentioned driving out to the remains of the “Evil Dead” cabin and stealing some rocks. Or seeing vehicles betting towed away from the actual camp “Friday the 13th” was shot at. At this point, I became aware of how inexperienced I was as a con goer. Even as a horror fan, I’m now wondering about my credentials. I’ve never been kicked off of any property!

Anyway, we arrived at the Hunt Valley Inn on a cold, drizzly morning. Thanks to Hurricane Joaquin, it rained all weekend. Autumn has arrived, I suppose. In the last year, the Hunt Valley Inn completely refurbished. The whole hotel now has this weird equestrian theme. Photos of horses adorn all the walls, their eyes and flanks in extreme close-ups. The tables in the rooms are held together with leather straps. The entire wall of the main lobby is covered with small, horse statues. Nothing else has changed. There’s still the giant escalator leading down to the vendor’s area. Only now, the wall facing it is decorated with saddles. Am I the only one who thought this was slightly weird? It’s still a really nice place but the interior decorator’s horse fetish was strangely specific.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Monster-Mania 32. Last year, the convention didn’t leave me with the best impression. The guest list had seen some fluctuation. Roddy Piper was one the earliest guests added and he, sadly, passed away earlier in the summer. I’ve always been a big Keith David fan and was excited to see him added. So imagine my disappointment when he canceled days before the event. The “Pet Sematery,” “The Thing,” and “Halloween” reunions left few names that grabbed my attention. George A. Romero and Matthew Lillard were the headliners. Yeah, I was definitely springing for Romero and JD felt the same about Lillard. Still, when guests you’ve seen in years past – Zach Galligan, Meg Foster, Dee Wallace, Tom Atkins – start showing up again, you wonder if it’s time to find a new convention.

These concerns were unfounded, with a few exceptions. Monster-Mania 32 is maybe the most fun con I’ve ever been to. After checking in, having a relaxing lunch, and chilling for a while, JD and I went down to the floor. Last year, the con had to awkwardly, hilarious share the hotel with a wedding. This year, it was back to the traditional set-up, with the vendors in one room, guests in another, and the panels in the up-stairs ballroom. This made the convention easy to navigate. We were even lucky enough to get rooms right next to a staircase and elevator.

On Friday nights, we usually get the signatures we want, as lines are shorter on the first day. We still ended up waiting a surprising ninety minutes for Matthew Lillard. However, this was because he took his time with each guests, sometimes chatting for ten or fifteen minutes. While waiting, I jumped out of line fast enough to meet Jordan Ladd. I was a fan of Ladd’s performance in “Grace” and told her such. She leaped up in excitement, saying “I love people who love “Grace!”” We talk a while about the genre, our share preference for more psychological films (We both love “May,” by the way), and she kept repeating I “made her day.” Before the photo was snapped, she gave me a big hug. That was fun.

While waiting in line for Lillard, I looked up his IMDb page and was surprised to see that his first credit was in “Ghoulies III.” Well, I had to ask about that! Lillard told an interesting story about how he was hired on as a non-union extra, sneaked in the five lines necessary to get a SAG card, and badgered the production into not cutting the scene. JD had brought along his doll of Ghostface and asked Lillard to sign it with the line, “I’m feeling a little woozy here.” Funny enough, Matthew didn’t want to sign the box at first, as he didn’t want to devalue its collectability! He also noted this was the first time anyone ever asked him for the line of dialogue. He joked around with us a lot, keeping the mood jovial and light. I’ve never been a huge fan of the actor or anything but he definitely seems like a good guy.

As something of a mini-“Scream” reunion, another guest at the convention was Roger L.Jackson, who provided the famous Ghostface voice. After getting Robert Englund to record a blurb for our podcast last year, I couldn’t pass up an oppretunity to get Jackson to do the same. And he was cool, commenting on the Universal Monsters shirt JD had on and sharing his love of “The Mummy.” He also shared his Christopher Lee impersonation. He was more then willing to record a bit for the show.

My only complaint was the price. It was forty dollars for a recording and that didn’t include a photograph. It was like that all weekend. Lillard wanted 60 for a signature and photo. Romero wanted 55. Even Denise Crosby, who I’d consider a perennial B-lister and whose signature I only got because my Trekkie mom wanted it, was asking 40 to sign and an extra 20 to photograph. Prices go up every year and it’s starting to get ridiculous. One of these days, I’m going to hit a ceiling and stop going to these things. I’ll be priced out of my own hobby.

The high prices still didn’t stop me from getting some other signatures. Nick Castle was asking a relatively reasonable 30. The guy is the original Michael Myers after all, which made his signage a hard thing for this horror fan to pass up. I always thought it was a fun bit of trivia that the first actor to play the Shape also directed nostalgic favorites like “The Boy Who Could Fly” and “The Last Starfighter.” He was amiable enough, cracking jokes and making small chat. In the same room was Tom Atkins, who was somehow still charging the same 20 dollar fee he was asking five years ago. I talked JD into going over to his table. He asked Tom about the ambiguous ending to “Halloween III.” “We stopped the signal in time and saved all the kids,” Atkins said before noting that he is an optimist. I always assumed “Season of the Witch” had a downbeat, apocalyptic ending. But you know what? Atkins was actually in the film. His opinion outranks mine.

Surprisingly, Lillard was the longest we waited Friday night. We only stood in George A. Romero’s line for about fifteen minutes. It has been a while since I’ve gotten nervous at one of these things. However, I’ve been such an admirer of Romero, and for so long, I had a slight case of the jitters. Upon meeting George, it really dawns on you that he’s 75 years old. His hand shook when writing the signature and he seemed slightly shatterebrained when talking with me. Or maybe that was just from chatting with a hundred people in one day. Either way, I’m still pretty excited that I got to meet him. Years ago, I saw an interview with Romero where he said that he believes the best horror stories have some sort of moral or social relevance. It’s a message I took to heart. When talking about writing my own fiction, I’ve always told people I come from the “George Romero School of Horror.” It’s an anecdote I shared with him and he seemed flattered, I suppose.

Aside from spending too much money on guests at these things, I also spend too much money on junk in the dealor’s room. I grabbed a number of newer toys: new NECA releases like “Aliens” Ripley, John Matrix, or Leatherface, as well as the ReAction “Jaws” shark. However, what really caught my eye was a booth manned by an older gentlemen, selling old board games. Vintage board game collecting is something I’ve been wanting to get into for a while now. Among his shelves was “I Vant to Bite Your Finger” and “The Godzilla Game.” I was hesitant but when I heard the deal he was offering – both for fifty – I couldn’t pass them up. They both still work too! (I really wanted the Monster Mansion game he had but bulked at the price tag.) I also went home with a gorgeous print of the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” poster, an old Fangoria that had Stan Winston on the cover, and even some cheap paperback books, including the novelization of “Red Heat.”

A presence at every single Monster-Mania I’ve ever gone to is the VHS Preservation Society. Over the years, I’ve seen the number of tables selling bootleg discs shrink. These guys have stunk around and I think it’s because they really take care of their product. Aimed at replicating the VHS watching experience, their disc feature vintage trailers and logos, musical menus, and even MST3k-style “stingers” at the end. I always make sure to come home with something from their booth every year. This year, I got into a long conversation with the guys. I asked them to recommend anything old or weird. I ended up going home with “Hellgate” and “The Witching,” two I’ve never heard of. I also picked up something called “Nocturna,” a disco(!) horror/musical about Dracula’s granddaughter. How was I supposed to pass that up? JD, meanwhile, grabbed “Psycho Cop,” “Grandmother’s House,” and “Return of the Swamp Thing.” Our conversation circled around flicks as divergent as “A Polish Vampire in Burbank” and “Rocktober Blood.” Another booth provided me with “Death Kappa” and golden age obscurities “Murder in the Blue Room” – which I grabbed for my Universal Horror collection – and “Island of Doomed Men.”

Usually, we spend Saturday going to panel but time was seemingly against us. Lunch ran late so we only caught the last ten minutes of the Meg Foster and Dee Wallace panel. This is a bummer, as you know they both have some stories to tell. We only saw half of the “Halloween” reunion panel. We still got to hear a great story from Tom Atkins, talking about how much the original “Thing from Another World” scared him as a teenager. Or how Don Shanks, Michael Myers in part 5, fell in love with pirate movies as a kid and would swing around on ropes inside his family barn. We had expected to see the “Scream” panel but it was moved at the last minute to 9.

So the only full panel we ended up at was the George Romero Q&A. However, it was a good one. Maybe it was just his mood because George was spry and full of stories at the Q&A. He talked about how the monkey in “Monkey Shines” was in heat and basically fell in love with the star of the movie. He discussed the difficulty of working with cockroaches in “Creepshow,” unrealized projects like “Diamond Dead,” his friendship with Stephen King, how easy it was to round up zombie extras on “Night of the Living Dead,” and his less then harmonious relationship with studio producers. And for the record: He thought the “Dawn of the Dead” remake was okay but hates running zombies, wasn’t impressed with “The Crazies” remake, and loves “Shaun of the Dead.”

Driving home from Monster-Mania 32 last night, mostly I thought about how jovial every seemed. Maybe it was some reverse reaction to the lousy weather outside. I can’t tell you how many times this weekend strangers striked up conversations with us. The couple across the hall from our rooms started chatted without us throughout the weekend, and even invited us to go drinking with them Friday night. All the guests were in good moods, being friendly and telling jokes. I bought lots of cool stuff and still didn’t spend too much. Overall, the convention was a total blast and probably one of my favorite events I’ve ever gone to.

Also, I was briefly possessed by Nyarlathotep