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Friday, July 1, 2016

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016)

Alexander Skarsgard as the latest live-action iteration of Edgar Rice Burroughs's feral hero.

Sorry, folks, but this will be a bit of a rant rather than a straight review.

Earlier this afternoon I saw THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) and had a pretty good time with it, though, speaking as a lifelong Tarzan booster, the film is in no way without its faults. It's the latest attempt to make the Lord of the Jungle appeal to modern sensibilities and it certainly has a hell of a lot more action/adventure than the turgid GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN OF THE APES (1984), but would somebody please explain to me when it became verboten for Tarzan to wield a knife, a spear, or even a bow and arrows? (Plus to say nothing of the fact that he doesn't rock his signature loincloth until the very end of the movie.)

And as for all of the concern about Tarzan being a white man's fantasy of a Caucasian hero of colonialist values being out of step with more enlightened attitudes that have come to pass during the character's 115-year existence and therefore an offensive figure to people of color, specifically black people, I loudly and adamantly call "bullshit." Black people have enjoyed Tarzan as a hero since he first appeared on the big screen, not just because he's fucking awesome but also because his attitude toward native Africans was astoundingly liberal for its era. It was as simple as "Don't fuck with him, his woman, the jungle, or his friends — human or otherwise — and he only sees you as a person," perhaps someone soon to be a new friend and possibly someone worthy of his respect as an equal. The Negroes Tarzan killed in films of yore were all cannibals, kidnappers, desecrators of nature, or miscreants of some vile stripe, and each and every one of them that he dispatched had it coming.

It should also be noted that the loudest detractors of Tarzan as a racist trope in the 2000's are mostly Social Justice Warrior-types who have, from what their discussion of the character and his oeuvre betrays, never read a Tarzan novel nor seen a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie, instead making ill-founded and utterly ignorant proclamations from out of their whiny asses. Black folks of the generations that preceded mine "got" what Tarzan was about — man in perfect, savage harmony with nature — and thrilled to his adventures, and the audience I saw the film with this afternoon was a reasonably-packed house composed of nothing but Hispanics and fellow highly-rhythmic individuals, all of whom dug the film to varying degrees, with three very turned-on middle-aged females predicting it will be a hit. (Presumably because of Tarzan being an unashamedly handsome and rugged shirtless bohunk with an eight-pack.)

Bottom Line: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN was a lot of fun — but, again, not without flaws — and I predict it will make its mark as a popular date movie, eventually to join the home video collections of Tarzan-boosters like myself and those who will want to make return trips to this beautifully-lensed romantic adventure.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2015-Day 31: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DORKS (2004)

Not a scene from DAS BUTT.

Director Matthias Dinter's German-made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DORKS has quite accurately been likened to what would likely result if George Romero had directed AMERICAN PIE, and as such it's an unexpected treat and a hell of a lot of better than it has any right to be.

Phillip (Tino Mewes), Wurst (Manuel Cortez) and Konrad (Thomas Schmieder) are their high school's favorite punching bags, a trio marked for bullying and general abuse, especially uber-nerd Konrad, who has kept a detailed log of every indignity he's suffered at the fists of bullies since he was in primary school. Phillip has hopeless ambitions of nailing the snotty and openly hostile rich class hottie and Traci Lords lookalike, Uschi (Nadine Germann), while Wurst is the trio's priapic happy-go-lucky stoner/all-around party-boy (I'm figuring his lack of popularity is due to the company he keeps). Rounding out the core group of protagonists is Phillip's next door neighbor, Rebecca (Collien Fernandes), a pretty and rather self-aware Goth who was Phillip's closest friend during childhood but when adolescence hit the two briefly drifted apart and now Rebecca harbors other-than-friend feelings for Phillip, but he's too busy thinking with his cock and setting his sights on the rich bitch to notice that a good thing is staring him right in the face.

Our zeroes, er, heroes: (L-R) Rebecca (Collien Fernandes), Konrad (Thomas Schmieder), Phillip (Tino Mewes) and Wurst (Manuel Cortez).

When Phillip's attempt at asking Uschi out to the big dance results in he and his buddies receiving their umpteenth beating from Uschi's preppy Hitler Youth poster child-looking boyfriend, Wolf (Hendrik Borgmann), the desperate lads enlist the aid of Rebecca and her Goth friends to enact a Haitian voodoo ritual that will theoretically give the boys the ability to get any woman they want to fall in love with them (which does not sit well with Rebecca). The ritual goes awry and while driving back to Phillip's parents' house, the guys get into a bonghit-instigated car accident that kills all three of them. (The other two die of cranial impact injuries, while Philip's heart is pierced by a windshield wiper, so their corpses still look pretty good, all things considered.) While the love spell aspect of the voodoo ritual may not have worked, the lads soon awaken in the local morgue as fully-fledged zombies, now super-strong and impervious to pain. Making their way back to Phillip's house (it should be noted that his parents are gone for a few days), the guys discover that they are also flesh-eaters and that they can sate their carnivorous urges with raw meat.

Back from the dead and enjoying some raw steaks.

Upon returning to school the next day, the trio begin a campaign of vengeance against the bullies and jocks that results in them becoming instantly popular. Milking this, the boys announce a massive party at Phillip's house and the whole school is invited, including the now turned-on Uschi who makes no bones about her intent to fuck the newly-appointed Alpha male Phillip. During all of this, Phillip's relationship with Rebecca takes some interesting turns while Konrad, flush with power for the first time in his put-upon life, begins to go over to the Dark Side and lets his monstrous urges run rampant, igniting a humorously dire chain of events that can only be remedied if Rebecca can come up with an antidote to reverse the boys' zombie state. As the guys deal with the revolting realities of decomposition (somewhat remedied by a handy and judiciously applied staple gun), undead cannibalism and Konrad's increasing confidence and evil, the counter-spell must be pulled off within thirty-six hours of the initial zombification, so time is swiftly running out. And Konrad will not give up his newfound badassery willingly...

Working stylistically very much within the mold of American-made high school raunch flicks, the film looks and feels just like an American R-rated teen comedy, only everyone in it speaks German. And it certainly earns its R-rating thanks to liberal doses of filthy dialogue, gore, nudity, sexual situations (some of which could rightly be classified as necrophilia), drug and alcohol use, an illegal May/December romance (although admittedly I have no idea how the laws in Germany stand on teacher/underage student flings) and all the other stuff you'd expect from a film of this genre, only this time with zombies thrown into the formula for good measure. The performances are uniformly good, the script is tight and very funny and the whole thing just plain works. In fact, I would even go so far as to say NIGHT OF THE LIVING DORKS is the best horror comedy to come along since SHAUN OF THE DEAD, which came out barely two months prior to this. I'm guessing the reason this film didn't get the kind of attention the British SHAUN got over here has everything to do with it being in German, and while the DVD does include an English dub (watch the subtitled version to preserve the original performances), I don't recall the film ever getting a U.S. theatrical release or any kind of marketing hoopla being made when it hit DVD. That's a shame because, as previously stated, this film is a real winner and fans of horror-comedy and general audiences alike would eat it up (pun intended). HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Oh, and included among the extras is the fourteen-minute alternate ending, which is worth a look to illustrate how the wrong ending could totally scuttle what would have otherwise been a perfect picture. The alternate ending seems like it was intentionally calculated to include every trite and wrong teen comedy element that we've seen beaten to death since the 1980's, and while watching it I was thanking the gods of cinema that Dinter wisely chose not to use it and go with a climax that not only made sense, but that was also as satisfying of an ending as you could want for this film.

Poster for the German theatrical release.

Friday, October 30, 2015

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2015-Day 30: CRUEL JAWS (1995)


"I'll get you, motherfuckin' shark!!!"
—crazed shotgun-wielding Mafioso.

There are JAWS ripoffs and then there is CRUEL JAWS, a USA/Italian-made marvel of copyright infringement that liberally (and illegally) cribs its shark attack footage from JAWS, JAWS 2, JAWS 3-D, DEEP BLOOD and even the infamous LAST SHARK, itself one of the most outrageously  flagrant ripoffs ever made. I was alerted to this work of patchwork art a few years back by my pal Mindless Kirby, himself already well-schooled in bad movies by the relatively early age of eighteen, and I could not believe there could possibly be a JAWS ripoff more in-your-face than Enzo Castellari's LAST SHARK, a film withdrawn after legal action was threatened by Universal Pictures. Seriously, there was just no way. But what I did not take into account was that there would be an Italian filmmaker possessed of balls big enough to actually — and very poorly — steal footage from all of the aforementioned movies, rather than merely lift the basic template of "gigantic man-eating shark terrorizes beach resort until hunted to explosive death by a disparate crew of pursuers." And, as if that were not enough, the film also "borrows" snippets from one of the most famous movie soundtracks of all time, specifically the original STAR WARS, and even lists JAWS author Peter Benchley as one of its scripters. (It goes without saying that he was not actually involved.)

Helmed by "William Snyder" — aka Bruno Mattei, the virtuoso behind such classics as S.S. EXTERMINATION LOVE CAMP (1977), PORNO HOLOCAUST (1981), CALIGULA'S PERVERSIONS (1981), VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON (1982) and RATS IN MANHATTAN (1984) — CRUEL JAWS follows the tried and true formula of the films it rips off and splices together, mostly drawing its plot particulars from JAWS and JAWS 2. Aside from the familiar narrative template, the story gives viewers a gaggle of disposable characters that are impossible to care about, and in most cases you'll end up praying for them all to end up as the next day's floating shark's turds. There's the nerdy shark expert, a Hulk Hogan lookalike with a cute and treacly little daughter in a wheelchair (who spends her time playing with dolphins and seals at her dad's low-rent aqua show), a pitiful pack of local bullies, one of whom is the mayor's son, and, of course, the corrupt mayor who pooh-poohs the shark attacks and refuses to call off the upcoming regatta for fear of losing tourist's bucks, and their performances are uniformly piss-poor. As the so-called story perfunctorily goes through the motions, there's also a jaw-dropping subplot where the mayor — after failing to call off the regatta, which ends up with the deaths of innocents and loses tons of money as a result — is called on the carpet by his previously unseen Mafia masters and told that they will send a pair of stereotypical goombahs to take care of the shark and claim the $100,000 reward. These two morons, suddenly and inexplicably expert at handling motorboats, set off onto the high seas to kick some shark ass, armed with various firearms. Needless to say, they are horribly killed almost immediately.

As the story nears the long-overdue finish line, it is eventually revealed that the shark is actually the result of a navy experiment that has been trained to attack any enemies within its home territory — in this case a sunken Naval transport — and that revelation adds nothing whatsoever to the plot or the viewer's interest. Oh, and while the shark is described as being of the Tiger variety, all of the stock nature documentary footage and stolen segments clearly depict Great Whites.

The film's soundtrack is replete with totally inappropriate music — mostly ten-years-out-of-date generic '80's-style pop that will make you want to put your head through the nearest wall — and the cinematography is often murky as hell, rendering much of the original footage quite dark, and the editing is often incomprehensible. But what makes this mess absolutely worth sitting through is its sheer nerve as a Frankenstein's monster of cobbled-together footage from other movies, and the jarring juxtaposition of it all is akin to reliving a bad tequila and cough syrup bender. From moment to moment, the shark morphs from live nature footage to a number of fake-looking animatronics and puppets, and when the shark is blown up at the end it explodes three times, each detonation culled from different movies. CRUEL JAWS is complete and utter crap and its shamelessness is Homeric in scale, but a film of this magnitude of outrageousness is a must-see for all followers of bad movies in general and lovers of ridiculous shark flicks in particular.

Packaging art for one of the film's DVD releases. This totally doesn't rip off the classic JAWS poster art because this image includes an explosion!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2015-Day 29: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)


When the beast within gains the reins.

David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman are two American youths on a walking tour of Europe who find themselves in the isolated rustic Northern English town of East Proctor, the kind of place where the locals are close-mouthed around outsiders and where remnants of a pagan past are evident. Earning the displeasure of the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb pub after Jack asks them why there's a big pentagram on the wall — a symbol that he notes to David is the sign of the werewolf (Jack's obviously seen THE WOLF MAN) — the hapless tourists find themselves booted from the establishment and, against the advice of the creepy, tight-lipped indigenous populace, wander off the roads and into the fog-enshrouded moors during a full moon, where they fall prey to…well, you have a pretty good idea if you’ve noticed the film's title. Jack doesn’t survive the attack, but David awakens weeks later in a London hospital under the care of a mouth-watering nurse (the one and only Jenny Agutter) and is visited by the mangled corpse of his best buddy. The disturbingly-mutilated Jack — who has lost none of his friendliness, charm, and sense of humor in the wake of his horrific murder — warns David that he’s now a werewolf and must kill himself before the next full moon, but if the disbelieving David had killed himself the movie would have been about twenty minutes long and pissed off an audience that came expecting some righteous monster action, so you can guess the rest.

Rearing its shaggy head just four months after the equally-classic lycanthropy opus THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON upped the shape-shifting ante by having a major studio budget, a writer/director who wielded no small amount of clout in the wake of the success of his NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) and THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), picturesque UK locations, the toothsome and talented Jenny Agutter, and FX badass Rick Baker on the makeup/creature effects, so how could it lose? Frankly, it didn’t and almost thirty-five years after the fact it still vies with THE HOWLING for top position in the hearts of most werewolf mavens. (Hell, I paid to see it three nights in a row when it came out!).

A horror movie for grownups that came out during the avalanche of brain-dead and juvenile1980's slasher pictures — their gore and nudity/sex notwithstanding — and provided a welcome alternative, AMERICAN WEREWOLF fires on all cylinders, engaging its audience with likable characters, a doomed love story, and some of the most indelible moments of cinematic horror of its decade. The foreboding atmosphere during the sequences in East Proctor fairly screams old school Universal Horror transplanted to the early 1980's, a soundtrack loaded to the rafters with songs referencing the moon is intelligently handled and never grows corny or trite, and the film especially gets extra points for Griffin Dunne's unforgettable performance as Jack, the most cheerful mangled and steadily decomposing corpse you’ll ever see.

Griffin Dunne as Jack: if ever there was a supporting role that completely steals the film it's in, this is it.

The film is also to be commended for opting to depict the cinematically-rare (though more mythically-common) fully non-human four-legged variety of "Shaggy McNasty" as opposed to the usual bipedal guy with a terminal case of five o'clock shadow. Rick Baker's practical effects puppet of David's lupine form features a spectacular and original design that skews waaaaaaay into monster territory and is about as far removed fro Lon Chaney Jr. as one could hope to get. It looks more like a demonically-possessed giant wolverine than a wolf, and as such it is scary as a motherfucker. Though only occasionally glimpsed, the beast is a nightmarish creation whose stalking of innocents through the London night and later rampage in and around a porno theater are realized to maximum visceral effect.

The beast's P.O.V. of its prey.

But perhaps the element that the film is best remembered for these days is its signature transformation sequence. A masterpiece of practical effects wizardry, David's metamorphosis into a ravenous engine of death brings what would no doubt be an grueling, agonizing physical process to vivid life, with each morphing, distending, and re-structuring of the man's anatomy shown under clear lighting and with horrifying sounds of creaking bones and muscle as the icing on the visceral cake.


David (David Naughton) looks on as his body rebels.


Very entertaining and engaging from start to finish, some find AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON's blend of humor and horror to be somewhat jarring and as a result feel that film is deeply flawed by a schizophrenic tone, but I vehemently disagree with that assessment. THE HOWLING is also quite amusing — admittedly, provided you get the in-jokes that are aimed squarely at those well-versed in their horror movie minutia — but no one ever bitches about it being a mess, which leads me to wonder if AMERICAN WEREWOLF's detractors are more willing to cut a "smaller" flick a bit more slack. Whatever the case, you’ll just have to judge AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON for yourself. Me, I fucking love it. Werewolves are my favorite monsters, thanks to their often tragic and unwilling connection to nature and all of its more rapacious and unrestrained aspects, so a werewolf story of this level of quality was more than tailor-made for the likes of myself. It had a tremendous impact on me and my friends way back when and it helped me get through a particularly rough and frustrating section of my troubled adolescence, so for that I will always have a warm place in my heart and mind for its collision of the mundane with supernatural horror of the most wrenching order. Definitely my favorite werewolf movie (alongside the original THE WOLF MAN) and also one of my very favorite films of any genre, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON get my HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

A treasure: My autographed photo of David Naughton during his transformation.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

31 DAYS IF HORROR 2015-Day 28: GE GE GE NO KITARO (2007)

Meet the Yokai.

In recent years the Japanese film industry has rebooted many of the classic manga properties as live action features, especially now that special effects technology has caught up with the wild imaginings of the comics' creators. Unfortunately the majority of the reboots are turgid, uninvolving bores that amount to nothing more than something that could be used as a studio's FX resume reel, and that's a major disappointment when one considers just how awesome projects like DEVILMAN and TETSUJIN #28 (better known to us western barbarians as GIGANTOR) could have been if they had scripts that lived up to the visuals. DEVILMAN was especially trying since the studio opted to attract a larger audience by making Go Nagai's famously gory and ultra-violent story more teen-friendly, consequently cutting the balls off of a genre classic. In fact, if you ask me the only genuinely good and thoroughly entertaining classic manga reboot was the charmingly goofy CUTIE HONEY from 2004, based on another Go Nagai classic and also cleaned up for a larger audience. Or should I say it was the only good manga reboot until this first live-action GE GE GE NO KITARO adaptation?

Considering that it's a product of a culture with one of the world's richest myth bases, it was only a matter of time until the venerable GE GE GE NO KITARO (loose translation: "Kitaro of Ge Ge Ge Forest") got the live action treatment. For a decent overview of this manga and anime landmark, check in over at the Wikipedia, but the short version is that creator Shigeru Mizuki's stories revolve around Kitaro, a spirit — or yokai — boy who lives in creepy Ge Ge Ge forest with his equally supernatural family and friends, a wild assortment of creatures culled from Japanese myths and legends. Kitaro is something of a nexus between the human and yokai realms, coming to the aid of humans who fall afoul of the more sinister of his brethren, and much humor and magical mayhem ensues.

Kitaro and friends, as seen in the manga.

Kitaro and friends have been animated several times since the 1960's, both for television and the movies, and I love them without reservation. There have been countless international takes on the whole supernatural co-existing alongside our mundane existence thing — BEWITCHED and Harry Potter being the two examples that spring immediately to mind — but none have the charm and sheer fun found in Mizuki's works, and I'm very happy to say that none of it is lost in the translation to live action.

German-American/Japanese pop star Eiji Wentz as Kitaro.

As "progress" causes the forests of Japan to dwindle, the indigenous spirits are being driven from their ancestral homes and they're none too happy about it. A bunch of Kitsune, powerfully and ancient fox creatures, seek to drive out the inhabitants of the housing developments going up over what used to be their forest by any means necessary and hire the disreputable Rat Man (Yo Oizumi) and his gang of monsters-for-hire to get the job done. Tired of being (harmlessly) terrorized by the unruly yokai, a little boy who dwells in the development sends a letter — via the supernatural mailbox located deep in a nearby forest — to good guy yokai Kitaro in hope that the spirit can get the other monsters to knock off their nightly harassment. Kitaro receives the plea and soon puts things right, but that's just the first ten minutes of the film, which leaves plenty of time for world-class asshole Rat Man, the yokai answer to Eric Cartman, to get up to more self-serving mischief, namely stealing a magical gem of incredible power from the Kitsune so he can hock it at a human gem dealer's shop (NOTE: humans know that monsters exist, so this isn't that big of a deal, although some humans still need a bit of convincing).

Yo Oizumi as the amusingly offensive Rat Man: if ever there was a towering douchebag who just doesn't give a fuck, it's this guy. And, God help me, I love him.

This theft sets all manner of mishegoss into motion and it's up to Kitaro and his bizarro group of friends to save the day, lest an angry Kitsune lord destroy the human world and rebuild things under his own rule.

GE GE GE NO KITARO is a hell of a lot of fun and a visual feast featuring a who's who of mythological critters, seamless CGI and makeup effects, a yokai nightclub that you'll want to hang out at, and the latest rendition of the famous and infectious Kitaro theme tune, a song familiar to native anime fans since the 1960's and heard in every filming of the series since. I can hear it even now: "Ge...Ge...Ge Ge Ge no Ge..." (And you can too if you click here for a link to three of the animated series openings, ranging from the B&W sixties intro through the current TV version.) Plus there's a doomed romance between immortal Kitaro and a human girl thrown in for good measure; Kitaro's dad warns him against getting involved with a mortal female because humans can die, something of which he is only too painfully aware. And while the movie is based on a children's comic, what may fly as suitable entertainment for kids in Japan doesn't necessarily work over here insomuch as the look of the monsters and some of the effects could be perceived as scary by the very little ones in the audience, so know your tyke's limitations before throwing this one into the DVD player. I'd say this is safe for the six-and-olders.

Bottom line: if you're unfamiliar with the monsters of Japanese myths and legends, creatures as well-known over there as Dracula, Frankenstein, Jason, and Freddy are to us, place your trust in me and immediately rent GE GE GE NO KITARO. It's out on DVD in the States, and for more yokai fun I also recommend — though not as strongly — YOKAI MONSTERS: 100 MONSTERS (1968), YOKAI MONSTERS: SPOOK WARFARE (1968, the best of this series), YOKAI MONSTERS: ALONG WITH GHOSTS (1969), and THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (2005). And keep your eyes open for the sequel, GE GE GE NO KITARO 2: SONG OF THE THOUSAND-YEAR CURSE (2008), which is aimed at an older audience, so it's a much darker animal than this first installment.

Poster for the original theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2015-Day 27: DR. CYCLOPS (1940)

A publicity shot that's not in the movie but one that ABSOLUTELY gets across the point of its scale-derived horrors.

Visually-impaired Dr. Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker) summons a trio of fellow scientists — two biologists and a mineralogist — to his remote Peruvian lab so they can confirm some of his findings that his borderline-blind eyesight prevents him from verifying for himself. Along with an unexpected extra scientist, the visitors are dismissed by the incredibly rude Thorkel once their usefulness to him is done, but they opt to stick around after being intrigued by what appears to be Thorkel's discovery of a rich vein of the radium/uranium ore pitchblende, while questions are raised as to what exactly has happened to the considerable number of experimental animals that Thorkel had imported for his research. When the doctor's native assistant, Pedro (Frank Frank Yaconelli), notes that his beloved horse has gone missing and yet hears the animal's signature whinny, Thorkel reveals just what he's been up to, namely utilizing a radiation process to shrink living mammals down to doll-size. Acting all nice, Thorkel invites the party into the lab's shrinking chamber to see the shrinking apparatus up close, at which point they are locked in and, to their abject horror, reduced against their will. Now around a foot tall, the shrunken victims escape into the doctor's yard, an area surrounded by Peruvian jungle and populated with all manner of wildlife that could easily do them in at a moment's notice. 

Meet the good doctor's cat, Satanus.

But the true menace is Dr. Thorkel, whose general assholism pales in comparison to his amoral, complete and utter madness and evil. When he discovers that the shrinking effect is not permanent and that that his victims are slowly returning to their original proportions, the doctor's veneer of scientific obsession drops away and he stands revealed as a cruel and murderous giant, not unlike the cyclops of classical myth.

The concept of humans being reduced to assorted small sizes is an old sci-fi trope that has been explored endlessly, on 1960's TV in LAND OF THE GIANTS (1968-1970), most recently in ANT MAN (2015), and perhaps to most classic effect in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), but that film's take on the shrinking angle was more about the human/existential experience of such a happenstance, while DR. CYCLOPS goes  straight for the jugular when depicting just how awful it would be to find oneself trapped at a size where virtually every living thing around you is suddenly an oversized apex predator. A small caiman becomes a ravenous dragon and a common house cat gains the gravitas of a rampaging tiger when one is stuck at one foot tall, and the film milks the horror of skewed proportions for all it's worth. Though ostensibly a sci-fi entry, DR. CYCLOPS is at heart a straight-up horror yarn whose impact is like a sledgehammer to the guts. Looking like a vintage pulp magazine cover brought to life, thanks to its early Technicolor process lending it an unnatural semi-sepia effect, the film's narrative provides several sequences of outright terror that are intense even by today's standards and must have been truly shocking some seventy-five years ago. I won't reveal everything but the scene where Thorkel kills Dr. Bullfinch (Charles Halton) by smothering him with a wad of cotton held in calipers is imbued with a sense of no-way-out dread that really messed with my head when I was an under-ten.

Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) prepares to murder rival scientist Dr. Bullfinch (Charles Halton).

Fast-paced and genuinely scary, DR. CYCLOPS is an old school treasure of the highest order that holds up quite well and is suitable for the whole family, though it does contain some material that can warp the kiddies if they take some time to really think it through. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Monday, October 26, 2015

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2015-Day 26: THE BURNING (1981)


There used to be a camp not far from here, just across the lake. It was called Camp Blackfoot. No one goes there anymore. Everything burnt down. This camp had a caretaker, and his name was Cropsy. Now, this Cropsy was a drunkard... a sadist, and he got real pleasure out of hurting... scaring. And he had these garden shears. The kind with long, thin blades. He carried them all the time, wherever he went. And he had this kind of demonic way of looking at you. One time, Cropsy really went after this kid from Brooklyn, followed him around night and day. He made this kid's life a living hell. But this time, he chose the wrong guy, 'cause the kid and some of his buddies had planned a little prank. Only problem was, the gag went wrong. The next thing anybody knows, Cropsy's trapped alive and burning in his bunk. They try to get him out, but the fire's so fierce, they can't reach him. All they can do is stand outside and listen to him cry out in agony. They say his smashed his way through the bunk room door in just a mass of flames. And as he burned alive, he cried out, "I will return! I will have my revenge!" They never found his body, but he survived. He lives on whatever he can catch. Eats them raw, alive. No longer human. Right now, he's out there. Watching, waiting. Don't look; he'll see you. Don't move; he'll hear you. Don't breathe; you're dead!

-The legend of Cropsy, as retold in THE BURNING

Those of us who are of a certain age no doubt recall (fondly or not) the age of the "slasher" movie, a period in our youths that enjoyed a heyday between roughly 1980 and 1984. The genre was kick-started by the unexpected success of the independently-shot, major studio released FRIDAY THE THIRTEEN (1980) and from that cheap and gory template exploded a seeming avalanche of like-minded and mindless "body count flicks" with absolutely nothing on their minds other than making a quick buck by projecting as much Karo syrup blood and naked tits across the screen as possible. Sex and violence are both obvious box office draws so the fusion of them would theoretically ensure a lucrative take, thus filmmakers all over the place sought to rake in some of that cash by churning out low-budget, by-the-numbers gore-fests, most virtually indistinguishable from one or the other.

During this flourishing of sanguinary cinema, FANGORIA magazine would feature cover stories chronicling each new slasher flick to issue from the pipeline, and one of the most intriguing-looking was 1981's THE BURNING. The magazine article gave gorehounds page after page of outrageously gory images that certainly piqued our curiosity and got us very interested in seeing the film, but shortly before THE BURNING was due to come out the backlash against slasher movies began in earnest and the genre was forced to knuckle under to censorship complaints in order to keep an R rating and avoid earning the dreaded X, which would have kept out all moviegoers under the age of eighteen. (Anyone who has ever been an enterprising teenage fan of material that's allegedly "adult" enough to earn a movie an R can tell you for a fact that it's pretty easy to get in to R-rated movies because the staff at most movie theaters simply do not give a fuck, just so long as cash crossed through the ticket window's threshold.) This pointless backlash essentially ended up cutting the balls off the slasher genre by preventing the films from being seen as intended, with many being released to screens with such thorough sanitizing that the movies became frisson-free parades of terrible acting by clearly overage "teenagers" that may or may not have provided even the requisite bare tits (which, back in those days, were refreshingly all-natural), so audiences were not satisfied and the genre inevitably shriveled up and died when the money stopped rolling in. All of which is a long-winded way of providing some background leading up to a discussion of THE BURNING, a film that was a glaring casualty of the backlash and released worldwide in several heavily-edited versions, each reportedly being an almost complete waste of the gorehound's time if not for some truly lovely actual boobs gracing the screen.

Now available on DVD in its uncut form, THE BURNING surprised the hell out of me for a number of reasons, including the fact that it's the brainchild of the Weinstein brothers and is in fact the first film from Miramax. As you no doubt gathered from the legend at the top of this piece, the movie has to do with the accidental and utterly horrible immolation of a summer camp janitor/groundskeeper named Cropsy, only the narrative proper deals with the tragic aftermath of that prank gone wrong and opens five years later, once a hideously burn-scarred Cropsy is released from the hospital. A rotten asshole of a human being in the first place, the now monstrous Cropsy has had five years in which to stew over what happened to him and to allow thoughts of gruesome vengeance to twist his mind, so after killing a whore almost immediately upon hitting the streets, Cropsy makes his way to Camp Stonewater in upstate New York (the summer camp just across the river from Camp Blackfoot, the site of his immolation), where he gets down to the business of viciously and randomly murdering innocent teenagers.

If this sounds like the basic outline to a garden variety slasher opus, it pretty much is, only this time around the movie actually takes time to flesh out its psycho-fodder cast for about forty-five solid minutes that are never boring and features a cast including very recognizable young actors, most making their screen debuts, including:
  • Fisher Stevens-from the SHORT CIRCUIT films and many other roles
  • Holly Hunter-of RAISING ARIZONA, BROADCAST NEWS and THE INCREDIBLES renown
  • Brian Backer-instantly recognizable as nebbishy and virginal Mark Ratner from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH
  • Leah Ayres-unforgettable — and not in a good way — as the ultra-annoying reporter in the Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts semi-classic BLOODSPORT
But by far the most well-known cast member is Jason Alexander (age 21 when the film was shot), aka SEINFELD's George Costanza, complete with a full head of brown hair, in the unlikely role of an under-18 camper. He looks every bit his age and it took me a while to realize that he wasn't supposed to be playing one of the counselors, but the familiar delivery and comedic chops were already in place and firing on all cylinders.

Yes that's SEINFELD's Jason Alexander in the number jersey, complete with hair and playing someone who's supposed to be a camper, not a counselor. FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH's Brian Backer sits in front of him, while SHORT CIRCUIT's Fisher Stevens sports a happenin' striped shirt.

If the film eliminated the slasher angle entirely, what remains would have made for a passable summer camp teen comedy, depicting as it does the most irresponsibly-run place one could ever send their kids to for the summer. There's a certain amount of supervision but the counselors take absolutely zero notice of the fact that campers play poker for cash stakes and smoke and drink right in front of them, to say nothing of very obviously engaging in sex in the woods, but then again the counselors are engaged in exactly the same activities themselves, sometimes with their underage charges, so I guess it's all okay. (Where was Camp Stonewater when I needed it, namely during my awful and unwilling stay at Camp Hi-Rock in the summer of 1979? Not a hope of beer or pussy at that gulag, goddammit!) But while such activities often serve as the direct cause of teen mutilation in the majority of slasher flicks and unintentionally (?) drive home a puritanical lesson that having sex, indulging in mind-altering intoxicants and having fun of damned near any kind in one's all-too-fleeting youth is "bad," THE BURNING treats such common teen adventures as simply being a part of life as it was back in those days, leaving Cropsy's motivation as being purely revenge-driven.

The plot is obviously nothing worthy of great literature, but as an E.C. Comics-style horror yarn it's simply perfect. After the first forty-some-odd minutes of character development, two counselors take a decent-sized group of campers downriver on an overnight camping excursion, and upon arrival at their destination Cropsy gets to work on his agenda of retroactive abortion, stealing the party's canoes and stranding his victims in a situation reminiscent of the old "fish in a barrel" setup. By that point we've gotten to know the characters well enough to care about most of them, so when Cropsy kills them off one by one you won't necessarily be happy about it (unlike the majority of these movies, wherein the teens are such a bunch of obnoxious assholes that you actually end up rooting for the killer and want to award him a commendation and the key to city when his deadly job is done). Particularly tragic and horrifying is the utter massacre of about six campers as they attempt to paddle upriver on a makeshift raft in search of help, only to meet their untimely demise on the business end of Cropsy's ever-present hedge-trimming shears. That sequence is particularly nasty and quite memorable, especially when Fisher Stevens attempts to shield his face with his hand, only to lose all his fingers in a fountain of gore as Cropsy deftly snips them off.

The whole story feels like a properly told scary campfire yarn and it brought me right back to my fondly-remembered years as a camp counselor, when Camp Mahackeno's director instructed us during training that we were not to tell the kids scary stories of escaped, hook-wielding, disfigured maniacs for fear of traumatizing the living shit out of them. It made me think of the days when the usual outdoor activities got rained out and we'd retreat into the large utility barn to watch projected VHS movies that would offend no one, and oh how I longed to be able to delight the kids with movies like THE BURNING and other such shiver-inducers...

So the bottom line on all of this is that THE BURNING is definitely worth the viewing time of the seasoned gorehound and the curious NetFlix renter. Unlike many of its contemporaries, it's never boring, it delivers on the graphic violence, and reminds us of why the days before the plague of breast implants were sacred indeed. TRUST YER BUNCHE and check this one out, especially now that it's finally presented in the way it was meant to be experienced. Sheer brainless fun, and definitely better than most of the tepid so-called shockers that scarcely merit an R these days.

Poster for the original theatrical release.