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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

ROGUE ONE — sub-headed as "A STAR WARS Story" — is a well-made, visually spectacular, action-packed adventure set in the galaxy far, far away that we all know and love so well. So why didn't I like it? Allow me to explain. 

The first of an announced ongoing series of stand-alone STAR WARS flicks that are not part of the serialized main saga, ROGUE ONE squanders the vast galactic toybox that is the STAR WARS realm by once again relying too much on fannish nostalgia and not moving forward. The basic story has to deal with a group of Rebel heroes stealing the plans for the Death Star, the aftermath of which mission leads immediately into the original STAR WARS (1977, and fuck you if you think I'm going to call it "A New Hope"), so we already go into the film knowing that the heroes succeed in their mission, thus killing what suspense may have been generated. The Death Star is trotted out yet again, thus revealing a certain bankruptcy of ideas, and the heroes who seek to thwart it mostly fail to generate any sort of interest because we're simply thrust into the narrative while getting to know little or nothing about them. 

The protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is the daughter of the designer of the Death Star, as seen in the opening segments, and when we meet her again as an adult, she's in prison for reasons that are given only the merest scrap of explanation. She's broken out of jail by Rebel forces who want to use her to connect them with a guerrilla leader (Forest Whitaker) who may be able to help them locate her dad, who years earlier was press-ganged into helping the Empire build its "planet-killer" of a battle station. Other than Jyn's longing to be reunited with her father, we know absolutely nothing about who she is as a person or what motivates her actions, so her coming to care about the Rebel cause comes from out of nowhere and carries zero weight toward the growth of her character.

The rest of the Rebels that we meet are basically ciphers about whom we are told nothing, and they are so unmemorable that their individual names are almost instantly forgotten by the audience. Other than a few familiar faces from the original STAR WARS trilogy that were shoehorned in here to little or no narrative effect, Jyn Erso, Imperial weapons developer Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) are the only characters whose names stuck with me once they were verbally identified. And the only standout among the Rebels that I cared about was the blind warrior Chirutt Imwe, played by my man Donnie Yen, whose character believes strongly in the Force but is notably not a Jedi, despite wielding a stick with speed and skill that makes Stormtroopers his bitches.

 My man Donnie Yen, whom the whole movie should have been about.

Cool though he undeniably was, Yen's character is given very little by way of backstory to explain why some random blind dude who is, again, not a Jedi whips ass with his walking stick like a deep-space Zatoichi. That's a damned shame, because he totally ruled during the moments when he's given something to do, including being given the film's funniest line — in a film sorely in need of some levity — but the real point of his inclusion was so that the film would have a star who's drawing power with put asses in seats in the Chinese market.

With no developed characters for us to be invested in, the story trusts in the audience's nostalgia and love for previous STAR WARS movies to do all of the narrative heavy-lifting, which just struck me as lazy. For a film about which much was made of its intent to break new ground and bring audiences a "different" kind of STAR WARS movie, it's basically just more of the same, a soulless piece of corporate product of the type that less-demanding moviegoers will eat up and thus pour billions into the coffers of Das Uber-Disney. I won't presume to speak for most of the audience out there, but I was bored during most of ROGUE ONE and had to resist the urge to check my phone's clock multiple times. It's two hours and fifteen minutes of pretty much watching a filmed version of some kid making up a STAR WARS adventure in his backyard with some action figures and vehicle accessories, and I found its dour, "more realistic" war movie tone to be as dull as dirt. Sure, it looked amazing — the special effects are nothing less than stunning — but where were the characters to engage me? Where was the movie magic that transports the viewer? And, most importantly, where was the fun in all of this? I wish I could tell you, but I got nothin'.

As I left the theater, a family followed close behind me, discussing the movie amongst themselves. The mother was clearly not impressed but tried to put a positive spin on things, while her three kids — apparently ranging in age from seven to twelve — all expressed how boring they found it to be. The one enthusiastic voice was dad, who countered their arguments of being bored with "Well, I wasn't bored, because I recognized a lot of stuff from the other movies!" Like I said previously, the filmmakers relied on the audience's nostalgia to do all the work, and more's the pity. And while a similar argument could be made for last year's THE FORCE AWAKENS, I found that film to be far more engaging, complete with characters I gave a damn about, both old and new, and a sense of plain and simple fun entertainment that I felt ROGUE ONE was largely bereft of. Your mileage may vary, probably depending on just how much of  STAR WARS zombie you are, but ROGUE ONE just didn't do it for me. Sitting through it once was enough for me, and I earnestly pray that the subsequent stand-alone films in the series provide us with something a lot more worthy of our time and money. It was a noble experiment but I call it a dud.

Oh, and while Darth Vader does indeed appear during two sequences — one of which is really cool — his inclusion is both short and virtually meaningless to the film's overall plot. He could have been left out entirely and it would have made not a lick of difference to the story. If you're planning on seeing it in hope of a serious Vader fix, forget it.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Monday, October 31, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 31: MAD MONSTER PARTY? (1967)

The Monster enjoys an electrical pick-me-up.

When Dr. Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) decides to retire and name a successor to his position of the world's monster elite, he announces a gala event on his remote island/laboratory and invites an all-star who's-who of baleful creatures of the night. Along with his infamous Monster and its mate (Phyllis Diller), the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Hunchback, the Mummy, the Werewolf, and of course Count Dracula all show up, some with their eyes greedily fixed upon the successorship. But Frankenstein throws an unintentional curveball by inviting his nebbishy pharmacist nephew, Felix Flanken, to the proceedings, with the lad firmly in mind as his replacement.

Felix Flanken and his uncle, Dr. Frankenstein (Boris Karloff).

That does not sit well with the glitterati of monsterdom, especially not with Dracula and the Monster's mate, plus to say nothing of Dr. Frankenstein's impossibly gorgeous redheaded assistant, Francesca. The hapless Felix swiftly and utterly unknowingly finds himself the target of multiple half-assed assassination attempts, but an even greater threat looms in the form of a titanic uninvited guest who seeks to wreak vengeful havoc...

A grand monster rally.

Finding appropriate fare for the wee ones around Halloween can be a bitch, since much of the scary movie material about there would be considered wholly inappropriate by most parents. (But not by uncles of my stripe, let me tell you!) That's where the magic world of Rankin/Bass Productions comes to the rescue. Renowned and beloved for their now-classic annual holiday television specials, such as RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964), SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN' TO TOWN (1970), THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974, which features the fan-favorite "Heat Miser/Snow Miser" numbers), and the excellent L. Frank Baum adaptation, THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS (1985), the company crafted charming and fun stop-motion animated specials and features brought to life by skilled animators in Japan, and this theatrical feature film was always a favorite and must-watch offering whenever it aired on television during the youth of those of us who are now of a certain age. 

The narrative is basically a case of "What if Mad Magazine made HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN?"— an aspect driven home by character designs courtesy of Mad stalwart Jack Davis — with no classic monster trope left untouched and lampooned, with Dracula pretty much stealing film with his snobbish, assholish treachery. He's a riot whenever he's onscreen, and his questionable alliances come back to bite him on his pallid ass.

Dracula and Francesca: Strange bedfellows?

It should also be noted that MAD MONSTER PARTY? features Francesca, the Doctor's buxom redheaded assistant, and if ever there were an animated puppet who gave little boys their first crush, she was it And there's more to her than there seems to be upon first glance...

Little Tibea and the Fibulas performing "It's the Mummy."

The film also features the signature musical scoring of Maury Laws, whose brass-heavy compositions are instantly recognizable to all who grew up on Rankin/Bass' output. MAD MONSTER PARTY? is replete with memorable theme tunes for its characters and a number of great songs, including the quasi-psychedelic "It's the Mummy" (to which the Mummy and the Monster's mate rock out) and the moody, evocative title song by Ethel Ennis. "The Monster Mash" is long overdue for dethroning from its lofty position as the go-to Halloween anthem, and I herewith nominate "Mad Monster Party?" to now bear the crown. Judge for yourself:

In short, the family simply cannot go wrong with MAD MONSTER PARTY? and no childhood of true "monster kids" is complete without it.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN 2016, FROM THE VAULT OF BUNCHENESS!!!

Poster from the original theatrical release. Art by the legendary Frank Frazetta.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 30: JAWS AT 40

NOTE: This piece originally ran back in June of 2015 but I felt the need to break it out for those who missed it.

There are some movies that are sheer perfection when seen properly projected, and JAWS is one of them. Arguably the first true summer blockbuster, as we have come to understand the form, the film has been re-released for limited screenings during this, its fortieth anniversary, so I hauled myself to the temple of the flickering image to take in an all-too-rare revival of a horror masterpiece.

Seeing it on the big screen (at the Union Square multiplex in Manhattan) for the first time in 40 years transported me right back to being a few days shy of turning 10 and my embracing of it as my favorite movie for a couple of years. In my early years I had my career goal set on being a marine biologist with a concentration on shark studies and I dragged my parents to every shark-related activity that I could gain access to, so seeing JAWS was an inevitability. Though rated PG, the film's poster featured the ominous tacked-on caveat, "MAY BE TOO INTENSE FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN," which only guaranteed the attendance of this budding gorehound, so considering that and the fact that it all boiled down to a story about a huge goddamned shark merrily munching its way through summer season beachgoers (and a hapless dog), you had a recipe for perfect entertainment. (And as long as we're keeping it real, whatever would transpire onscreen couldn't be any more intense or emotionally scarring than the daily witnessing of my parents' marriage rocketing down the bowl.) And when I finally did see JAWS, I fucking loved it. It was a perfect "man versus force of nature" yarn, sort of an ancient seaman's legend writ for the late-20th century, and it's that primal simplicity of the narrative, coupled with some stunning sequences of suspense and stellar characterization, that so resonates. 

It was great to see JAWS again with an audience and when the lights went down, it was like settling in as a skilled elder storyteller wove a yarn to scare and enthrall kids while also instilling in them the strong and basic lesson of taking what lurks in the depths seriously. There were some audience members who were clearly veterans from the first go-round but the majority of attendees were thirty or younger, most of whom had seen the movie numerous times on cable or DVD, and the few who who had never seen it before were easy to spot, thanks to their sudden vocalizations of shock in all the places that scared the motherfucking shit out of us back in the summer of 1975.

The horror from the deep revealed.

For the record, my favorite moment is still the part where Brody chums the water and meets the shark — sea monster, really — face-to-face, after which he backs into the Orca's interior, his face a frozen, stunned mask of horror as he matter-of-factly states, "You're going to need a bigger boat..." Also of note, you could have heard an amoeba fart during Quint's chilling recounting of his experience following the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, so all-consuming was the silence in the auditorium. The moment when Quint describes reaching over to wake up his friend, only to have the man tip over to reveal that he had been devoured from below the waist by one of perhaps a thousand tiger sharks... *SHUDDER*

Quint (Robert Shaw) makes with one of the most riveting and horrifying speeches in the annals of cinema.

Seriously, if it's playing anywhere near you, hie your ass to the theater and pay your respects as a true cinephile by seeing JAWS again as it was intended. I'll never watch it again unless it's projected and you can bet your ass I'll be there for the 50th anniversary.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 29: ARE GODZILLA MOVIES HORROR FILMS?

In 1954, a dread horror arose from the deep.

Godzilla, king of the monsters. The implacable radioactive leviathan who leaves naught but death and destruction in his wake. That's a description that runs at odds with the goofy/silly image the name conjures up for most casual observers. To most, Godzilla is the epitome of "fakey" special effects and zipper-up-the-back monster suits, and, to be fair, that assessment is not necessarily inaccurate, depending on which of the character's 29 films one sees. Series entries like GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER (1966), GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969, in which Godzilla does not even attempt revenge),  the infamous GODZILLA VS GIGAN (1972, in which Godzilla and his pal Anguirus talk), and GODZILLA VS MEGALON (1973) largely eclipse the better, more serious-minded and lavish entries in the perception of the general public. But if one goes back to the 1954 GOJIRA, which was later dubbed and released in the U.S. as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, one encounters a film that could not be further away from its descendants if it tried.

The 1954 GOJIRA, especially in its unaltered Japanese version, is straight-up horror of the first order, a rumination on nuclear warfare crafted by the only people in history to endure such a scorching nightmare firsthand. Shot in moody black & white, the first Godzilla film presents its titular beast as a radiation-scarred behemoth with no rhyme or reason to its attacks. Godzilla simply is, and what it is is death and destruction given flesh as a force of nature. No punches are pulled when depicting the doom and misery that it brings, as cities are leveled and burned and human life is snuffed out as easily as one would step on an ant. We see buildings collapse on innocent families, emergency wards full to capacity with broken and irradiated victims, and the whole endeavor fairly screams of utter hopelessness and despair. The filmmakers at Toho Studios very successfully communicated the terror of the atomic bomb in no uncertain terms, and anyone who comes away from experiencing the first Godzilla film as anything other than a bleak descent into a science and warfare-spawned hell was obviously not paying attention. All of the subsequent Godzilla movies, wildly varying in quality as they do, are fun matinee and weekend afternoon TV fodder, but the original is a textbook example of a horror movie directly expressing the well-founded fears of the society that created it. 

I strongly recommend GOJIRA to those who have not yet seen it, if for no reason other than to experience one of the bleakest films ever made and definitely the darkest effort in the annals of giant monster cinema. A feel-good movie it absolutely ain't.

Poster from the original Japanese theatrical release.

Friday, October 28, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016 Day 28: DOCTOR WHO "PYRAMIDS OF MARS" (1975)

"I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good."

1911: Professor Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archard) unearths the tomb of the ancient Egyptian god Sutekh the Destroyer (aka Set), which dooms him to servitude as the evil god's undead slave. Eons ago, the Egyptian gods, led by Osiris himself, waged war against Sutekh and imprisoned him on Mars, hopefully forever, in order to prevent him from wiping out all life in the universe. But now Sutekh has found a possible way out of his imprisonment and employs Scarman and a number of robot mummies to facilitate that goal, and it looks like nothing can prevent the dark deity from unleashing a swath of destruction across the whole of creation. Nothing, that is, until the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion, journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) interrupt their aimless galavanting through space and time and enter the fray. The pair of intrepid time-traveling adventurers swiftly realize that they have to intervene, lest all be lost, which they see firsthand by jumping to 1980 and finding the Earth a devastated wasteland due to their not getting involved. But how does even someone as formidable as our favorite Time Lord defeat the last of the Osirans, a being of vast cosmic power whose sole purpose is to destroy all life everywhere?

 The Doctor investigates.

PYRAMIDS OF MARS nearly always turns up on lists and polls citing the all-time classic DOCTOR WHO stories, and deservedly so. It's a triumph of solid writing and acting overcoming all-too-obvious budgetary limitations (too put it very kindly), and it evokes the best of the often mishandled Egyptian curse/mummy sub-genre of horror. In many ways, especially when remembering that classic DOCTOR WHO was a straight-up children's program, albeit one that unabashedly brought legitimate scares, this story is the perfect entry level mummy yarn for kids. So what if the mummies are actually robots? They still shamble about and murder people, so they're doing their designated genre trope job.

A horrible way to die: Having one's neck crushed between the pronounced chest ridges of powerful robot mummies.

The atmosphere of England in the early 1900's is perfectly evoked, as is the then-exotic flavor of recently rediscovered ancient Egyptian artifacts and culture. Speaking of which, Sutekh is one of the series' all-time greatest villains, if not the all-time greatest, in that he is a genuine cosmic entity of incalculable power whom it took an entire pantheon of gods to initially imprison, and his threat should he get loose again is on a downright Lovecraftian scale. In fact, Sutekh would have been right at home in one of H.P. Lovecraft's pulp tales of eldritch entities that drive mere mortals to states of gibbering insanity. Portrayed with unforgettable resonance and utter evil arrogance by Gabriel Woolf, Sutekh is hands down my favorite antagonist for the Doctor and I would love to see him brought back in the rebooted series (though considering how this story wraps up, that's pretty fucking unlikely).

Sutekh unmasked.

This story also allows the regulars to shine. Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor is in fine form, even behaving in ways that remind us that first and foremost he is an alien and a pragmatist, especially when forced to deal with something as universally horrific as Sutekh, so his lapses into seemingly cold-hearted handling of matters makes perfect sense. Sarah Jane, who was seldom a damsel in distress type, is given a lot to do here and comes through like the stalwart assistant that she is legendary for being. Once the seriousness of the situation is made apparent, she's right there at  the Doctor's side, showing a surfeit of pluck and good old British take charge no nonsense ass-kickery, especially when wielding an elephant gun.

 Sarah takes care of business.

I've been a DOCTOR WHO fan since the show first hit the States in 1978, and I tuned in every week for the serialized half-hour installments with great eagerness, thanks to stories of the level of quality displayed in PYRAMIDS OF MARS. Old school WHO always treated its audience with intelligence, an attitude that's forever commendable in children's entertainment, and if I'd seen this story when I was in the single digits, I would have felt that I'd stumbled upon something very special indeed. That said, there's one caveat about this story and old school WHO in general that I should offer for the uninitiated. Pre-reboot DOCTOR WHO was a series marked by its impoverished budget and consequent dodgy special effects and sets, much of which is laughable to modern sensibilities, but that's easily overlooked if one just lets oneself go with the stories and remember that they are a product of decades ago and told with a more decompressed style of storytelling. I much prefer DOCTOR WHO in its serialized form, which allowed more time for richer characterization and the fleshing-out of stories, as opposed to the rushed done-in-one (or two) format of the current iteration. Anyway, PYRAMIDS OF MARS is a classic for several good reasons and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 27: TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL (2010)

Our heroes: Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine).

I can't speak for you, but I fucking love "hicksploitation" movies, flicks about ordinary suburbanites running afoul of homicidal rednecks, hillbillies, and other assorted white trash stereotypes. The textbook example of the form would be DELIVERANCE (1972), with TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! (1964), SHANTY TRAMP (1967), POOR PRETTY EDDIE (1975), SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981), and EDEN LAKE (2008) also serving as prime examples, and there are a ton more to delve into. That said, it was only a matter of time before somebody made a film that lampooned the sub-genre, so I'm glad to say that TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL is about as good of a parody of this department as one could hope for.

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are a pair of hillbillies straight out of reruns of HEE-HAW, and they are about as lovable as humanly possible. The pair take a vacation at a remote fixer-upper cabin deep in the Appalachians, with the intent of restoring the place and enjoying hours of serene fishing, but their deep woods idyll is flushed straight down the shitter when they meet a group of college frat boys and their girlfriends at the local general store. Shy and awkward Dale is smitten by pretty blonde psychology major Allison (Katrina Bowden) but his tongue-tied attempt at talking with her is mis-interpreted as a creepy advance, so the frat gang gets it into their heads that our sweet rednecks are a couple of DELIVERANCE-style potential murderers/arse-rapists.

Frat boy douchebags and their willing females.

Unfortunately, the frat shitheads set up camp near Tucker and Dale's cabin and while out doing some nighttime skinny-dipping while T&D fish and swill Pabst Blue Ribbons nearby, Allison falls off of a rock, knocking herself out, and our heroes come to her rescue, putting her into their boat and rowing her back to their cabin. This is witnessed by the frat assholes, who instantly assume that the hillbillies have kidnapped Allison for all manner of nefarious degradations before her inevitable murder, so the frat bros and their girls, led by the ultra-assholish and clearly psychotic Chad (Jesse Moss), decide to wage a half-assed guerrilla war against the totally innocent and well-intentioned Tucker and Dale. 

The lovely Allison (Katrina Bowden).

While holed up and recuperating from her injuries in the cabin, Allison gets to know Dale and finds him to be a sweet and charming teddy bear of a man, and in no time the seeds of romance are planted.    Unfortunately, Allison's frat pals make all the wrong assumptions and attempt to take out Tucker and Dale in ways that violently and gorily backfire on them. In other words, it's like a misunderstanding-fueled French farce gene-spliced with Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol.

A poorly-timed tackle ends in nasty results.

TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL would have been fun if it had merely been a standard comedy, but its knowing ribbing of its genre and its willingness to be outrageously, hilariously gory elevates it above most humor/horror fusions. Horror comedy is a notoriously hard flavor to get just right, as is evidenced by how relatively few good ones there are — ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967), YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), GHOSTBUSTERS (1984), and DEADALIVE (1992), to name some must-see examples — and this film absolutely nails it.

The unintentional chainsaw chase that made me laugh out loud and was the deciding moment that made me love this movie. Seriously, I actually said out loud, "That's it. I fucking love this movie!!!"

Bottom line: Trust Yer Bunche and check this one out, especially if you're well-versed in the lore of hicksploitation. You will not be disappointed.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 26: BIG TITS ZOMBIE (2011)

"Idiot. I've always hated you. Now I'll step on your face. With a shoe full of dog shit."
-Goth stripper Maria, once she's learned how to control the undead and decides to get revenge upon her former colleagues for no adequately explained reason.

Based on the manga series KYONYU DRAGON, this flick is another in the ongoing wave of intentionally over-the-top satirical horror/exploitation flicks to make their way to the Japanese screen, and among that lot it's rather a minor entry.

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Given an admittedly great/stupid title for its Western release, the film relates the adventures of five down-on-their-luck dancers who toil at a rinky-dink strip joint in a desolate town in the middle of nowhere. There's the recently-returned-from-Mexico sombreroed/western-themed main heroine Lena Jodo (played by adult film star "Aoi Sola," whose nom de porn translates as "Blue Sky"), morose ex-con Ginko, Goth girl Maria, Neneh, an aging dancer who reads tarot cards and is close to retiring to Tokyo to run a noodle shop, and money-hungry Vietnamese chick Darna, who's working to support her impoverished brothers and sisters, and during the film's first half hour we get to know them and see them get continually screwed over by their shady boss.

Our heroines: (L-R) ex-con Ginko, Goth girl Maria (with the unnatural red hair), cowgirl Lena, soon-to-be-retired Neneh, and money-grubbing Darna (kneeling in front).

They're all fun and interesting to varying degrees, but one does not approach a film entitled BIG TITS ZOMBIE in search of a look into the crapsack lives of exploited strippers, so just as the film passes the half hour mark, the girls discover their dressing room houses a concealed door that leads into the basement of the abandoned house across the street, a place where the previous owner mysteriously committed suicide. Upon entering the basement, the girls find the dead man's creepy inner sanctum filled with arcane artifacts and an impressive collection of rare occult books, identified as such by the Goth chick (natch), who grabs an authentic copy of the Book of the Dead and of course reads aloud from it. The results are not immediate but when the spell takes effect, all hell literally breaks loose and in no time the nation is overrun by the undead from many periods of history, all of whom have escaped from the conveniently-located Well of Souls in the basement. From there it's a cavalcade of re-animated and aggressive sushi, the requisite zombie cannibalism, weaponized wasabi paste, an interesting attempted variant on the old tentacle-rape standby, beheadings, disembowelings, two of our heroines taking on a horde of zombies while wielding a samurai sword and a chainsaw and eventually ending up topless as their twins are rendered a deep shade of red as they are showered by geysers of arterial spray, and the unforgettable sight of the geisha-costumed and newly-zombified Neheh's pussy mutating into something resembling a lamprey's maw that spews fire with range and dispersal equivalent to that of a standard military flamethrower (by far the film's highlight).

Lena takes on all comers with her handy McCullough.

Ginko and Lena, mere moments before their twins are reddened by copious arterial spray.

All of this madness is achieved in a short running time of seventy-three minutes, so it never really gets boring (though the first half hour is definitely slow going), but with a title like BIG TITS ZOMBIE, the film contains far less nudity than one would rightly expect, and the two pairs of dairies on display — specifically Lena's and Ginko's — range from about Japanese-standard proportions to around a C-cup, so we're talking appealing, but not "big" like the title promises. (Well, not by U.S. standards, anyway.) And while the gore is plentiful when it comes, it's definitely a comparatively short blast and the movie is over well before the viewer expects it to be, so there's a profound sense of getting ripped off.

I've certainly seen far worse zombie films, but I've also seen far better in both the serious vein and the zom-com variety, so this flick is only recommended for zombie completists, those who are looking for a short diversion with gore 'n' (brief) tits, and desperate adolescent boys. However, the flamethrower pussy has to be seen to be disbelieved.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 25: I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE UNRATED (2010)

NOTE: This is an oldie from the archive but I figured the remake deserved as much attention as the original, so...

When it was announced there would be a remake of the Mier Zarchi's infamous 1978 rape/revenge grindhouse classic — which, for better or worse, it definitely qualifies as — the first thing to come to my mind was "Why?!!?" There was little that could be done to top the original in terms of depicting the very personal horrors of a backwoods gang rape and the vengeance it spurs other than to shoot it with a decent budget, quality camerawork/cinematography, and better performances from the cast, so what was the point? I know that practically every film under the sun has been remade or is in the works for such treatment, but again I ask, why remake a film that's a veritable Chernobyl of negative energy? The only ready answer that I had before seeing it was that the filmmaker's sought to cash in on the name recognition of the original, but there's considerably more going on here than I initially assumed. I wrote on the original I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE a few years back and I ask you to go here to read it. And before we proceed any further, be advised: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Southern anti-hospitality at its very worst.

The basic story is the same as the original: Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler), a writer from The Big City, rents a place in the backwoods — apparently Upstate New York in the original, Louisiana this time around — runs afoul of some incredibly vile lowlifes, gets agonizingly gang raped by said lowlifes, survives her ordeal and unleashes gruesome vengeance against her assailants. This time, however, the quality of the filmmaking is very far removed from the rather Paleolithic (though well-intentioned) results displayed in the 1978 version. The remake is quite obviously the work of real cinematic craftsmen and displays a level of polish and style totally absent in Zarchi’s dire classic, which makes the shattering events depicted in it more agreeable to sit through. (While any depiction of gang rape is going to be hard to sit through simply by default, the original’s bargain basement qualities imbued it with an unwashed and squalid look and tone that at times felt to me like some scabrous hobo was forcibly shoving his dirtiest, most callused finger straight down my throat.) The visual style is somehow lush in presenting the stark isolation of the story’s Louisiana backwoods setting, and the desolation helps to plant the viewer firmly into its lonely reality.

And speaking of reality, there were several elements in the original that would not have allowed for willing suspension of disbelief in the 2000’s, and they are addressed quite deftly. We currently live in an age of cheap and very conveniently portable mass communication technology, which simply did not exist back in 1978, so our heroine would be equipped with a cell phone that would allow her to call for help. Or rather that would be the case if she were not seen accidentally dropping her cell phone into her cottage’s toilet early in the film. Also, if a crime of the kind that Jennifer endures and survives after being pretty much presumed dead (despite the considerable efforts of her filthy assailants) occurred in this manner, today there would be any number of ways for law enforcement officers to bring Jennifer’s violators to justice (if justice could truly be provided by our justice system in the wake of the severity of the acts perpetrated), with DNA evidence matching immediately springing to mind. Thus it was necessary to add a fifth rapist to the scenario, namely the unspeakable Sheriff Storch (played with horrifically creepy gusto by Welsh actor Andrew Howard).

Andrew Howard as the vile Sheriff Storch.

Storch is the only police officer shown, and the area he allegedly polices is so remote that perhaps only one lawman is all it really requires. Too bad that despite him being seen to be a loving husband and father when not on duty, he’s worse than any criminal he’s likely to encounter because of his association with the pack of rapists, guys it’s made clear that he’s been friends with since they were kids, and his ability to inflict such grievous harm on an outsider reveals a sadistic sociopath who is allowed to wield lethal power by law. And by virtue of his training in the enforcement of said law, he knows all about how to cover up all trace of the crimes he and his pals commit, which makes him vital to them getting away with all of it.

And while we’re discussing rapist scum, it should be noted that the gang of redneck louts who plot the violation and (failed) murder of Jennifer includes a woman-hating Alpha male leader, a fairly nondescript follower, an overweight wielder of a video camera who fancies himself a budding cinematographer and voyeuristically captures the entire gang rape on tape, and a mentally handicapped repairman, whose virginal status is used by the Alpha male leader as an excuse to rape the city gal outsider. These guys are given a lot more in the way of developed personality than the louts found in the 1978 version, and that makes them that much more interesting and vile. The fiends in the original have little you can say about them as individuals other than that they are personification of the worst of male urges, in essence interchangeable ambulatory penises that utter dialogue. In the remake’s case we are afforded peeks into the quirks of the men as individuals and by allowing us to get to know what they’re like, an aspect that grants them an understandable (though totally evil and loathsome) humanity, it is that knowing of them as something other than largely undefined cardboard cutouts that makes us hate them all the more. Especially Sheriff Storch, whose vicious misogyny and behavior are fascinatingly contrasted against what we see of his home life. He’s a self-proclaimed god-fearing churchgoer with a loving wife who’s about eight months pregnant and looks for all the world like a fertility goddess transplanted to the early twenty-first century, and he’s also got a sweet daughter of maybe nine years old whom he clearly dotes upon. The man is a completely different person as a husband and father, and is presumably likewise as a citizen and lawman, but when in a position to commit a great evil in support of his friends and joining in on their animalistic “fun,” he’s revealed as a law-breaking predator who preys upon the weak and isolated. If Jennifer went missing in his podunk little town, it’s apparent that her disappearance would be noted by few, and the only locals who knew she was there are the sheriff, the gang of rapists, and the sweet old guy who rents her the cottage (the great Tracy Walter), so doing whatever the hell he and his buddies want to with Jennifer is as simple as pie to get away with, especially since disposing of her body would only require chucking her used and abused corpse into the alligator-infested river. Jennifer’s is the worst imaginable position to be in, and these filthy bastards know it and take full advantage of it, giving vent to their pent-up hatred of women and taking a joyous glee in doing so.

But, as was the case in the original, Jennifer does not take her assault like the whimpering victim the rapists anticipated, and when she throws herself off a bridge and into the aforementioned alligator-infested river rather than be outright blasted to kingdom come by the sheriff’s pump-action shotgun, she survives, holes up in a deserted shack for a month and lives on whatever she can catch (including rats) while she uses her writer’s imagination to plot appropriately poetic vengeance that would have done the writers of the classic E.C. horror comics proud. This time around the script wisely does away with the idea of a woman who was so brutally abused luring her attackers to their doom by fucking them. It's not just her body that's been raped by these scum; Jennifer's basic humanity has been utterly taken from her, and as a result she is reborn as what is for all intents and purposes a monster. It’s a tragic rebirth as a fury every bit as savage and implacable as the variety found in classical Greek mythology. Each and every one of the rapists gets his in a very big way and, according to the director and producer’s commentary, their just desserts were so nasty that some of the audiences were so outraged by the severity of the retribution that they stated they began to feel sorry for the rapists. That was not the case with me as a viewer because of my simple belief in the mantra of “If you abuse with the Johnson, you lose the Johnson,” or some other form or punishment involving some form of medieval justice, and I found what they received to be gruesomely satisfying in every way.

So the bottom line on what at first seemed an unnecessary remake of a cruel ‘70’s exploitationer teeming with ultra-sadistic and seemingly pointless misogyny is that the 2010 I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is one very nasty and visceral motherfucker that I’m extremely shocked to have enjoyed. Yes, I enjoyed it, but then again I’m a fan of what I call “the cinema of vengeance,” and there are few examples in the genre as strong as this in every aspect. It’s easily the best of the current remake/re-imagining wave, and I highly recommend it to any and all who have the stones to handle it. And whatever you do, make sure to watch it with the director’s commentary after seeing it for the first time. Very interesting stuff.

Monday, October 24, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 24: I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)

In the history of cinema there has been a handful of films that have drawn a firestorm of controversy over the purportedly offensive subject matter that the filmmakers chose to present to an unsuspecting audience, among them classics such as THE BIRTH OF A NATION, FREAKS, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, BABY DOLL, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE WARRIORS and BLUE VELVET. Yet none of these works has been critically vilified as the most hateful film ever made, an opinion leveled by many critics, both professional and armchair, as Mier Zarchi’s 1978 rape/revenge story DAY OF THE WOMAN, or as it has been much better known since its re-release in 1980, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.

I first heard of the film back in the spring of 1980 on an installment of Gene Siskel (the bald one) and Roger Ebert’s (the fat one) “Sneak Previews” during their days as public television mainstays, theirs being one of the few movie review programs at the time (and the only one worth a damn). What was interesting about their review of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE was that they took their entire half hour running time that week to pan the flick with unprecedented venom; this was not just a review, it was an outright crucifixion that saw both well-respected critics ranting like madmen about how the film had not one shred of artistic quality, encouraged the audience to identify with the rapists, eroticized the act of rape and portrayed the film’s heroine as a helpless toy whose sole purpose was to be humiliated and degraded for the enjoyment of the sick audience at which the piece was allegedly aimed.

I usually kept my ear to the ground for offensive films at the time — hell, I still do — and a movie like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE would have played at the nearby and notorious grindhouse Norwalk Cinema, but there had never been a trace of it. In fact, if not for the SNEAK PREVIEWS witch hunt most of the general public would never have heard of the film, and as any idiot can tell you, if you don’t want people to see something, just gloss over it quickly and let it die a silent, lonely death. But when the two most high profile critics in the country take up a whole episode of their show to denounce just one movie, that’s going to raise eyebrows and spark curiosity. And, consequently, box office. In the following two years I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE did decent business in theaters, but it really hit the big time when the VCR boom happened and people could now watch whatever twisted shit they chose to corrupt themselves with, all in the privacy of their own living rooms. And what better way to watch a film that allegedly celebrated the time-honored, old school entertainment that is gang rape? In fact, during the first few years of its release on VHS the flick was a perennial best seller, never leaving the top 50 charts until the late-1980’s, despite being banned outright in several countries. So, just what is this toxic chunk of cinema anyway?

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is about as simple as a story can be: a young woman from the Big City heads out to the Sticks and catches the unwanted attention of four local louts. The louts hunt her in a secluded part of the forest, take turns beating and raping her, and mistakenly leave her for dead. She survives, gets her shit together and exacts well-deserved, lethal revenge. The End.

Sure, that sounds simple, but what was it about this film that has affected so many on such a primal, visceral level? I’ll analyze the plot in detail a bit later, but for my own part I can say that I have a real problem with rape, harm to children and harm to animals being depicted as entertainment, and the reviews of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE certainly made it seem like it was created solely for the purpose of giving a vile audience what amounted to some sort of sick rape pornography. I like my sex and violence to stay mutually exclusive, thank you very much, so I went into seeing the film with an already loaded viewpoint.

I first rented the movie sometime in the late 1980’s along with what was considered to be the other “classic” of the genre, Wes Craven’s 1972 “homage” to Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING (1959), the infamous LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. My buddies — a mixed crowd of males and females — and I stocked up on booze, joints and snacks, and ran LAST HOUSE first since it was the senior of the two works, and let me tell you, it was a profoundly disturbing experience since pretty much the latter half of the movie was shot in and around our hometown of Westport, Connecticut, and my friends and I could have hopped into a car and driven to the locations in question within minutes. The horror of seeing the two lovely young hippie chicks unspeakably violated, tortured and murdered by a carload of prison escapees and mental defectives in familiar locations, along with the savage vengeance enacted by the parents of one of them, plunged the viewing room into a deep funk, and we debated running the second film on our double-bill. But we were the hardest of Westport’s fans of evil and offensive films and, to paraphrase Super-Chicken, “we knew the job was dangerous when we took it,” so with a sense of ominous foreboding we proceeded as planned.

We knew of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE’S notorious status from the get-go, but nothing had prepared us for the onslaught that we witnessed. The film looked painfully amateurish, the performances seemed wooden at best, and the much-condemned and admittedly ultra-sadistic rape scene felt like it went on for at least half of the film’s running time, with a camera that seemed to linger too long on the ugliness it captured, almost in the same way that one cannot look away from the grisliest of car accidents.

My friends and I were stone-cold stunned; this roomful of wiseasses made not one wisecrack during the proceedings and the one thing that was said by way of comment came from the crew’s resident ladies’ man, Samurai House-Pup, who postulated, “Jesus…Can you imagine trying to get it into a dry, unwilling female? For fuck’s sake, man!” The three girls in the room nodded in shocked agreement and even when the film’s heroine achieved her revenge, not one of us felt any form of relief since she had now descended to the rock-bottom level of her assailants. A profound sadness filled us all.

Now, I understood the knee-jerk reaction felt by Siskel and Ebert and many other commentators, although I felt that their reactions were a bit much considering how many other films had dealt with similar material in equally harsh ways (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE leading a very vicious pack, the latter even containing hardcore penetration shots during one of the rapes, a segment that could only have been gotten away with in the film’s native Sweden) but there was something about the film that would not let go of me and I just couldn’t suss out exactly what it was…

After my first viewing, I saw I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE twice more during the next decade, and began to figure out a few of the things that intrigued me about the film:
  1. The first thing I noticed after recovering from my initial state of shell shock was that the film has no musical score, a stylistic choice which only ups the tension by giving the viewer no cues as to where the action may go, and also stranding the viewer firmly within the film’s own bleak reality.
  2. The desolate location of Kent, Connecticut is pretty much a dead zone, a no-man’s-land in which anything can happen due to its isolation. Having actually been to Kent and felt its ambiance of “you can turn your neighbors into chili here, and no one would ever know,” it was the most perfectly unsettling place to film such a story. It’s funny how horror filmmakers tend to gravitate to Connecticut; LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, and several of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise were shot there since many of the backwater areas look like the staging ground for many an urban legend featuring teenagers and crazed serial murderers.
  3. The justifiably infamous four-against-one rape sequence does not actually go on for nearly an hour; it just feels that way, The actual running time is still excruciating though, since it clocks in at a staggering twenty-five minutes and fourteen seconds of nigh-unbearable cruelty.
Recently the DVD online ordering service I use, Deep Discount DVD.com, had a massive sale, and I finally decided to order the Millennium edition of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE just so I could hear writer/director Mier Zarchi’s commentary track, a lecture that I imagined would be either a feature length litany of apology and “what the fuck was I thinking,” or an equally long spouting of pretentious excuses for making what is the basest form of exploitation. What I got both shocked and surprised me, so much so that I have completely reevaluated my stance on the film and will now defend it in a court of law as an important, if flawed, work of art.

Having been depicted in the media for nearly three decades as the Great Satan of cinema for masterminding such an incendiary flick, Mier Zarchi opted to avoid commenting on his film since so much has been said on it and for all intents and purposes he has been pilloried right along with it, but he came out of seclusion for the special edition, and thank the gods that he did. Zarchi’s commentary reveals much of the process of crafting an extreme independent film, but his reasons for making this filmic holocaust are not only completely valid, they are downright fucking heartbreaking.

As previously stated, the 1970’s saw the rise in popularity of rape/revenge flicks, a genre spearheaded by the success of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, DELIVERANCE (which in many was the direct ancestor to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE) and DEATH WISH, and along with it came a certain factor of titillation connected to such content; a titillation that doesn’t address the sheer degrading horror and inhumanity of the act of rape. Zarchi may be the only filmmaker whose vision on this rather touchy subject is informed by firsthand knowledge of the shattering aftermath of rape thanks to a 1974 situation in Queens in which he, his daughter and a friend stumbled upon a naked woman who had been raped and sadistically beaten by two rat bastard motherfuckers who not only robbed her of her basic humanity and broke her jaw, but also intended to slash her throat when they were through having their “fun.” What saved her life was her telling her assailants that since they had knocked off her glasses she couldn’t see them and therefore identification was impossible.

Zarchi and his friend threw a coat around the woman, dropped off his daughter at home and then made the mistake of taking the woman to the police only to witness her further violation by an indifferent cop who showed her no compassion and clearly wanted to get her processed into the system and out of his hair as soon as possible. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, when Zarchi dropped off his daughter at home, the eight-year-old girl asked her mother, “Mommy, what’s rape?” Can you imagine having to explain that one, especially after the kid witnessed a naked, abused woman with a broken jaw staggering out of the bushes? Jesus H. Christ

The years went by and Zarchi understandably couldn’t get that scene out of his head, and when the opportunity presented itself he wrote and directed DAY OF THE WOMAN as a no-holds-barred, anti-entertainment depiction of rape whose very simplicity allows the story to say one hell of a lot despite its near total lack of dialogue. And with that, here’s the in-depth plot analysis section!

MAJOR SPOILER WARNING!!! THE ENTIRE PLOT IS DIVULGED IN GRAPHIC DETAIL, SO TURN BACK WHILE YOU CAN. ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!!!

Very much wearing its post-liberation-movement sentiment on its sleeve, the narrative introduces us to Manhattanite Jennifer Hills (the unimaginably brave Camille Keaton, great-niece of early cinema legend Buster Keaton), who heads to an unspecified upstate location in the middle of nowhere for a summer of relaxation and creative inspiration in a charming rented house by a placid river (in this case played by an unbilled Housatonic).

Upon arriving in town she pulls into the local gas station and meets Johnny (Eron Tabor, enacting one of the foulest villains in moviedom), the obvious alpha wolf to omegas Andy (Gunter Kleeman), Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Matthew (Richard Pace), a retarded man-child who the rest treat like a feeble-minded pet. Matthew develops a crush on Jennifer, and when his “friends” learn about it they start to formulate a plan that will serve as the catalyst for this whole horrible mess: they decide to help Matthew lose his virginity by any means necessary.

When Jennifer gets to her rental house — in which a previous occupant left behind a fully loaded pistol in a drawer where one would expect to find Gideon’s bible — the location is clearly a tonic for the urbanite and, overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings, Jennifer takes an innocent nude swim that is the antithesis of the so-called “male gaze” since Zarchi only gives us the briefest glimpse of her nudity and immediately pulls back to a vantage point from across the river, thereby eliminating the ogle factor and respecting the character’s privacy. Or is the positioning of the camera an indication that Jennifer is being watched by eyes filled with bad intent?

The next day, Jennifer orders groceries from the local market and Matthew turns out to be the delivery boy. The two cheerily banter back and forth as he asks her a series of childlike questions and determines that she comes from New York City (which he eerily describes as “an evil place”), that she is a writer who has been published in “women’s magazines” and that she doesn’t have a boyfriend at the moment, although even the dim-witted Matthew can gather that she is no stranger to the pleasures of the flesh. She even playfully tells him that she’ll be his girlfriend for the summer; absolutely not a great idea in a film of this nature…

Matthew: Unwitting catalyst to one woman's worst nightmare.

That night, the boys go fishing and engage in a round table discussion of everything that all men need to know about women and these Rhodes scholars clearly know it all, including a dead-serious rumination on whether or not women have to take shits just like men do. And after many a spent Pabst Blue Ribbon their determination to get Matthew laid approaches the boiling point…

NOTE: as of this point the narrative is told almost entirely from the protagonist’s point of view, a fact that cannot possibly be overstressed.

For the next few days Jennifer paddles about the river, becoming one with Nature, working on her (painfully poorly-written) novel and hanging out in a hammock while wearing a very fetching string bikini. At that point, two of the boys wreck the tranquility by zooming about and doing donuts on the river in an annoyingly noisy outboard boat; the intent of this action is not merely to be obnoxious, but is instead a blatant act of scoping the place out to see just how vulnerable Jennifer is. That night, she hears whoops and howls from the surrounding woods that are obviously not made by animals, yet she is not intimidated in the least and defiantly strolls outside to see what’s up. Finding nothing, she retires for the night.

The very next morning the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and Jennifer goes sunbathing in the middle of the river, bikinied and secure in the bosom of the natural world, in every way a longhaired Diana reveling in her wilderness. After a long, tranquil establishing shot, the silence of her solitary idyll is disrupted by that fucking outboard motor and the arrival of Andy and Stanley, both of whom hoot and holler like stereotypical wild Injuns on a drunken rampage. The boys latch on to the canoe’s tether rope and drag an indignant Jennifer behind them, an unwilling captive who attempts to fend them off with repeated swings of her paddle and a barrage of foul language.

At this point, if we include the stalking/kidnapping, the rape of Jennifer begins in earnest as the boys haul her canoe to the riverside and try to pull her ashore. At no point during this exchange does our heroine back down, quite the opposite in fact, as she hurls blow after blow at her assailants, making as much pejorative noise as possible. She breaks away and runs barefoot through the woods, pursued by the two shrieking Neanderthals and when she reaches a clearing we almost think that she can get away. And then she literally runs right into the engineer-hatted Johnny. He repeatedly knocks her to the ground as she fights the bastards off as best she can, but it’s a case of four booze-fueled assholes against a willowy, ninety-eight pounds-soaking-wet city gal in a bikini, so you do the unfortunate math.

Johnny tears the bikini from Jennifer like he was skinning an animal — this was, after all, a human foxhunt — but she still ain’t having it, so each of the scumbags grab a limb and pin her spread-eagled to the ground. Johnny then urges Matthew to come and get her since “we got her for you,” but Matthew is too nervous and can’t perform (there is apparently some small part of him that knows that this is wrong), so in a moment of “well, what the hell, we might as well since we’ve got her here,” Johnny disrobes and mounts poor Jennifer, thrusting and grunting like the greasy pig that he is. When it is over, all of the men are stunned into silence by what they have done and they release Jennifer, who stumbles away whimpering into the forest.

Bloodied and dirty, Jennifer staggers like a zombie through a disturbingly phallic forest-scape for what seems like a silent eternity, and then she hears the eerie keening of a nearby harmonica. She turns to see Andy perched upon a boulder and she quickly surveys the area for a possible escape route, but there is none to be had. She is surrounded by the four (sub) human vermin and they once again haul her into position for violation, only this time they place her face-down over the boulder, thereby making it simple for Andy to sodomize her while having what appears to be an epileptic seizure. The scream let out by Jennifer at this point will stay with you until the day you die. Trust me on that one.

Andy soon finishes and the boys leave the ravished Jennifer to roll off the rock and bounce off a tree. Before rolling off the boulder Jennifer remains immobile for quite some time, and the viewer even begins to wonder if she’s dead, but Jennifer is made out of far sterner stuff and she manages to wobble to her feet and make an unsteady beeline to the rental house. As she enters the front yard, she collapses and begins to shake and sob uncontrollably, eventually crawling up the steps and donning the robe pegged next to the door. Soon she is inside and making her way to the telephone, but when she begins to dial, a leather boot kicks the phone away from her and we realize, to our horror, that the bastards are inside the house and they are not done with their “hijinx.”

Pushed beyond all limits of physical and mental endurance, Jennifer still ain’t having it and manages to not only fight back, but she also motherfucking clobbers Stanley in the skull with a small table before being once more subdued and damned near knocked out, which allows the now-emboldened Matthew to climb atop her and attempt to get it up. As his friends cheer him on, the horny retard still can’t get the job done, so he is unceremoniously pulled off of Jennifer as Stanley sits on her chest while taking a long pull from a whiskey bottle. She seizes the opportunity to plead for her life, telling her assailants that she is badly hurt and to please not rape her anymore because she just couldn’t take it, even offering to use her mouth if that will do. Stanley contemplates that for a moment…before forcefully lodging the whiskey bottle up her tortured vagina and forcing his sorry excuse for a member into her bloody mouth. He then jumps off of her and begins to viciously kick and beat her in a display so off-putting that it even outrages Johnny and the rest, all of whom haul him off of Jennifer. They then leave her on the floor and order the slow-witted Matthew to take a buck knife and do her in once and for all. The redneck assholes step outside and leave Matthew to murder our girl but he chickens out, rubs her blood onto the knife figuring she’ll just die anyway. I mean, nobody could possibly live through such abuse, right? So the mental defective goes outside and tells his friends that he’s offed their plaything and they all leave, happy as a tree full of birds.

Needless to say, Jennifer survives all of that unspeakable horseshit and the viewer once more suffers along with her as she cowers, shivers and sobs, back against the wall in a corner, eventually gaining the strength to recuperate. Gone is the wood nymph who is innocently comfortable with her sexuality; that goddess has been replaced by a hardcore spirit of righteous, black-clad retribution, and from now on all bets are off.

The most affecting part of this segment is when Jennifer drives past a cemetery and the viewer looks at the tombstones as rather obvious symbolism, but that idea gets blown out of the water when she turns off the road and pulls up to a church. She walks in with a noticeable intensity, kneels before the altar and quietly says, “Forgive me.” She stands up, crosses herself and walks out. If the Judeo-Christian God is in any way as just as he claims to be — that “vengeance is mine” bullshit notwithstanding — as of now Jennifer is pretty much granted a free pass when it comes to turning those ratfuckers into mulch.

In short order, Jennifer lures each of the violators to horrible deaths: Matthew is granted his fondest wish but is hanged at the moment of his first orgasm, Johnny has his ween removed in a scene guaranteed to make every male in the audience clutch his stuff and scream like a four-year-old,

and the remaining two animals are dispatched on the lake with an axe and their own outboard motor. Once they are all dead, Jennifer guns the engine, the boat now symbolically representing a motorized phallus of death, and sets off upriver to an uncertain fate, a slight half-smile playing on her lips.

Now does that in any way sound like a film that glorifies rape, makes the viewer side with the violators, or portrays the woman as a socket that just sits there helplessly and takes it? I emphatically think not and I honestly wonder whether Siskel and Ebert saw the same movie I did, since if they really had they would have made all of the same observations that I just shared with you. And what’s doubly galling about Ebert's review is that he has gone on record stating that LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is one of his favorite “guilty pleasures.” Then again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since the guy actually recommended the execrable COP AND A HALF.

Not enough can be said about the sparse but powerful cast: Camille Keaton is simply amazing as Jennifer, giving a completely believable performance that required total nudity for a large chunk of the picture, to say nothing of being on the receiving end of the pretend rapes. It’s an incredibly brave and rough role to essay and it makes me sick that both Jodie Foster and Hilary Swank were lavished with massive critical kudos and Oscars for following in the footsteps of a trail blazed by the far-lesser-known Keaton.

And I don’t know how in hell the guys in the film could work up the moxie to even pretend to do any of the shit that their characters pull in the movie; all four are great for what they have to do, but Eron Tabor’s Johnny and Anthony Nichols’ Stanley are so heinously evil that you want to jump into the frame and kick them to death with an iron boot. Richard Pace’s turn as Matthew gets across the child struggling with the basest of male urges and you almost feel sorry for Matthew when he gets killed because you have to ask yourself just how responsible he was, what with being slow and all that. Sadly, a film of this nature turned out to be pretty much a surefire career-killer and most of the actors never worked again.

So there you have the skinny on one of the most controversial films ever made and while I cannot recommend it to the casual viewer for obvious reasons, I urge you not to listen to the virulent screeds against it that choke the internet. At the barbecue joint whose kitchen I used to run, I discussed I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE with a very sweet lady who came in every now and then, and because I was reading a book on the making of the FRIDAY THE 13TH SERIES, she brought up Zarchi’s film as her favorite horror movie and expressed a wish that if ever she could come to the defense of any one misunderstood flick, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE would be the one that she would champion.

Amen to that, sister. Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 23: FRIDAY THE 13th (2009)

Here we go again...

It's funny, but just by existing this reboot of the quintessential slasher movie series is automatically far superior to its predecessors, but that's not really saying much.

The never-ending FRIDAY THE 13TH series had its occasional moments, but overall the lot of them were amateurishly made, substituted mostly-tepid gore for actual scares, starred no one of note — unless you count Corey Feldman, so that alone speaks for itself — and repeated almost the exact same "story" in each of its installments, so there was no reason to expect a series relaunch to vary the tried-and-true formula in any significant way. Not surprisingly, the filmmakers did not alter the template that much, but the film does offer a greater degree of cinematic competence than any previous FRIDAY THE 13TH flick, so at least that's a start. But even with that in mind, a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie is more or less review-proof since those who dig them will see them anyway, no matter how much the critics may warn them off, but any film reviewer (or fan, for that matter) who goes to one of these expecting Kurosawa is a fucking idiot.

Since its inception in the summer of 1980, the FRIDAY THE 13TH template has gone a little something like this: a pack of horny/drunk teenagers go to the secluded woodland site of Camp Crystal Lake for a number of perfunctory reasons, always resulting in their gory deaths at the hands of unkillable, silent and murderous juggernaut in a hockey mask Jason Voorhees (or in the case of the first movie, his insane mother). Other than the possible involvement of local yokels, hick cops, cheesy 3-D effects, an outer space setting or Freddy Kreuger, that's all you need to know. It's the classic campfire story about a mad slasher and his escalating body count brought to the screen ad infinitum, so here are the pertinent facts about the new version:
  • If you've seen even one FRIDAY THE 13TH movie, you've pretty much seen 'em all, and that goes for the new one too.
  • Shockingly, filmmakers who are capable of more than merely aiming the lens at some actors are behind the camera, so this counts as the best-made and best-looking FRIDAY entry by a landslide.
  • The cast of unknowns acquit themselves quite well for this kind of thing, especially Travis Van Winkle as Trent, a rich-kid asshole of incredible magnitude. It's not a hard role to pull off, but Van Winkle renders Trent an asshole's asshole and I salute him for it. 
Travis Van Winkle, delivering a tour de assholism performance as the loathsome Trent.
  • A couple of the obligatory topless girls in the film sport what are among the most incredibly fake tits I've ever seen, but luckily there's the stunning Julianna Guill as Bree on hand, who rocks a set of the most mouth-watering all-natural dairies I've ever seen. Needless to say, she gets horribly murdered.
Julinna Guill loses that annoying top. I know her jubblies might look slightly too gravity-defying here, but when she leans over there is no doubt in my mind as to their all-natural status.
  • The screenwriters took the disparate elements of the first three FRIDAY THE 13TH films and fused the aspects of the Jason legend found in those into a coherent whole, the first time that's been done in the whole run of the series. The shit ain't James Joyce or anything, but it's nice to see Jason's origin solidly codified.
  • In the film's opening flashback that kinda/sorta re-stages the ending of the 1980 original film, Jason's mother is firmly convinced that Jason had drowned thanks to counselor negligence, hence her murderous rampage in his name. That's all well and good, but once she's decapitated by the sole surviving camp counselor, we see a young and clearly living Jason living feral on the campgrounds. Whaaa???
  • When we see Jason again as an adult, he's a hulking and silent grownup who resides on the long-abandoned Crystal Lake campgrounds, living off the land and wearing a bag over his head (a la FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2). The locals all know to leave well enough alone when it comes to Jason's territory, but for some reason there's a hick who lives right next door to Jason and operates some kind of wood-chipping barn where he sells and smokes weed while reading issues of HUSTLER. The weed this guy sells is apparently growing wild in great and potent abundance and not, as some earlier reviewers have noted, because Jason is now a pot-farmer.
  • Legends of that fabulous pot windfall attract five horny teens during the film's first twenty-four minutes, thus providing an excuse for what would have been the events of an entire old school Jason movie to happen before even a half-hour in, so if you choose to give up on it after that you miss nothing (other than Julianna Guill's truly spectacular breasts). 
  • The main plot — Ha! — kicks in six months after the massacre of the aforementioned teens and finds the brother of one of them looking for his missing sister. The paths of that guy and another batch of horny teens intersect first at a local general store and later at the rich asshole kid's folks' luxury cabin near Camp Crystal Lake. You do the math.
  • Jason himself remains the implacable killing-machine he always was, but now his abilities as a hunter make sense (there's an impressive kill made in broad daylight involving Jason's apparently Olympic-level archery skills), although he still comes off as rather superhuman at times. After being quite decisively killed, he of course returns at the end to wreak havoc on the story's survivors (like you didn't know that was coming), so I guess he's still some sort of monster. Who knows?
  • The gore is occasionally creative, but sometimes shot in such a way as to render the action visually confusing. And when compared to the film that started it all twenty-nine years ago, the bloodletting in this one is quite tame. Fuck those pussies at the MPAA!!!
  • There is not one single actual scare or an iota of suspense to be found in the entire film, and since this is supposedly a horror film that's a big problem. While a great deal of attention was paid to actually making a well-crafted and briskly-paced FRIDAY THE 13TH MOVIE, they somehow forgot to bring the fright, and no amount of shameless cribbing from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE can make one overlook that alarming aspect.
  • The version of the film that I saw was the extended "killer cut" on DVD and it's nine minutes longer than its theatrical incarnation, so at a running time of 106 minutes it's almost twenty minutes over-long by my estimation. It's paced well, but there's just not enough going on here to warrant nearly two hours of any viewer's time, not even that of a die-hard Jason groupie.
The DVD's extras are nothing to write home about but the "making of" documentary proves the entire cast and crew were game and totally aware of exactly what movie they were making, treating it as a lark and not taking themselves too seriously. The deleted scenes are best given a miss since they were deleted for a reason, and as a whole I'd say the DVD was merely passable if not for the novelty of actually seeing one of these movies made by people who genuinely set out to make something good and not just another cash-in/"re-imagining." Not that it turned out all that much different from what came before and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and all that, but they certainly get points for not turning out a piece of outright shit.

The last point I'd like to make about this and damned near every other FRIDAY THE 13TH flick is that they are best enjoyed with an audience. Even if the film itself is kinda lame, it can still be enjoyed when seen with people who are easily scared or with moviegoers who are into "audience participation" (aka most inner-city audiences), so in the case of this particular entry I suggest watching it with a roomful of friends and a handy abundance of liquor or illegal pharmaceuticals.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 22: BAD MOON (1996)

Thor the German Shepherd: this is the face of a true-blue hero.

A few years back, as the TWILIGHT juggernaut rolled on and perpetuated the whole pussified vampires thing, I once more took solace in the werewolf movie genre and got my hands on a copy of BAD MOON, a flick I'd heard of but ignored for a number of reasons. One of those reasons was its rep as yet another of the many low-budget throwaways in the genre, and if there's one thing I should have learned by now it's that you cannot judge a horror movie's quality by it budget or relative lack thereof. The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD cost about fifteen bucks to make, even almost fifty years ago, and now it's a bona fide classic. Same for the original THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Though not quite within the realm of those exalted landmarks, BAD MOON is a minor gem that does something different with the hoary conventions of the cinematic werewolf yarn.

The film is based on the 1992 novel THOR, by Wayne Smith, a story told from the point of view of the titular faithful German Shepherd who lives with a family of humans that he understandably considers his "pack." In the hierarchy of the pack Thor functions as the very capable protector, and his natural abilities are put to the test when a relative, Uncle Ted, comes to visit the family and only Thor, thanks to his animal senses and intuition, realizes that the guy is a werewolf. I have not yet read the book (I ordered it from Amazon and will review it once I've finished with it), but the movie apparently follows the book's plot basics, only losing the family's husband/dad and two of the kids, leaving Thor to look out for a single mother (Mariel Hemingway), and her young son (Mason Gamble, the kid from the horrid DENNIS THE MENACE movie). Thor proves his worth as a guardian early on, when a con man tries to fleece money out of the mother by provoking Thor to attack him, unaware that the woman is a lawyer who has prosecuted dozens of would-be hustlers just like him, and from that incident onward the audience knows to trust Thor's instincts.

After an expedition to a foreign land where his colleague/girlfriend is savagely killed by a werewolf and he himself is stricken with the curse of lycanthropy while trying to save her, Uncle Ted (Michael Paré) returns to the States and embarks on a quest to find a cure for what has befallen him. Unfortunately, all avenues prove a dead end and Ted moves into a trailer somewhere in the deep backwoods of the Northwest, where his homicidal lunar activities will stand less of a chance of getting out of hand (a plan that doesn't work because his transformations are nightly and he's wracked up a body count of five before the plot even really gets rolling). When he invites his sister and nephew up to visit (with Thor along for the ride), Ted gets it into his head that the company of his family may be just the thing that will curb his rapacious supernatural urges. It is during this daytime visit that Thor is allowed to sniff about freely in the woods, where he picks up strange scents and the remains of a forest surveyor, a trail that leads right back to Uncle Ted. Thor may not be able to articulate what he senses, but he knows Uncle Ted is something very, very dangerous, and from that moment on he holds the man under very close scrutiny.

Creepy Uncle Ted, now a werewolf and safely ensconced within the bosom of his family...

...which puts him within Thor's territory of guardianship, and Thor knows EXACTLY what's up. And he doesn't like it one bit.

Following his latest murder and with the police investigating literally right outside his trailer door, Ted calls his sister and asks if he can stay with her for a while. Once he parks his trailer outside the family home, Thor immediately sets up a vigil to keep an eye on the lupine visitor. Ted, very much aware that Thor has his number, creepily tries to insinuate himself into a position of power within the pack while going out nightly to chain himself to a tree as his transformed self rages without causing harm to anyone.

Uncle Ted, all wolfed-out.

Thor witnesses the chained werewolf and has his worst fears realized, returning to the house and pissing on Uncle Ted's camper as a territorial warning. From that moment, you had better believe it's on, and in no time Thor's seemingly vicious and totally mis-interpreted aggression toward Ted lands him in the pound, leaving his pack very much in harm's way. But never underestimate the power of a boy's love for his dog, or the dog's love of his humans...

The film's low budget is certainly evident, but the story more than makes up for any deficiencies in the department of production values. The movie even has a werewolf that's much better than expected, although the transformation sequence is somewhat-justly maligned. Though low on gore (at least by my standards), the film is a lot of fun thanks to its unusual protagonist and if you're a dog-lover like me, you will root for Thor like you haven't rooted for a hero since Indiana Jones went after the Ark of the Covenant. Played by a pooch named Primo, Thor is a canine hero to be reckoned with and he even takes on the werewolf — a goddamned WEREWOLF!!! — twice, in what can only be called savage, animalistic combat. When stacked up against Thor, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and Benji are a bunch of pussies and they can each suck it.

If not for a wholly unnecessary sex scene at the film's very beginning, I would recommend this as suitable for all ages, provided the kiddies can take scares that are mild by adult standards. This really is the heroic dog story taken in a different direction and as such it has the potential for great cross-audience appeal. BAD MOON awaits re-discovery and I suggest that you give it a chance. RECOMMENDED.


Cover art for the DVD release.