Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Arena (1989)

In the late 1980s a subgenre of martial flick that I’ll call “fighting tournament” movies sprang into being.  They tend to follow a pretty stock formula: there’s a shady organization holding organized martial arts bouts, the hero becomes involved - usually out of the need for money to save a family dojo or because of one his friends got hurt/killed competing, the hero trains or has already been trained in an “old style”, then comes in and beats the bad guy.  You get bonus points if the hero has a buddy who’s also tough enough to beat the bad guy but gets crippled/killed due to some kind of chicanery.

“You’re exaggerating, Skippy”, I can hear you say.  “I bet you can’t name ten movies with that plot without naming any sequels or the movie we’re talking about today.”

Kickboxer, Bloodsport, Bloodfist, No Holds Barred, Lionheart, The Best of the Best, The Quest, Ring of Steel, Circle Man (aka Last Man Standing), and No Retreat, No Surrender.

“I’m not convinced,” you say. “Name five more.”

Shootfighter, American Samurai, Gladiator (the 1992 underground boxing one), Mortal Kombat, and Champions.

“Okay, but you’ll never be able to name 7 more recent ones.”

The Circuit, Redbelt, Damage, Never Back Down, Ring of Death, Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior, and Man of Thai Chi.

Now that I have that out of my system, today we’re going to talk about Arena - Yet another fighting tournament movie from the late 1980s.  This time the hook is that all the action takes place aboard an orbiting space city and that most of the fighters are special effects-laden spacemen.  Like American Samurai, this movie is near and dear to me, as it was a staple of my HBO-watching youth.  I recently got a copy of it in a “Sci-Fi Movie Marathon” set put out by Shout Factory, and I could barely wait to get it into my DVD player.

The film opens on a montage of spaceships coasting by the camera as viewers hear isolated snippets of commentary from a prizefight being broadcast in English and in alien languages.  Apparently everyone in space is watching the bout we’re about to see.  Finally the camera settles on a space station and we find ourselves in an Arena (Ding-ding!  We have a title, people!) as two bizarre aliens duke it out.  In one corner is Spinner, a weird robotic lizard that looks like Admiral Akbar cosplaying R2-D2.  His opponent is Horn, the evil champion of the Arena.  Half-minotaur, half-Robocop, and all foam rubber, Horn looks like something out of The Guyver and constantly emotes through his arms like a Power Rangers monster.

In the Arena, fights are kept competitive using a machine called the Handicapper, which can decrease the speed and strength of a physically superior combatant to ensure that bouts are won or lost on skill alone.  (We learn this because ring announcer reminds the crowd of this in the middle of the fight, presumably for the benefit of those of us joining the event already in progress.Horn, however, is able to bypass the Handicapper by way of stealthily delivered steroid injections from his corner men in between rounds.  Aided by his anabolic pick-me-up, Horn runs through Spinner, literally ripping his arm and taking it with him when the fight’s over.

Meanwhile, ultra-buff short-order cook Steve Armstrong is forced to intervene when an argument between his four-armed boss Shorty and an angry Arena fighter becomes physical.  Steve saves Shorty and beats up the alien fighter, but causes so much ruckus in doing so that Shorty’s restaurant is permanently shut down by the space authorities.  Shorty, played by Hamilton Camp1 and dressed liked Frodo Baggins, isn’t too bummed about losing his business, and even brings Steve home with him after Steve’s landlord kicks him out.

Steve Armstrong, by the way, is played by Paul Satterfield, who horror fans will recognize from Creepshow 2 and soap opera fans will recognize from…just about all of them according to his IMDB.  When I looked this guy up I was not expecting to see multi-year runs on half a dozen popular TV shows in his bio.

In any event, we learn that Steve was a prizefighter on Earth and that he came to space to fight in the Arena.  However, since Earthlings are so fleshy and soft compared to robot minotaurs, human fighters simply can’t compete in the Arena. (This despite the fact that the Handicapper exists for this specific purpose and is already used in every fight.)  Now Steve just wants to go back to Earth, but while trying to get money for his space shuttle ticket, he and Shorty end up in hot water with Rogor, a crime boss who also happens to manage Horn.

With Shorty held hostage, Steve is forced to compete in an Arena bout.  Managed by the plucky female trainer Quinn2, Steve must fistfight Sloth, a gigantic cricket-slug who is also easily the best special effect in the movie. We’re about 45 minutes into the movie at this point, but things are about to really pick up.  Or are they?  It’s at this point that my childhood memories of this film deviate vastly from reality.  For, you see, child Skippy believed the fight scenes in this movie to be amazing.

They are not.   

It’s kind of amazing, in some sense of the word, to see Steve Armstrong in his fight wear: A piecemeal mix of Tae Kwon Do sparring gear, shoulder pads held on by a glistening gold man-bra, and a gigantic sculpted codpiece worn atop a shiny gold speedo.  (Seriously, someone had to design that costume, someone had to make it, and the Paul Satterfield had to put it on.  There were multiple stages in that process where somebody could have stepped in.)  However, the actual fight between Armstrong and Sloth is sub-Walker, Texas Ranger quality.  It’s mostly flailing and the occasional front kick, but luckily the camera’s cutting around so much we can’t really see it anyway.  The Sloth puppet/costume isn't exceptionally mobile - at one point Steve has to grab Sloth's arm and put it around his own neck so Sloth can "choke" him.

As you might have guessed, Steve wins the day and eventually works his way to a title match with Horn.  As you might have further guessed, the bad guys sabotage the Handicapper to put Steve at a disadvantage.  And as you might have finally guessed, Steve still wins the day, proving that humans are awesome and that if you try hard enough you can punch out a 7-foot alien bull-man with a half-robotic body…even if you’re being shot with a strength-sapping laser and only hours ago you were near-fatally poisoned in a scene Skippy didn’t bother to mention.

It’s a leverage thing, mostly.  And chi.  You gotta have chi.

In any event, it’s hard for me to honestly judge this movie.  The fight scenes, this film’s selling point to me as a kid, are actually pretty bad.  However, the sheer amount of effort that obviously went into Arena is still sort of impressive.  The cast isn't an A-list roll call by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not filled with throwaway actors.  The acting’s not terrible considering the material, but some of the plot devices are pretty laughable.  Notably, almost everyone in the movie is a special effect, since only a couple of characters are plain ol’ humans.  Granted, some off the aliens are just wearing Halloween masks and bodysuits, but you get the idea.

The only full fights you see with Armstrong are the bouts with Sloth and Horn, but clips of several others are shown in a montage, meaning that a number of elaborate monster suits were made for just a few seconds of footage.  Heck, at one point we see Armstrong sparring with a big lobster-lizard in the gym – He’s a pretty good effect that obviously took some work to pull off, but he’s around for all of 3 minutes.  I can't help but wonder if they filmed a bunch of bouts, realized they looked awful, an the pared the fighting down to a bare minimum in editing

Overall, Arena isn’t amazing, but it still might be worth a look if you’re interested in a semi-brainless sci-fi flick with some martial arts elements.  If that sounds up your alley, then you should check it out.
1.) The voice of Gizmoduck from Duck Tales.
2.) Played by Babylon 5  stalwart and prolific voice actress Claudia Christian.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics

           Horror comics came into being in earnest near the start of WWII and quickly became hugely popular – and controversial.  Before they were effectively banned by the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, horror comics were being release monthly under dozens of different titles.1  By far the most famous are the four main offerings from EC: Shock Suspenstories, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and of course Tales From the Crypt, but there we scads of other horror titles of wildly varying levels of quality available.  Today I want to talk about a series of collections that highlight the artists and stories from those other horror comics, IDW’s Chilling Archives of Horror Comics.

"Attractive" isn't quite the right word for the covers.
            At the time of this writing there are five volumes of this series available, so we’ll be going over each entry briefly.  First, however, I want to talk about the collection as whole.  This is a hardcover series in a large coffee-table style format - They’re meaty-feeling and nicely put together overall.  The covers and spines are really eye-catching, with brightly colored illustrations that pop off the black background.  Three entries showcase a particular artist, while one is a compendium of zombie tales (of course) and the last is a collection of the first 3-issues of the Haunted Horror monthly comics, which feature reprintings of classic stories with new introductions. 
Each volume includes a foreword about the subject matter – the ones about the artists are far more interesting than the rest.  When we’re introduced the artists, we’re treated to a brief biography and a small sampling of some of their other works.  This provides a lot of context and honestly goes far to make the stories contained thereafter more enjoyable.  The introduction for the zombie volume is nothing profound and just notes the resurgent popularity of that monster archetype, while the final volume contains a very short foreword by Jerry Only of Misfits fame. 
This series doesn’t include any stories from the famous EC books.  Instead it showcases work from lesser-known titles such as This Magazine is Haunted, Tomb of Terror, Dark Mysteries, and The Beyond.  That’s actually pretty refreshing, as EC’s stories have been reprinted in a number of other formats.  One issue that has been brought up by other reviewers is that the comics themselves haven’t been cleaned up much – if anything, they’re presented in sort of a faux-aged format.  I kinda’ like it, but I can understand why some people would be put off by that aspect of the presentation.

Even the spines are attention-grabbing.
Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein – This was the first entry in the series but the last one that I got myself.  I wasn’t sure that I care much about an ongoing Frankenstein series, but after reading through it I realized how wrong I was.  Briefer was lured from a pre-med course in college to work in a comics bullpen for Will Eisner.  He wrote and drew an Americanized (and King Kong inspired) Frankenstein series for Prize Comics beginning in 1940.  Eventually Briefer’s Frankenstein got its own magazine, morphed into a kid’s funny book, and finally returned to its horror roots before being struck down by the Comics Code.
            This volume contains Briefer’s original miniseries adaptation as well as a sampling of both the horror and humor variations of Frankenstein.  Despite dwelling on a single creation, it’s probably the most tonally diverse volume in the series.  In one story we may find a friendly Frankenstein becoming pals with a man who’s taught himself to astrally project to avoid his nagging wife, while in another we’re treating to a legitimately shocking panel in which Frankenstein snatches up an old woman by the ankles and uses her to cudgel an approaching mob of zombies.  I only wish that this had been a complete collection of all of Briefer’s Frankenstein works.

Bob Powell’s Terror – One theme across all of the artists featured in this series is the crazy diversity of their work.  In addition to horror comics, Bob Powell drew everything from covers for The Shadow to Batman trading cards.  He’s probably best known for his very sexually drawn women (For example, in the story “Cavern of the Doomed” from Tomb of Terror, which is included in this volume.) counterpoised with his lovingly detailed, positively revolting monsters.  Powell loves to give his monsters close-ups in which he can really pour on the detail.
My favorite stories in this volume are probably “The Last Man on Earth” and “The Last Man Returns”, both of which originally ran in Black Cat in 1952.  These stories are about a scientist who sacrifices everything to stop a plague of nuclear mutants, only to find himself utterly alone in the world as he slowly succumbs to the mutation.  The stories have a time travel twist I won’t spoil, and they really blend together the feel of a postwar sci-fi cinema with the explicit gore of classic horror comics.  It’s also interesting to see that some of the stories in the collection only exist in pencil format and were provided to the editors by private collectors.  
Zombies – This book collects a series of zombie stories from various artists and a number of different titles.  Overall this book is solid, but it’s a little hard to talk about.  Some stories worth drawing your attention to are “Live Man’s Funeral” from Black Cat and “The Vault of Living Death” from Chamber of Chills.  Both are presented in their uncolored formats and really showcase the art of Al Eadeh and Vic Donahue, respectively.  I also really enjoyed “The Corpse That Wouldn’t Sleep”, which is a story from the old Ken Shannon detective comic book.  It was a lot of fun to see a horror story meshed with the two-fisted bombast of 1950s macho man comics.  Finally, “The Thing From the Sea” from Eerie and artist Wally Wood is a simple morality tale that really pops thanks to the chilling concept and the stark, gruesome illustrations.  Also of note is a gallery of full page cover illustrations, some of which are simply fantastic.

Jack Cole’s Deadly Horror – Jack Cole has the distinction of one of his comic panels being singled out by Seduction of the Innocent author Frederic Wertham as particularly prurient.  The self-trained Cole not only made his mark on horror comics, but also drew a number of comics for Playboy and other men’s magazines.  In the comics medium, Cole’s characters often have grotesquely caricatured features and his art is dark and busy – no horror comic looks more like a horror comic than one drawn by Cole.
            The first thing readers may notice is that “The Corpse That Wouldn’t Die” from Web of Evil appears in this volume after also appearing in Zombies.  It’s a good story, but it’s a bummer to see duplications in a series like this.  Of note in this book are “The Killer From Saturn”, “A Pact With the Devil”, and “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die”, all from Web of Evil.  A lot of the stories in this volume have Twilight Zone-ish twist endings that work to varying degrees.  “The Killer From Saturn” is practically a dark Scooby Doo story.

Haunted Horror: Banned Comics From the 1950s – This volume collects the first three issues of the Haunted Horror newsstand comic from IDW.  Every story is reprinted from a classic magazine, but they’ve all been given short introductions by new mascot characters representing the editors.  This book has a mix of horror archetypes and even a couple of tales that could be classified as sci-fi.
            Readers will note another repeat – Jack Cole’s “Hangman’s Horror” appears both in this and the preceding volume. Of note in this volume are “The Constant Eye” from This Magazine is Haunted, the sci-fi horror yarn “Slaughter-House” from Black Magic and featuring art by Jack Kirby, and the short, predictable, but oddly satisfying revenge tale “The Thing in the Pool” from Tales of Horror.

            Overall, The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics is a pretty satisfying collection and I look forward to more volumes coming out in the series.  I wish that there wasn’t overlap between the different volumes, but that’s not a deal-breaker for me.  It’s fair to say that horror comics in general are not the most cunningly written pieces of fiction out there, but when bolstered by a clever artist they can really hit the spot.  If you’re looking for something to read on dreary night or a raining October afternoon, you could do much worse than these books.  If you’ve much interest in horror comics, I’d heartily recommend checking these volumes out.

1.) For an excellent overview of the history of the Comics Code Authority and the controversies leading up to its creation, I highly recommend The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hadju.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Return of the Evil Dead (1973)

Depending on your age, when you think of European horror flicks you probably think of either the Italian zombie/cannibal era of the 70s and 80s or the unexpected Scandinavian horror boom of the last decade or so.  In the early 1970s, however, there were a number of horror films from Spain making their way to U.S. shores.  Among the most recognizable of these is the Blind Dead series, penned and directed by Amando de Ossorio.

I say recognizable rather than well-known because the four movies in the Blind Dead series seem to have about three dozen alternate titles each and they sometimes show up in public domain movie collections with utterly unrecognizable names and misleading descriptions.   Because of this, a fair number of horror fans having seen movies from the series with no idea of what they actually are.  A few years back I encountered the third Blind Dead flick, The Ghost Galleon, in a multi-pack of zombie movies under the title Zombie Flesh Eaters, which of course is also an alternate for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi series.  It gets a little confusing.  The first film was even re-edited and given a new prologue in some U.S. markets to turn into a fake Planet of the Apes sequel called Revenge From Planet Ape.

The films are united more by a central conceit than by an overarching storyline.  Each movie deals with a group of Knights Templar who, steeped in eastern mysticism during the Crusades, have returned to Spain and set up an evil cult that practices sacrifice and blood-drinking.  In each movie the Templars are said to have been overthrown and executed by vengeful peasants, only to rise from the grave in modern times for revenge.  The exact details of this vary from film to film, as does the exact location.  Regardless, the Templars are always said to have been blinded in some gruesome way before being dispatched.  Because of this the Templar revenants must stalk their prey by the sound of their heartbeats, although to be fair I seem to recall this plot element coming into play precisely once across the span of the series.  In general the Blind Dead flicks are more about atmospherics and dread than Fulci-style ultra-violence, so they’re a fun twist on some of the Euro-horror formulas viewers are used to.

Today I want to talk about the second film in the series, which is currently on DVD here in the States under the title Return of the Evil Dead.  It centers around the town of Bouzano in Portugal.  The town is about the celebrate the 500th anniversary of the vanquishing of the bloodthirsty Templars, but the weird cemetery groundskeeper Murdo is plotting to resurrect the wicked knights with a blood sacrifice.  Meanwhile Jack, the pyrotechnician hired to set up the celebratory fireworks display is busy trying to rekindle a lost relationship with Vivian, the fiancĂ© of the mayor. The mayor, for his part, sends his bodyguards to beat up Jack. (The human plot has kind of a telenovela feel to it.)

Murdo kills a local girl and succeeds in awakening the Templars from their tombs, but instead of befriending him as he had hoped, the skeletal knights mount their zombie steeds and make for the village bent on revenge.  The zombie horses are an iconic part of the series and appear in all but one film, but it’s never really clear where they come from in any given movie.  In Return of the Evil Dead we just see skeleton knights crawling out of the crypts, then we cut to an exterior shot and they’re all on horses.  It’s also hard to pin down how many Templars there are – it seems in some scenes like there’s several dozen, while at other points it looks like there’s maybe ten. 

The Templars begin by visiting houses on the outskirts of town, banging on doors and killing anyone who’s foolish enough to answer.  The Templars are a creepy effect – armored and robed skeletons almost always shot in slow motion – and the huge masses of them congregating on houses to slaughter the residents really makes the situation seem hopeless.  This part of the film (and in broad terms the plot in general) reminds me a lot of John Carpenter’s The Fog, which this film pre-dates by seven years, and is a lot of fun.  One enterprising lady escapes by rustling an undead horse and riding it out of town, only to have the Templars catch up and kill her as she stops to warn the guy watching the local train station.

I should note that it’s not entirely clear in any of the films what the zombified Templars are doing to their victims.  In the first film they’d bite (but not eat) their prey, while in this one they usually use swords.  In some of the other movies it looks like they might just be grabbing people and kicking their asses.  It seems to me like they’re not meant to be sustaining themselves by killing their victims; they’re just butchering people for revenge.  That said, in some of the flashbacks sprinkled throughout the series the living Templars are clearly shown to be drinking people’s blood.  Ultimately, what matters is that the Templars are bad news.

The Templars launch a huge cavalry charge against the town square, riding people down and hacking them to death en masse as only a few characters are able to take shelter.  This is a fun scene and is probably the highlight of the film.  Eventually we find all of the principles conveniently locked in a church and the film slows down considerably. The human interactions are not remotely nuanced, and seeing the characters interact during the siege sequence is not nearly as interesting as the similar set up in Night of the Living Dead.  The characters have very little depth – good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys no matter what.  The one-dimensionally evil mayor attempts to use a little girl as bait for the zombies so he can escape (after sending the girl’s father to his death in an ill-planned attempt to retrieve a vehicle from outside), while one of his goons attempts to rape a lady because…I dunno, just because.

Overall Return of the Evil Dead is a fairly enjoyable film.  It has its atmospheric moments, but is much more violent than the first movie.  I think most people would compare The Blind Dead series as a whole to some of the Italian zombie movies that were coming out at the same time, but in reality that’s not really a fitting comparison.  This series is much more willing to take things slowly than its Italian counterparts, and more often than not it tries to build suspense though lingering shots of the Templars slowly and inexorably closing in on a victim, rather than going for the jugular with gratuitous, wet violence.  That said, this slow burn doesn’t always hit the mark and there are sections of all of these films that can be kind of boring.  I think Return of the Evil Dead is my favorite of the series, but it’s certainly not without its flaws.  If you’re into foreign horror flicks and are looking for something a little different, you should check it out.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for an awesome popcorn horror flick, you may want to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pretty Good Movies With Pretty Bad Endings

            It turns out that writing movies isn’t easy.  As anyone who reads this blog -or, more likely, actually watches movies- knows, there are a lot of pretty bad ones out there.  A bad movie in and of itself is pretty innocuous.  After all, truly, truly bad movies are easy to spot, and most people who watch them know what they’re getting into.  Seriously, nobody in 2014 is watching The Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong without some personal culpability for the act.  Watching the movie is the viewer’s crime and punishment rolled into one.
More insidious, however, are movies that start out promising but just can’t clinch the final act.  These are movies that you get invested in, that you want to like, but in the end they just plain let you down.  With that in mind, here’s the first installment of Pretty Good Movies With Pretty Bad Endings.  These are two films that I can honestly say I liked 90% of, and one of them is near and dear to a buddy of mine.  Unfortunately they both have unforgivable endings and must be brought to justice. Needless to say, spoilers abound. 

The Last Broadcast (1998) – Despite being overshadowed by The Blair Witch Project, this was one of the films that sparked the “found footage” revolution in horror movies.  With a budget of reportedly just $900, filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler managed to create a film with a surprisingly effective and suspenseful atmosphere.  Shot in the style of a TV documentary (think “Sightings” or “Forensic Files”), The Last Broadcast details the violent deaths of a pair of public access TV hosts (played by the filmmakers) in the remote pine barrens of New Jersey.  The two men were filming an amateur hunt for the mythical Jersey Devil, only to disappear and later be found horribly mangled in a veritable ocean of blood. A local weirdo and self-styled psychic was with the men at the time of their deaths, and given his history of erratic behavior –including no small amount of it caught on film – he was eventually convicted of the crime.

The film’s narrator (remember it’s a “documentary”), in a brilliantly executed “Unsolved Mysteries” style, hints at a supernatural explanation for the killings.  Some of the early evidence seems flimsy and this adds an effective level of verisimilitude.  More than once I found myself forgetting that it was a film and arguing with it as if it were intended to be a presentation of facts.  Slowly, more compelling evidence begins to surface, and the viewer is drawn into the notion that there may be something unnatural lurking in the woods.  It’s a great premise, and it’s a lot of fun watching the mystery unravel…until the last five minutes.
            The third act of the movie constantly references a piece of video from the night of the murders that’s being restored by a media expert.  When it finally comes time to see this image…it’s the documentary host.  Suddenly the film switches to cinematic camera angles and the apparently evil narrator slap-fights the media restoration tech before suffocating her with a piece of plastic.  Then he drives back to the woods and keeps filming the documentary.
Fade to black.
The viewer is left to wonder: Is this guy a serial killer?  Is he working with some supernatural force out in the woods?  Is he the Jersey Devil?  Why the hell is he making a confessional documentary, let alone one that beats around the bush so much?  If he knows he did it, why the hell does he act surprised when it’s him in the video?  What does any of the preceding 95% of the movie actually mean now that this plot twist has come up?
 I'm sure this all sounds like I'm just poking fun at a cheap indie film, but that's just not true.  The Last Broadcast flirts with being great, but the ending is catastrophic.  The sad fact is that the climax of The Last Broadcast effectively renders the rest of the film nonsensical.  The ending of this film would be a howler if it were attached to a bad movie, but given that the rest of the movie is actually good, the boner of an ending is doubly disappointing.

The Lords of Salem (2012) – By far the best of Rob Zombie’s films, The Lords of Salem hearkens back to the weird “coven of witches” genre that briefly existed in the 1970s.  Taking all of the best queues from films like Rosemary’s Baby, and The Wicker Man, The Lords of Salem is a disturbing, uncomfortable film that benefits immensely from its surprisingly effective cinematography. It also has an oddly likable cast, anchored by Sherri Moon Zombie but also including the always-welcome Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead fame.  The film centers on radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Zombie) whose life is upended by a mysterious musical album that fills her head with frightening demonic visions. The film becomes increasingly bizarre throughout, and by the end it’s not always easy to tell what’s meant to be real and what’s meant to be hallucinations and fever dreams.

            All of this works pretty well, and the movie is certainly enjoyable, although some of the plot elements are arguably a bit predictable.  The film’s greatest strength is its refusal to go for the cheap scare; there aren’t really any “jump scares” or silly tricks like that to be found.  Instead, Heidi’s world becomes progressively stranger as the evil influences pressing in upon her intensify.  There are scenes in Heidi’s apartment where there are gruesome monsters simply lurking in the background, with no musical stings or camera tricks to call attention to them, while Heidi is seemingly so entranced as to pay them no notice.  This approach feels pretty original and works nicely.
            By the time the end of the film draws near, the viewer probably has a pretty good idea of what the long and short of the climax will be…and then, even as the expected ending comes to fruition, we’re subjected to…a music video?  The viewer is aware that Heidi has become the vessel for the Antichrist, but this is expressed by way of goony montage sequence featuring Heidi writhing around on a stuffed goat, lots of shots of religious iconography being warped with Paintshop Pro effects, and just a smidge too much strobe light.
If the triumph of evil over good really does come down to a bunch of 1990s rock video tropes presided over by some rhythmically masturbating monster-popes, then good needs to redouble its efforts to make sure that never comes to pass.  The trippy ending of The Lords of Salem doesn’t ruin the movie, but it undeniably takes away from it. 

Monday, March 03, 2014

American Samurai (1992)

When I was in middle school in the mid-1990s, I got bitten pretty hard by the Highlander bug.  You know the movies and attendant television series about immortal guys fighting with swords?  I was totally into those, and I have a collection of stamped steel flea market samurai swords in my closet to prove it.  Because of Highlander, there was a period of time when I was extremely interested in anything that to do with swordfighting, from playing those Bushido Blade video games to standing out in the woods with my buddy Josh and cudgeling each other with sticks.  This interest led me to look for other movies in a similar vein, but my resources at the time were basically limited to checking the weekly TV schedule each Sunday to see if anything with a sword-fighting-ish title would be playing on HBO.

It was this process that led me to today’s movie, the 1992 martial arts offering American Samurai.  It’s directed by the ever-prolific Sam Firstenberg, who also gifted the world of cinema with the American Ninja and Cyborg Cop franchises and directed the celebrated opus Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.  The titular American samurai is played by martial artist David Bradley, whose other credits include three of the American Ninja movies (though weirdly not the ones directed by Firstenber) and an episode of Murder, She Wrote.  A bit of disclosure here: I'm reviewing the 2005 Warner Bros. DVD release of the film, which is cropped like crazy to the point that it's functionally edited for violence despite carrying an R rating.

The setup of the movie is as simple as it is nonsensical: A private plane carrying a rich family crashes in the mountains of Japan.  Everyone on board is killed except for baby Drew, who is found and rescued by Tatsuya Sanga, modern Japanese swordsman and easy-going guy.  Rather than, say, contacting the proper authorities and reconnecting the boy with his surviving family overseas, Sanga adopts Drew as his own and trains him to be a samurai warrior.  Drew progresses quickly with the help of a training montage and eventually surpasses Sanga’s own son Kenjiro in skill.  Kenjiro is bitterly envious of Drew, and when their father passes on the family katana to Drew instead of him, Kenjiro vows revenge.

Several years later we find Drew living in the United States as a reporter, while the sinister Kenjiro has gone on to become the Chairman of Iron Chef America a dangerous yakuza assassin.* Kenjiro sends goons to Drew’s apartment to steal back the family sword.  Drew beats up several members of the gang but is eventually shot, losing the sword and punishing viewers with an extended, weirdly shot dream sequence.  After finding his samurai will to survive in dreamland, Drew sticks his fingers into his own abdomen and pulls out the bullet, after which he is somehow just fine.  Because the presence of the slug itself is what’s harmful about being shot, apparently.

Shortly thereafter, we find Drew back on his feet and on his way to Turkey to investigate a murder related to the drug trade.  (This is the one and only time it is ever salient to the plot that he’s a reporter.)  Drew is convinced that only Kenjiro could have committed the murder, as the victim was apparently killed with special technique known only to the Sanga line of swordsmen.  Alongside Drew is photographer Janet Ward, with whom he bickers unconvincingly for ten minutes of screen time before they shag in the least titillating love scene ever filmed this side of National Geographic.  In all honesty, if you like boobless, buttless sex scenes using obvious body doubles, dubbed voices, and creepy art-house lighting, American Samurai is your kink.  It may also be worth noting that this pallid humping comes immediately after Drew has a waking nightmare and Janet finds him swinging a sword in an empty hotel room while wearing nothing but tiny red man-panties.

The two eventually follow Kenjiro’s trail to a nightclub connected to a known drug trafficker.  While subtly looking for clues about Kenjiro by directly asking every shady-looking guy in the bar if they known his brother by name, Drew finds himself drawn into a bar brawl between the local talent and a big beardy guy dressed as a cowboy.  Drew is shot with a taser during the struggle and he and Janet are captured by the bad guys.  Drew awakens chained up in an old-timey dungeon, with Kenjiro waiting to inform him that Janet will be killed if Drew doesn’t take part in a Tukish swordfighting tournament filled with pirates and guys dressed like Conan the Barbarian.

At this point I feel like I should point out that I’m not skimming over the plot in this review, it’s just that this movie has all the coherence and structure of a fever dream.  I don’t know for sure if the final product represents the film as it was originally intended or if a bunch of plot elements somehow ended up on the cutting room floor, but American Samurai is not overly concerned with forming an intricate narrative.  Or any narrative.  Instead, it wants desperately to get to the fight scenes as fast as possible – Which is fair enough, because they’re the only good parts.

Drew reluctantly agrees to fight in the tournament, which is apparently being held so that the super rich can bet on mortal combat.  There’s a million dollar prize up for grabs to the winner, but the price of defeat is death or dismemberment.  A video game roster of costumed combatants has shown up, including the aforementioned barbarian and pirate, some kung fu guys, a Viking,  and (shock of shocks), the bowie-knife wielding cowboy from the bar.  The cowboy introduces himself as Ed Harrison, a down-on-his-luck guy who views the tournament as his last shot at the good life.  He and Drew share a long moment as they both realize that Ed is going to fill the “good guy’s pal who gets killed by the bad guy” role in this picture.

I actually don’t want to say too much about the fight scenes, as they’re really what the movie exists for.  The viewer gets to see pretty much all of the tournament fights and many of them are pretty interesting, although honestly the ones without the main characters are arguably the best.  There’s a fight between a couple of kung fu-ish guys that’s quite a bit of  fun, as well as a battle between the oft-mentioned Conan clone and a guy dressed like an American gladiator that scratches the itch pretty well too. 

Drew’s fights are odd because, since he’s the good guy, he doesn’t want to kill anybody.  This means he’s doing a whole of ninja-kicking bad guys while they’re trying to run him through with halberds and whatnot.  In one fight he turns his sword around and fights with the spine of the blade (kind of like that old samurai anime Rurouni Kenshin), which is pretty cool, but I wish we got to see more swordplay out of him.  He also constantly gets ghostly, Obi-wan Kenobi advice from the disembodied voice of his dad.  Well, not really advice, just his dad’s voice constantly telling how bad-ass samurai are, but I think we’re meant to take it as advice.

The tournament sequence, which takes up around 60% of the movie, is for some reason divided up into days that the viewer is made aware of through subtitles at the bottom of the screen.  I guess this is meant to give us some sense of verisimilitude – Nobody would physically be able to handle half a dozen death duels in one day while still putting on a show for the crowd – but since the editing is so bad that you can see guys who got disemboweled earlier in tournament walking around in the locker room later it all becomes kind of a moot point.

At the end, of course, Kenjiro and Drew must duel to the death.  Again, it’s hard to escape the video game vibe here.  Both guys are dressed in opposite color outfits like Ryu and Ken from Streefighter and, dun-dun-dun, Kenjiro is evilly using the sacred family sword against his own brother.  Before they begin, Kenjiro announces that once he’s killed Drew, he’s going to go back to Japan and kill their dad too.  Since the dad had only appeared as a magic ghost voice since ten minutes into the movie, I’d assumed he was dead already.  Silly me.

Unfortunately, the climatic battle is probably the worst fight scene in the movie.  A number of sequences consist of one combatant flailing away at a disembodied sword blade poking in from off-screen, and in general it’s just shot so badly that it’s hard to tell what’s going on.  There’s even some cropped stock footage from a previous fight.  In the end Drew pacifist spares his brother’s life by hacking gigantic gashes out of both of his ankles and leaving him to wallow in a pool of his own blood.  Drew reclaims the family sword, then magnanimously gives Kenjiro his own katana so that the wicked brother can commit seppuku and reclaim his samurai honor.  Of course, once Drew has his back turned Kenjiro gets other ideas.  Once Drew is approximately 15 yards away, Kenjiro lawn-darts a full-sized katana at him with an angry villain yell, only have Drew knocked it back at him (from 15 yards away, I must repeat) such that it impales him perfectly through the center of the chest.

The end.

What can I say about American Samurai?  It’s bad.  I remember being extremely impressed with this movie when I saw it on cable as a 12 year-old, but it just doesn’t hold up well at all.  If I’m honest, I also had it mixed up pretty badly in my mind with Circle of Steel, a 1994 movie with more or less the same plot.  I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone, but for the curious, there’s an edited version of it on Youtube that only has the fight scenes.  I still wouldn’t recommend it, but what you do when I’m not looking is your business.

*  But seriously, that actor went on to become the Chairman of Iron Chef America.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Child Exorcism in the U.S.

This has been a movie blog for a couple of years now, but I saw something in the news today that demanded a return to skeptic mode.  CNN is reporting that two children are dead and two others wounded in Maryland after being stabbed by their mother during an attempted exorcism.  The two children who were murdered, Norell and Zyana Harris, were 1 and 2 years old, respectively.  The two survivors were 5 and 8.  Their mother, Zakieya L. Avery, 28, is in custody, as is another woman yet to be publicly identified.

Exorcism in general and child exorcism in particular are topics about which I have no moderate position. The practice of exorcism is anachronistic charlatanry that inflicts nothing but trauma and harm wherever it rears its head.  I would venture that it's doubly harmful, as it not only inflicts injury in and of itself, but frequently is performed upon mentally ill or otherwise infirm individuals in lieu of actual psychiatric or medical help.  Children being injured and killed in exorcisms is something you read about happening in the Congo.  Human society should be working to stamp out this kind of pseudo-sorcerous nonsense, and yet this morning we see a report of it here in the U.S.

There's a caveat to this story, of course, and that is, frankly, that's it's being carried on CNN with its penchant for clickbait headlines.  In the next few days I'm sure we'll learn more about this tragedy and hopefully find out the truth of what happened.  In the meantime, to all appearances, two young lives have been snuffed out and two two more shaken forever by misbegotten iron-age witchery.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Curse of Chucky (2013)

Child’s Play was, as much as any horror movie, a pretty big deal back in 1988.  Based around the chilling concept of the soul of a serial killer inhabiting the body of a large “Good Guy” doll (closely resembling the then-popular “My Buddy” and “Kid Sister” line of toys), Child’s Play received generally good reviews and ended up making over $44 million worldwide – nearly five times its budget.  Two more sequels appeared in 1990 and 1991 to diminishing returns and less favorable reviews before going on to play on the USA Network every weekend for the next fifteen years.1  After a long hiatus, the franchise re-emerged in 1998 with a more comedic sequel¸ Bride of Chucky, that rode the wave of popular self-aware horror/comedy films to a $50 million box office.  Another long break followed and then in 2004 came Seed of Chucky, a full-blown dark comedy.

I won’t lie – I pretty much wrote this franchise off when it started switching to comedy.  I’ve never made it all the way through Bride and I’ve not seen Seed at all.  You may well imagine the eye-rolling on my part when I heard that yet another sequel, this time entitled Curse of Chucky was headed straight to DVD.  Who wants another dumb, comedic Chucky movie anyway?  But then a strange thing happened – I started reading interviews with series creator and writer Don Mancini in which he talked about his desire to return to the roots of the series with a serious, frightening vision of the character.  My interest was piqued.

Curse of Chucky begins with a simple set-up: A paraplegic woman named Nica and her mother Sarah live alone in a huge, isolated house.  One day a package containing a Good Guy doll is delivered to Sarah.  By the next morning Sarah is dead, the victim of what appears to be a gruesome accident.  Soon Nica’s sister Barb and her largely dysfunctional family descend on the house to settle Sarah’s affairs. It soon becomes apparent that Barb is up to no good, hoping to talk Nica into selling her share of the estate and pressuring her to move into a supported living facility.  In the meantime Sarah’s daughter Alice has latched onto the Good Guy –Chucky, of course - which is still floating around in the house.  As the night goes on, Chucky begins killing his way through the household as the truth behind his vendetta against this particular family is slowly revealed.

I don’t want to talk too extensively about the plot here, because there are actually some fun twists that I wouldn’t want to spoil.  I’ll say that the kills are generally well done, if not extraordinarily inventive.  The exception to that is a dinner sequence at the beginning of the film in which Chucky has managed to spike just a single bowl of chili out of a table setting of six with rat poison. That scene, with its Russian roulette feel, is a lot of fun.  I also like the choice to have a wheelchair-bound protagonist, as it adds an extra element of physical danger from Chucky.  After all, an adult who is actually aware of Chucky should basically be able to kick a field goal with him and be done with it.  By having Nica in a wheelchair, it makes Chucky nearly her physical equal and really ups the tension of their encounters.

Special effects-wise, there’s a lot more puppet and prosthetic work than I’ve come to expect out of a modern film and it all looks great.  Even during the scenes in which Chucky is CGI, he moves right – which is to say “wrong” I suppose, because puppet Chucky has always had a distinctive gait.  These effects look far better than I would’ve expected from a straight-to-video movie.  There’s perhaps not as much gore as I would’ve expected, but I guess the Child’s Play movies have never focused too much on actual blood and guts.  I also admire the decision to play it slow with revealing Chucky – sure, the audience knows what’s up, but you don’t see Chucky speak in his own voice or move full-body on camera until pretty deep into the film.  It’s especially easy to rush the pacing in horror sequels, but they did a good job here.  When you finally see Chucky speak to Alice in Brad Dourif’s voice for the first time it’ll give you the willies, even though there’s been a quarter century of Chucky films before this.

Acting-wise…this is a horror movie.  Brad Dourif, of course, returns as the iconic voice of Chucky and is great as always.  That said, I watched Child’s Play 2 scant hours before watching this one and his voice has noticeably changed through the years.  It’s unavoidable, but you can certainly hear it.  Nica is played competently by Brad Dourif’s daughter Fiona.  Nica's paraplegia gives her a unique feel for a horror heroine, but unfortunately she doesn’t get very much character development through most of the film.  Summer Howell portrays Alice, the young child, and she does a good job, though the director has made what I feel is the right choice by largely keeping Alice off-camera throughout the film’s final act.  Pretty much every other character comes across as a terrible douche, so it’s hard to judge the actors on their performances there. 

If this movie has a serious flaw, it’s the ending…or rather, the endings.  It feels a little like Mancini had a “maybe” pile of several potential endings and then decided “what the hell, I’ll just use them all.”  Pretty much any one of them would’ve been okay, but taken together they actually kind of don’t make sense, especially the (otherwise fun) after-the-credits scene.

The ending notwithstanding, Curse of Chucky is not only one of the better Child’s Play films, it’s one of the better slasher movies to come out in the last decade.  It’s refreshing that they opted to do a true sequel instead of a reboot like so many other venerated horror franchises and that they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel by adding tons of extra mythology to the character.  It’s a Child’s Play movie –a recognizable, good Child’s Play movie- that feels right at home with the first three films in the series.  While Curse of Chucky may not be groundbreaking, it’s an unexpected return to form for a series I’d given up for dead.  It was a lot of fun and I recommend checking it out.
1.) Well, maybe not, but it sure seemed like it.