Friday, July 23, 2021

Satan's Storybook

Satan’s Storybook
Michael Rider

Satan’s Storybook is an anthology movie of sorts. It is only comprised of two stories and the wraparound segment. None of them are very good but far from the direst of shot-on-video (SOV) films. The whole thing is less than the sum of its parts which aren’t worth much any way. It does show some ambition but fails in the worst way possible by not by being interesting in the process. I love a noble failure, but  I can’t deal with a boring one.

Let’s get the good out of the way. The make-up and costuming are actually quite good, especially considering the budget limitations of the film. Satan has a cool articulated face, the evil jester and undead clown are solid creations. The gore effects are limited to the first story and are very simple but effective. There is clearly some talent behind the lensing of the film, too often SOV films are just point the camera and go, but here there is care taken in setting up of each scene. This all works to give the film more polish than I expected but it also serves to highlights the amateurishness of the script.

"Behold my EVIL NIPPLE!"

Satan’s Storybook’s biggest sin is that characters just endlessly stand around talking. They talk about their pasts, they talk about their feelings, they talk about how much they’d like to kill someone, they talk about being witches or missing their Satanic girlfriend. The film is constant dialogue with just a few scenes of action. It reaches the point of being ridiculous almost immediately and then it just keeps going

The Wrap Around: Satan’s Queen has been kidnapped by another woman and some ninjas. They stand around talking about their pasts like two dorks LARPING in the woods. They like to speak in ye olde speech patterns and one person is named Christeeth (Star of porn and Things (1989), Amber Lynn). Meanwhile Satan has the big sad that his queen is gone so he summons an evil jester to tell him dumb stories.

The Dead Guy and the Witch: A young woman gets yelled at by her parents for reading about witchcraft. They are promptly murdered by the world’s most try-hard spree killer who then gets caught by the cops. He gets the chair and then becomes a murdering ghost who goes after the witch.

"Whoop whoop!"

The Bad Clown and the Other Badder Clown: A clown kills himself and meets death who is also a clown. They talk forever and nothing gets resolved. I like the idea that an evil version of whatever job you do shows up to usher you into hell, like an evil mail carrier or a demonic telemarketer appears before you as you die. 

Satan’s Storybook wraps up with a cliffhanger of sorts promising more chapters to come which thankfully or sadly never materialized. Satan’s Storybook isn’t bad or weird enough to enter the pantheon of cult SOV like Things or Science Crazed (1991) but it has a kind of low rent charm that might win you over if you are in the mood for it.

Friday, July 16, 2021

The Black Cat

The Black Cat
Edgar G. Ulmer

A newly wedded couple board a train for their honeymoon. Their car gets doubled booked and they meet Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). A man who going to visit someone he knew in the military before he became a prisoner of war. Later their shared bus crashes and the trio heads to the home of architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).  Weredgast blames Poelzig for being thrown in prison and for stealing his wife... whom Poelzig seems to have preserved in his house along with a whole host of other women. Things decay from there as it seems that Poelzig is the head of a satanic cult that seeks to make a ritual sacrifice. 

"You just activated my trap card!"

The Black Cat is a glorious mix of the subtle and the melodramatic. It features Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff at arguably the height of their powers, and they are both electric together. Lugosi is fantastic as a man driven by his grief and rage to acts of monstrousness. Karloff can tell you everything you need to know about his character just through his stance and face. This duo is the main reason to see this film and they deliver.

The look of the film, especially once we get to Hjalmar Poelzig’s house, is beautiful, a mix of art deco, and clinical lab. Even the chambers where the satanic ritual is to take place carries with it a beautiful angular design the evokes art deco design and German expressionism. It is the most non-real space in the liminal universe of Poelzig’s dwellings. This unusual space mirrors the unusual plot which starts with a very simple delineation, victim, and victimizer but with each turn things become less clear. The twisted narrative lands us in the twisted confines of the house.

Straight Edge

The Satanism of the film is understated, nothing is specifically mentioned aside from a single medallion on screen, a book, and quiet cult. The presence of the supernatural is always lingering in the air but existence is never confirmed or denied. The horror of The Black Cat is hidden in shadow and suggestion culminating in the film's most infamous scene where Dr. Werdegast chains up Poelzig and proceeds to skin him alive. Not a drop of blood is spilled on screen and the whole act is told though a shadow on the wall to great effect.

The Black Cat moves a like a perfect nightmare as events connect and drift apart, there is the doubling of names for characters that serves to increase the confusion, and the whole thing becomes more and more dreamlike as the story unfolds. In spite of the its short runtime, the film moves at an even and deliberate pace until it grows more frenzied, mirroring Lugosi’s truly unhinged performance near the climax.

The Black Cat is a masterpiece of mood and horror. Lugosi and Karloff are compelling and have incredible chemistry. Dread lingers over the film until it slowly bleeds into the story. Things unravel like a beautiful nightmare. If you haven’t seen this film run out and do so, if you have seen it, run out and see it again.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Satanic Attraction

Satanic Attraction (aka Atração Satânica)
Fauzi Mansur

Satanic Attraction engages in a long string of satanic nonsense that never comes together as a story but more than makes up for it in bloody mayhem and gross-out gags. Satanic Attraction takes its influence from Italian horror of the era with plots that float along on a sort of dream logic followed by bursts of violent gore. It has its own distinct Brazilian flavor and a few cultural references that probably went right over my head during my initial viewing, but if you need a change from firing up House by the Cemetery (1981) for the 54th time, you might find something here to interest you.


Fernanda (Gabriela Toscano) is a radio DJ who has a gimmick of telling gruesome tales of a murderer stalking the streets. When people start showing up murdered exactly as described, the police and public suspect Fernanda of foul play. This is about the only element of the plot that lands near coherence. Everything else is just a slurry of a masked figure killing people, resurrecting his sister/girlfriend, killing more people and then an ending of absolute nonsense.

If you’re here for nauseating gore this is your movie. There is something especially awful about the grue in this movie. It mixes in a lot of brown and yellow muck with its red viscera creating some truly gross looking images even on the 2nd generation VHS copy that I saw. For all its narrative flaws there are some inventive was to shed blood in this film including razor blades in soap, scimitar through the door, and an overly complicated stabbing though a hammock that must be seen to be believed. There are some demonic shenanigans as well but nothing that rivals the slasher elements.

Every AirBnB ends like this.

There is one gag that is mystery to me and makes me wonder if there is a whole Brazilian cultural element I am missing that would suddenly make this mess become coherent. About midway through the film a character encounters what looks like a pair of severed feet that are also in fact… shoes! Whereas I went, “What?” the character on the screen reacted in complete terror to these foot-shoes. What are they? Why are they so scary? People seemed more scared of the foot-shoes than the maniac wielding two daggers chasing them down the beach. Brazil, what the heck is going on over there?

Satanic Attraction is too long, doesn’t make much sense, and has an ending that might leave you angry if you can invest in the story on any level. That said, the gore is gross and creative. So, your best option here is probably just to fast forward to the all the killing spree moments. Heck the story might even make more sense if you do that. Odds are you won’t be very attracted to Satanic Attraction, unless you are really thirsting for a satanic slasher. If this isn’t you, I’d just go ahead and put House by the Cemetery in your VCR like you were planning.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Night Vision

Night Vision
Michael Krueger

Andy Archer (Stacy Carson) arrives in the big city to follow his dreams of being a writer. He has a difficult time supporting himself and takes a job at a VHS rental store where he falls in love with his co-worker, Jill (Shirley Ross). He also befriends a small-time criminal named Vinnie (Tony Carpenter). Vinnie gives him a stolen VCR as a present. Andy finds a tape in the VCR that shows a recording of a strange ritual. It also begins to give him visions of the future.

The biggest surprise of Night Vision is the eerie atmosphere it evokes. By keeping the cult and the contents of the haunted video tape mostly obscured. We see the cult in action just a little bit but other than knowing they have Satanic connections; they are a bunch of alien weirdos. The haunted VCR displays vague unsettling images and abstract flashes. Night Vision takes the campiest element of its plot and transforms it into something surreal which in turn plays against the very broad comedy of the rest of the film.

The real horror.

The Denver, Colorado of Night Vision is a cartoonish den of crime, poverty, and short-tempered smartass citizens. Andy claims he’s from Kansas without ever stating a city but it is a place so backwoods that he doesn’t understand how hotels work. It’s a place where cloaked cultists roam the streets at night and 10-year-old kids regularly try and steal VHS porn from a rental place the size of a closet. Everyone who lives there is cagey and eager to use other people. In contrast is a character so guileless that he gladly falls in with the first opportunist hustler he meets.

A satanic VCR is an idea ripe for over-the-top storytelling, so to the turn the tables and pull off a character study out of that ends up being a delightful subversion. Instead of still horror we are forced to watch as the idealistic Andy is slowly ground down by this city and its inhabitants. The way the VCR and its contents hollow out Andy can be seen as the various forces of the city at work on him as he naively tries to pursue his writing career despite the doom closing in on him.

I hate daylight savings time too.

One of my favorite elements of this film is how the sound of the city is constantly in the background. I’m sure this was a way to try and cover for the fact that much of this film is shot on sets that are nowhere near a busy city, but what it ends up doing, is keeping the city as an omnipresent force in every scene. The city is so evil as be unreal but that only adds to the weird gloom and black comedy.

Michael Krueger is also the director of Mind Killer (1987) another film that presents itself a broad comedy but turns out to be a very strange horror movie. Krueger sadly died at 39 after directing only these two films. It is a shame because he shows he know how to create unique films with little resources. Night Vision was a delight and one of my favorite recent discoveries. 

Friday, June 25, 2021

Fear No Evil

Fear No Evil
Frank LaLoggia

For the majority of its running time, Fear No Evil plays out like a sillier version of The Omen series with Andrew (Stefan Arngrim) alternating between hapless teenager and a cartoony queer Antichrist engaging in all manner of horrors. These scene grow increasingly strange, a kid is killed via dodgeball, someone grows magical breasts, some zombies show up and do nothing, and a passion play goes horribly wrong with hilarious results. The set-up for Fear No Evil may be nothing special, but these moments certainly are. I’m not saying they make for effective horror film (they don’t) but you’re not going to forget them anytime soon.

The whole story is driving to a final conflict between devil and some angels (or three people who have to become and angel?). In a typical satanic film this would become the most serious conflict of the narrative as the souls of the entire planet on the line. I’m sure Fear No Evil felt like this battle was serious stuff but instead we get a lot of flashing lights, fog machines,  to the point that the whole thing borders on incomprehensible. This vast biblical war plays out something more like a cheap fantasy film. It likes any gravitas, but it does pack in plenty of pretension.

"Ok, that was a pretty good kiss."

The acting in Fear No Evil is uniformly bad but none more so than Stefan Arngrim as Andrew aka the son of the Devil. He is woefully miscast here, neither convincing as a wormy dork or font of all evil.  This only adds to the nonsense lightshow that passes for a climax. There is something very camp about him as a character which leads to the most infamous moment in the whole film: The shower kiss. 

It should say something about Fear No Evil that the most notable moment  in the film doesn’t feature demons, zombies, or even a drop of blood. Tony (Daniel Eden) the local bully, decides to taunt Andrew with a kiss in the boy’s shower. This game of gay chicken takes an unexpected turn as they lock lips and continue doing so. Tony isn’t happy about this, but Andrew seems into it. Is Fear No Evil conflating homoeroticism with ultimate evil? This coupled with Andrews final form would suggest yes, but at the same time there is no doubt that he is the protagonist (anti-protagonist?) of the story. It is a strange transgressive moment for a number of reasons (especially for 1981) and the film certainly could have benefited for having more things like this moment.

"Yeah it was."

The continue the thread of unexpected touches, Fear No Evil features an incredibly strong New Wave/Post-Punk soundtrack featuring Talking Heads, Boomtown Rats, and the Ramones just to name a few. There is no in-movie reason for these particular bands, and I can’t even draw a line from the mood of the film to this music. They have nothing to do with each other and although I enjoy this music, I can’t defend it being in this film at all. The mystery of Fear No Evil continues…

Fear No Evil is a camp disaster and a continuously entertaining one at that.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Race with the Devil

Race with the Devil
Jack Starrett

Coming along with the monumental success of The Exorcist (1973) came a sea of satanic films. Wikipedia lists thirty titles alone after 1973 and that is far from a complete tally. This public interest in satanic cults would take a wild turn in the 1980s when the public would quake at the devil hiding in every bit of popular media in what would become known as the Satanic Panic. I think those caught in the grip of the Satanic Panic would have believed that Race with the Devil was an accurate portrayal of what it was like in America with the Devil’s minions massing across the countryside.

Two couples (Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, and Lara Parker), decide to take a trip in an RV for a ski trip. They make a stop in the middle of nowhere Texas. They have a cookout, race dirt bikes and are generally having a fine time, that is until they witness a satanic cult ritual that ends with a murder. The cult realizes that they’ve been seen and swarm the RV. From there, the group are on the run as the cult seems to have members all over the country and slowly but surely, they close in.

"We are definitely going to get killed
on this vacation."

Race with the Devil is a masterful exercise in escalating tension. The film starts with a slow, almost agonizingly relaxed pace. We are introduced to these characters, their friendships, and the small personal concerns of their lives. There is no warning about what they are about to encounter, no cutaways to menacing cultists watching them from afar. Once the mayhem breaks it comes increasingly larger and larger waves of attacks as our heroes grow more and more desperate to escape the clutches of this seemingly never-ending cult.

The highlight of Race with the Devil is the extended chase scene onboard the RV and various cultists trying to board it. We move though the high action of these scenes to tense moments of coming across narrow avenues where they have to slow down. At its core this is an action film with a horror flavor that is always present. Things really kick up in the final moments which deliver a good spooky shock.

"I really need to wash this mask."

I think it would be easy to get annoyed at the slow burn of the first half of the film as we watch these characters literally spin their wheels at one time. There is a side quest to a local library for people to figure that they witnessed a satanic ritual when in the end it doesn’t matter. The intelligence gathering in no way helps when dozens of murderous satanists are clambering up the RV the kill everyone. Race with the Devil begins as a drama, moves to horror, and then to action before coming around to horror again.

Race with  the Devil is excellent little film that has a lot to offer and becomes more and more engaging as it goes. If you’re looking to kick off a satanic summer this is an excellent place to start.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (aka Xing ji dun tai)
Kwok-Ming Cheung

Shaw Brothers Studio is most well-known in the west for their kung-fu film output, and for good reason. They are the studio that brought out some of the most famous, wuxia, kung-fu dramas, and a whole variety of historical and modern-day action films. The output of Shaw Brothers is actually incredibly versatile, they released films ranging from animation to comedy and even in the case of Twinke Twinkle Little Star, science-fiction. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star occupies itself with very broad comedy and more than a little parody of some popular science-fiction cinema of the west.

Plot takes a back seat to silly set-pieces but here goes, Li Tien-Chen (Cherie) is a ditzy and unlucky woman who has difficulty holding down a job. She is swept off of her feet by the son of a wealthy businessman. The two are bound to be married but her potential father-in-law will only approve if she is a virgin. Unfortunately for Li she loses her virginity to a very Millennium Falcon looking UFO. Her future in shambles, she decides to end it all on some railroad tracks. Along come two detectives (James Yi Lui and Tam Tin-Nam) who are also down on their luck and looking to end things. The three decide to prove that Li is telling the truth and hopefully make some cash in the process

Desperately looking for the plot.

So, this is 1980s comedy is dealing with rape in a manner that is tasteless at best and is the one of the  big sour notes (the other is some 'haha men in dresses funny' transphobia) in the whole production. The whole plot hinges on this development so it is kind of hard to ignore. If you look get past that fact, the film dumps ridiculous moment upon moment onto the screen. There are car crashes, musical numbers, and visual gags galore. The barrage is constant to the point where it just becomes exhausting to engage with the film. We get plenty of nods to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) along the way.

It might behoove you to just skip to the third act where we are treated to an enjoyable lightsaber between James Yi Lui and a certain dark cloaked, heavy breathing assailant wearing a helmet. This is the one moment the film is really effective as the fight is not only silly and creative but manages to create some real drama as both opponents suffer at the ebb and flow of the combat. The set design is wonderful here creating an arena for the fight that feels lifted out of Star Wars (1977) with out directly copying a specific location.

"Golly, that is a big one."

Twinkle Little Star is a big mess. If you are in the mood for a noisy disaster, give it a go, but if you’re just interested in the watchable parts I would skip to the last third. You won’t miss much, and the entire plot is explained at that point, then you can just sit back and watch an enjoyable and very goofy fight.