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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Brain Eaters

 
The Brain Eaters
1958
Bruno VeSota

A mysterious cone has beenn spotted in the woods outside Riverdale, Illinois. Its appearance coincides with several local murders. The town’s mayor has been missing, but when he reappears; he acts strangely aggressive and pulls a gun on investigators. He’s shot and killed by a deputy. On his neck is an unusual lump. It seems that the mayor and an untold number of other people have a come under the sway of inhuman creatures. Dr. Paul Kettering (Ed Nelson) and Glen Cameron (Alan Jay Factor) must unravel the secret of the invaders.

"For the last time, I'm not Tor Johnson!"
It’s been well established that fear of being suborned from within was a major anxiety of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Whether this was due to the Communist menace, wild teenagers, or the frantic pace that technology was beginning to affect the lives of people, the world always seemed on the verge of collapsing under threats unseen. So, it’s really no surprise that much of the horror and SF genre was obsessed with a threat already among us. The most famous film of this period is probably Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of my favorites in this subgenre is the complete strangeness and downer ending of The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963).

The Brain Eaters is a potboiler take on the idea of aliens possessing humans; it was notoriously similar enough to the plot of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters novel, that producer Roger Corman settled out of court with Heinlein over a charge of plagiarism. Corman claimed that he had never read the novel, but admitted the ideas were very similar. Both involve small creatures that attach themselves to humans in order to control them. The main difference being The Brain Eaters is much smaller in scope by virtue of its budget.

"You vape, bro?"
The film is only an hour long and this works in its favor. The story sets up its plot hook quickly, a mysterious death and an even more mysterious giant metal cone in the woods. There isn’t time to build on slowly crawling paranoia like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so instead The Brain Eaters opts for flurries of action and violence. The brisk pace keeps the characters from having much time to catch their breath, and the audience from pondering the point of the aliens’ invasion scheme too closely.

The fact that this film was made for $26,000 (or about $200,000 in today’s money) left little money for special effects. The aliens are little more than white maggoty things, the bodily damage they cause and the interior of their transportation is often described more than shown. Near the end, the interior of the cone is flooded with so much fog, that it is virtually impossible to see what is going on. This is doubly disappointing because it features an early appearance by Leonard Nimoy in some old age make-up.

Short and sweet, The Brain Eaters is a decent enough entry in the 1950s invaders subgenre to entertain but little else. It offers few surprises, and it probably won’t leave much of an impression on you after the finale... unlike the mutant slug currently on your neck.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fiend


Fiend
Don Dohler
1980

A flappy red blob-thing floats over a cemetery before deciding on a grave to inhabit. The creature that rises from the dead is part man, part monster, part music teacher, and all Eric Longfellow (Don Leifert). Longfellow moves in to a quiet suburban neighborhood with his cat, Dorian. He establishes himself with a music teaching business. He also has a side job as a monster that has to strangle the life from people in order to keep up his human appearance. The bodies start to pile up, and one beer swilling, violin hating, next-door neighbor begins to suspect that Longfellow is not what he seems.

What separates Fiend from many low budget horror films is how it carves out little moments that create feelings of strange dread. Longfellow does not just arrive in the neighborhood, a looming thunderstorm that sends all the local kids scurrying for cover precedes him. Longfellow engages in habits that are supposed to convince others that he is human, but they are off, from his dank unfinished basement dwelling, his aimless windshield cleaning, and even the casual cruelty with which he runs his music school. Longfellow is an interesting monster, a pompous academic who looks down on his blue-collar neighbor by day, and a strangulating monster also by day.

Even monsters like kitty cats though.
Don Dohler’s early musical scores are filled with wonderful atonal synthesizer sounds that really set an off kilter mood. For a film that is nominally set around a music teacher, Fiend is startlingly uninterested in traditional music. This mirrors its protagonist, who only marginally engages with petty human concerns. If this was a deliberate choice on Dohler’s part, it is very clever and understated.

Fiend offers no gore, and most of the violence is from lengthy strangulation scenes. Dohler relies more on weird menace as opposed to visuals, which is opposite of many of his early films that offer ambitious, yet low budget special effects extravaganzas. Don Leifert’s make-up when Longfellow transforms into his ghoulish self is messy, gross, and very effective. When he’s off strangling victims, he’s often surrounded by a red glow. Aside from the weird flying blob monster that opens and closes the movie, that is it for special effects.

"Funny meeting you in this neck of the woods. Ha! Get it? Hey, I'm talking to you."
The cast has a few of director Dohler’s regulars, Leifert seems like he’s often playing pompous blowhards, and Longfellow is no exception. George Stover, also a Dohler veteran, plays the nebbish Dennis. Stover is typecast in Dohler’s movies as the whiny guy who gets killed, but I have to admit, he does that kind of role very well. No one is going to take any acting awards home in this movie, but everyone acquits themselves enough to not distract.

I love the work of Don Dohler, especially his output from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Fiend is my favorite of these movies, simply because it oozes with dread and makes the most use out of its seemingly benign urban setting. It is a quiet story and a slow one too, but it also made with a lot of love and attention.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Monster of Camp Sunshine



Monster of Camp Sunshine (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nature)
1964
Ferenc Leroget

A couple of roommates; one works in a laboratory, the other a model, like to spend their time at the clothing optional Camp Sunshine. Some lab work follows these women home in the most roundabout way imaginable, and the camp’s groundskeeper Hugo (Harrison Pebbles (almost certainly not his real name)) becomes a murderous would-be killer on the rampage. The operative word being 'would-be.'

Thanks to independent movie producers and relaxing attitudes towards nudity on the screen, the end of the 1950s into the 1960s saw the rise of ‘nudie’ films. Filmmakers outside the studio system could show more explicit material than their studio-bound counterparts. The only real obstacle was usually in the form of a theater's local obscenity laws. Therefore, setting a film in a nudist camp, and making it ostensibly about the benefits of naturalism, seems like the perfect solution to show naked humans and not suffer arrest in the process. Heck, throw in a monster too. Why not? What could go wrong?

Plenty could go wrong, apparently.

The monster plot line is the wrench in the works of this film. Without it, this would be just another thinly veiled exploitation movie about nudism. Introduce a character who is resistant to taking off her clothes, she goes to the camp, loves it, roll credits. Monster of Camp Sunshine mixes in some mad science, an angry lab rat, and eventually a mutant groundskeeper. The story adopts a convoluted way to get Hugo transformed into a feral beast, and then downright refuses to allow him to do anything monstrous. This in and of itself could actually be funny, but more often it is just aggravating.

The titular monster.
By the end of the film, Hugo is under siege from a tremendous amount of stock footage, most of it consisting of armies from various eras. This whole sequence aims for over-the-top and silly, but it feels more like a desperate attempt to salvage some kind of narrative and comedic finale to the movie. This final fifteen minutes of the movie is staggering in its own peculiar way, you just have to slog through the first hour to get there.

What about the nudity? The movie talks about the freedom of naturalism, but it is obviously more interested in luridly staring at women removing their clothes. I have doubts about people professing a natural and healthy lifestyle while they chain-smoke and stand around in the sun without a drop of sunscreen. If you watch Monster of Camp Sunshine you will learn a dozen ways to hide your genitals on screen, ranging from the techniques of the beginner (a strategically placed towel) to the advanced (a strategically placed piano).

"Heh, you said, titular."
The best thing about Monster of Camp Sunshine are the opening credits. They are animated with cutout images much like the opening credits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They are inventive and funny, but set an unfortunate high bar for which the movie does not even attempt to reach.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Creepozoids


Creepozoids
1987
David DeCoteau

It is 1998 and the bombs have dropped, the planet is a wreck and a band of military deserters are looking for somewhere to hide from the (literal) acid rain. They come upon a seemingly abandoned underground laboratory, stocked with all the food and water they need for an extended stay. How and why this place was abandoned so quickly doesn’t concern most of the refugees, but the throwing up black slime and dying part does grab their attention. Something is lurking in this base and the survivors have no way out.

Creepozoids is a perfect low budget mishmash of other bigger budgeted films; the gruesome body horror, isolation, and claustrophobia of, The Thing (1982), a monster design lifted from Alien (1979), and the introduction of baby monster for no reason just like in the horror classic, Three Men and a Baby (1987). Throw in some nudity, slime, giant rat attacks, and a synthesizer score, and you have some legitimate b-grade fun.

Creepozoids doesn’t take any chances (at least not until the end), but it does follow the well-trodden Alien-clone formula with an earnestness that just wouldn’t happen in modern film. The acting might be wooden, the sets cheap, and the rats stuffed, but doesn’t stop everyone on screen from trying to sell their plight as serious business. I think anything less and the whole enterprise would have become to tedious to watch. If Creepozoids has one major flaw, it is sending the characters endlessly running up and down the same ill-lit corridor while the audience waits for the next monster attack.

"This rat is whispering sweet nothings in my ear."
Linnea Quigley is the star of show, she delivers all the nudity, and screaming that made her a cult icon. Everyone else in the cast are interchangeable non-entities, but I don’t really see that as a problem, the viewer interest lies in the monsters and Linnea. DeCoteau is a smart enough director to keep plenty of both on screen.

The special effects are surprisingly ambitious, if not always successful. The scenes of various people half-mutating and vomiting black slime are shocking and well realized. The giant rats are just stuffed toys that are kicked around like fuzzy footballs, amusing but not scary in the least. The main monster looks great in tight shots, but the second the viewer gets a good look at its full body, it looks awkward and bulky. For some unexplained reason, a mutant baby serves as the film’s final boss. The animatronic is expressive and the whole special effect is wonderful for such a small film. Watching an actor wrangle with it borders on slapstick comedy, but it is also very entertaining.

Baby's Day Out 2: The Reckoning
Creepozoids is cheap looking and derivative, but it is also very evocative of the small screen thrills that the height of home video era could bring. It offers low rent gore, sexuality, a smattering of science-fiction, and it’s all wrapped-up neatly in a short run-time.  As is tradition, the best thing about Creepozoids is its box art.


Friday, April 28, 2017

The Abominable Dr. Phibes


The Abominable Dr. Phibes
1971
Robert Furest

A string of elaborate murders leads Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) to believe that Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), an expert in music and theology, didn’t die in a car accident after all. More and more people fall to Phibes wave of death, as he dispatches a group of doctors and nurses, whom he blames for the death of his wife. The murders take the form of the ten biblical plagues of Egypt. Trout and one of the doctors on Phibes' kill list, race to stop him before he completes his sinister plan.

I was simply not expecting The Abominable Dr. Phibes to be as gleefully dark and strange as it was. In my head, I had conflated it with another Vincent Price movie, Theater of Blood (1973) which also features him dispatching people in various amusingly themed ways. This particular film is a lush black comedy with a heavy dose of surrealism; it feels like it might co-exist in the same universe as Phantom of the Paradise (1974).

"Go ahead and gong me... I dare you."
It is a brave choice to hire Vincent Price and then to deny the audience one of his most notable attributes: his voice. Dr. Phibes can only speak when attached to an amplifier via an audio jack in his neck (something Phantom of the Paradise also riffs on). The good doctor speaks little, and when he does it is with a distorted echo. This does give an opportunity to see what a fantastic physical actor Price can be. Dr. Phibes can throw out giant grandiose gestures and then can turn to the crumpled shuffling of someone beat down from suffering. Price embodies the character fully, and transforms Phibes into a monster you can really root for.

One of the most startling elements of the film is its music. Like its central character, the score is grandiose, humorous, and occasionally sad.  The story will take the occasional break to allow Phibes’ own mechanical band to perform a musical number. Since Phibes was a expert in music, it stands to reason that it would be prominent in the film. Director Furest takes risks and as a result, gives the whole production yet another interesting facet that elevates it from being just another bombastic horror movie score.

Take that, Pepe.
This is a horror movie, so what about the horror? Dr. Phibes bases his plan for revenge on the ten plagues of Egypt, but the execution is never simple. It involves such things as brass unicorns, and boiled Brussels sprouts. Phibes also seems to like his death traps; one featured in the finale, would not be out of place in the Saw films. I really would not be surprised if those movies drew upon The Abominable Dr. Phibes for inspiration. The build-up to a horror scene is often rife with dark humor, but it turns gruesome and serious in mere moments. The story does an excellent job in varying up its tone in order to keep the audience off balance.

Colorful, funny, and occasionally grim, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is expertly crafted and performed. An outstanding horror film, and worthy of cult status.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Death by Love



Death by Love
1990
Alan Grant

One of the things that makes low-budget shot-on-video (SOV) movies so interesting, is there is often much less of a filter between creator and audience. In a less media savvy era, a creator would often unabashedly put their interests on screen with little concern for a perceived audience. This is often excruciating (Boardinghouse (1982)), transgressive (Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984)), and deeply weird (Sledgehammer (1983)) by turns. Death by Love might fall short in the exciting category, but it does serve as an excellent documentation of a director/star who really wanted to grind on actresses and built a movie around his cause.

Joel Frank (Alan Grant) is a famous sculptor. His favorite subject is giant papier-mâché ladies, and he’s quite good at courting sexy women to pose for him. He is also quite good at getting them into bed. Unfortunately, these women seem to end up dead at an alarming rate. This has attracted the attention of two inept cops and mysterious figure who seems to be tracking Joel’s every move. Who is someone stalking Joel? Who is actually responsible for the killings? Could those cops look any more unprofessional? Also, what is up with that terrible sculpture?

Nuprin advertisement or horror movie? You decide.
Death by Love has a relatively simple story: Joel meets a woman, they have sex, she ends up dead, cut to either the mysterious figure or the dumb cops, and repeat. It becomes evident that the film is really a thin veneer for Alan Grant to get naked with women on camera. Director Grant does manage to push the story in a direction that neatly ties it all together. At its heart, Death by Love is a very traditional monster story, and I think with some less irksome characterization, it could have been a better film. On the other hand, without the languid pace and off-putting characters, the film would not have much personality at all.

There is plenty of sex and nudity in this movie, none of it is appetizing. If the movie possesses any one major fault is that these sex scenes slow down an already slow story and eventually they grate on the viewer by interrupting what little plot there is. There are number of scenes of people standing around talking endless which doesn't help things much either.

"Oh, I can hear the ocean."
It can be very difficult to push commercial video recording equipment from the pre-digital era into looking good on screen. Death by Love is good example of this, everything is washed out and brown. If you only saw the opening scenes, you would swear it is leading up to show you how to do aerobics for seniors or cat grooming isntructions, it has the unassuming blandness that the vaporwave or creepy faux infomercials that air on Adult Swim often try to capture.

Death by Love is an odd minor note in the already odd subgenre of SOV. It is quirky without being notably so, I don’t think it’s going to make any converts to micro-budget moviemaking, but it is an entertaining enough way to make eighty-five minutes pass by.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Void


The Void
2016
Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski

Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) is a cop who is just about to go off duty when he sees a man stumble out of the woods, wounded and delirious. He takes the man to a hospital. Unfortunately, the only one close by is in the process of closing for good, thanks to a recent fire. As Daniel delivers the stranger, the building is suddenly surrounded by robed figures bearing a single dark pyramid shape on their hoods. Something awful awaits to be birthed from the hospital, and no one there can leave.

It is odd that, for all its popularity among horror fans, cosmic horror is not really touched on very often in television or cinema. Perhaps it is because effective cosmic horror hangs on the intangible; its source is a sense of dread from something vast and unseen. One of the strengths of the written word is that it can evoke the intangible with relative ease, in a visual medium, that is much more difficult.
The infamous Triangle Man
One of the things I am most pleased about is that despite its numerous homages to Carpenter, Lovecraft, and Fulchi, The Void forges its own identity. Too often modern films get so caught up in displaying reverence for a time-period or director they feel like little more than fan films.  The Void wisely keeps from doing any clever name checking, or creating any specific connection to the Lovecraft mythos. The setting, tropes, and characters feel familiar, but have enough quirks and hidden traits that create something of their own.

Visually, The Void is excellent. It never belies its small budget. Keeping the events mostly confined to a single location is used as an advantage as to keep the pressure turned up on the characters. The hospital is cavernous, you never get a good idea of geography but that may be intentional. The creatures are grotesque lumpy horrors that lovingly created through practical effects. In fine cosmic horror tradition, you rarely get more than a glance at them, leaving much of their anatomy to your imagination. In contrast, the cosmic part of the cosmic horror is often presented in a way that is clean and beautiful. The black pyramid motif serves as bridge between these elements, being shown both simply and cleanly and sometimes in a more chaotic fashion.


"This light is working wonders for my Seasonal Affective Disorder."
The plot could use a little more of the elegance of the visuals. What seems like a simple ‘base under siege’ story starts to grow needlessly complex with multiple pregnancies, threats from within and without, and needlessly antagonistic characters. I understand the need for the story to keep upping the threat to characters who cannot escape from their situation, but it feels clunky in the process. Thankfully, by the time, the story hits its climax, all the elements have fallen into place in a very satisfying way.

While The Void never quite manages to create the stomach-dropping fear of something like the opening and closing dream sequences from Prince of Darkness (1987), it is none-the-less a solid entry in the subgenre. The Void is a masterfully crafted work of cosmic horror. I hope this is a sign of more great (and eldritch) things to come.