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dog days

dog days

Friday, June 23, 2017

Dogs


Dogs
1976
Burt Brinckerhoff

A small California college town is seeing a rise in animal attacks. The aggressors are common domesticated dogs. When Dr. Harlan Thompson (David McCallum) isn’t hitting on his colleagues or getting in arguments with them, he’s trying to convince them that something is going desperately wrong with the local dog population. Of course, no one is listening and it’s up to Harlan to try and find some answers before the roving packs of dogs eat everyone in town.

The wild success of Jaws (1975) created a flood of ‘nature runs amok’ films in the 1970s. Thanks to an ever-widening awareness of pollution in the U.S., films depicting humankind getting its comeuppance for meddling with the natural order of things was also perfect fodder for horror films. One of the best decisions (both financially and within the narrative) in Dogs is to make killers out of common everyday animals. The animals featured in the film aren’t monstrous sharks, or mutant bears, they are just a motley pack of various dog breeds. Good horror can take the commonplace and make it threatening.

"I don't know how to tell you this, but,
you have the haircut of a seven year old."
Going hand-in-hand with 1970s eco-horror is a very dim view of humanity. Dogs is no exception here, offering a toxic community of academics who are more interested in looking good and keeping the research money flowing in. Our lead, Harlan, is presented as a challenging faculty member unafraid to criticize his peers when he finds them wanting. He’s presented as the last ‘real’ intellectual in town, but more off than not, he just comes across as a big jerk. The rest of the cast is filled with characters either too dense or too blinded by hubris to take notice of the growing waves of dog attacks.

One of the things I did appreciate about Dogs, was that the motivating force behind everything was left largely unexplained. The story offers us two explanations: a linear accelerator leaking radiation into the area, or something to do with pheromones. Professors explain both in some detail, but neither is singled out as the obvious culprit by the end of the movie. Just that small amount of ambiguity makes the story feel bigger than just watching twenty dogs chewing their way through a small college.

"Just leave the treats and we can all walk away from this..."
Unfortunately, Dogs takes too long getting the horror underway, and even when it is finally indulging in its premise, there is a distinct lack of energy. It does manage to present one or two tense moments, a shower attack, and a pack swarming the college library. Before these scenes, the viewer subjected to a significant amount of talking and arguing among less than interesting characters. At least the dogs in the movie get down to business.

Dogs is a middle-of-the-road eco-horror film. It has decent production value, an interesting (if thin) premise, and acting that is solid if unassuming. If you’re in the mood for an animal attack movie to pass some time, this is a good, if never great, entry in that subgenre.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Twice Upon a Time


Twice Upon a Time
1983
John Korty, Charles Swenson

In a black and white city lives a race of beings called the Rushers of Din (more commonly known as human beings). The Cosmic Clock is a device that stops the Rushers at night so they may sleep. During this time, the Figmen of Imagination deliver good dreams sent from Frivoli, while vultures deliver nightmares manufactured in the Murkworks. The head of the Murkworks, Synonamess Botch (Marshall Efron) looks to capture a spring from the Cosmic Clock and plunge the world into eternal nightmares. To do that, he needs to trick Ralph, the All-Purpose Animal (Lorezno Music) and Mumford, the non-Purpose Nothing into doing his bidding.

Twice Upon a Time could be looked at as the end of a cycle of counter culture animation on the big screen. Throughout the 1970s with the rise of underground comix from a decade prior, several animated films were released in the US and marketed at college age adults. They contained psychedelic sequences, and often featured drugs and violence in their narratives. This was something that was shocking to see in a ‘cartoon’ in the US. Later these films would fall by the wayside as Japanese anime grew more accessible, and the drug culture turned away from psychoactive substances and towards stimulants in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, at the White House... 


Twice Upon a Time exists in two versions, one with some mild cursing and the other without. There are also rumors of slightly different edits that may or may not exist, mostly fueled by the film being difficult to find for a couple decades after its release. These versions highlight the inner struggle for this movie as it tries to decide what it wants to be. It is a whimsical kid’s movie or is it a subversive comedy? A story doesn’t necessarily need to conform itself to expectations of an audience, but often it feels like Twice Upon a Time can’t quite make up its mind on a direction.

The animation is composed of a mix of traditional drawing and paper-cut outs, often mixing in some live action sequences and stills. There is a wonderful jumbled aesthetic to the film, but it also retains a distinct feeling whether in Frivoli, the Murkworks, or Din. The standout sequence in the film centers around a nightmare bomb detonating inside an office building, turning commonplace objects like desk lamps and staple removers into monsters. The whole moment is animated against images in negative; it is weird and scary in best way possible.

Meanwhile, at the Vatican...



The voice acting through the entire cast. The dialog is largely improvised. There are a number of clever asides and moments. Synonamess Botch gets all the best lines, but everyone gets some amusing moments. There are also a few montages set to mid-tier rock music, the sort of thing that died out some time in late 1980s. You may or may not enjoy these interludes depending on your need for the real underbelly of 1980s nostalgia.

Twice Upon a Time is a unique piece of film, it's funny, strange, and forges its own odd aesthetic. The story shows a breadth of imagination that is impressive, and the fact it managed to exist and not be based on an established property, or a fast food tie-in promotion is even more encouraging.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Eye Creatures



The Eye Creatures (aka Attack of the Eye Creatures aka Attack of the the Eye Creatures )
1965
Larry Buchanan

After the long introduction in which the military explains that they have been tracking a UFO that will land in the central United States, we meet some local teens who have a habit of trespassing on an old man’s land to go make out in the woods. A flying saucer lands nearby, disgusting green humanoid lumps spill out of it and wander around the place. A couple of drifters looking to score some women or some money (preferably both) get caught up in the whole mess. Eye Creatures stumble around. People stumble around. There is death and eventually it ends. Thank goodness.

Like Zontar, Thing from Venus (1966), The Eye Creatures is a Larry Buchanan helmed color remake of an earlier SF film for American International Pictures. In this case, the victim is Invasion of the Saucer Men (1958). The Eye Creatures is a remake of a film that is an out and out comedy, but renders it into a tonal mess. There are moments that are supposed to resemble actual humor, but they fall flat, if they manage to make any sense at all. The military is portrayed as bungling perverts, which is fine, except that at no point does that subplot intersect or affect the main story in any fashion. It is merely the place to dump obvious jokes.

I feel like they escaped from the set of Eegah!
To be fair, a scene of soldiers accidentally blowing up the alien ship and congratulating themselves on defending the Earth is probably the best moment in the whole film. I understand that the story had to stick somewhat to the plot of Invasion of the Saucer People, but it is too bad that it couldn’t strive for a more arch satire of the military and SF films of the 1950s. There’s also a very casual Vietnam draft joke in the early section of the movie that comes across as awkward in the wake of that war.

The cast is thoroughly unappealing; from yet another bland leading man (John Ashley), a female lead who is supposed to be ditzy, but just ends up being aggravating (Cynthia Hull), to the whole remaining cast of characters who are supposed to be irreverent, but just come across of smug. Once you are into the film you will be begging to spend screen time with the blissfully silent Eye Creatures.

How does it look? Well, it’s a low budget made for TV movie, so pretty terrible. Everything is flat and murky. There are nighttime scenes so under lit, that it is almost impossible to see what is happening. The Eye Creatures lack any of the charm of the big headed aliens of Invasion of the Saucer People, instead looking like lumpy green walking turd-men. For things called Eye Creatures, their eyes are little more than a few black glassy dots scattered around their bodies. They stumble around with no personality, no purpose, and exist only to lazily menace horny teenagers.

"Eye see what... no, I'm not doing it. It is totally degrading."
The Eye Creatures exists as a document to just how thoroughly a movie can fail even when set against the lowest of expectations, such as being a cheap television remake of relatively obscure low-budget science-fiction comedy made eight years prior. 



Friday, June 2, 2017

Zontar, the Thing from Venus



Zontar, the Thing from Venus
1966
Larry Buchanan

A missing NASA satellite is the first sign that something is not right. NASA engineer, Dr. Keith Ritchie (Tony Huston) reveals to his best friend, Dr. Curt Taylor (John Agar) that he has been in communication with a being called Zontar who, as chance would have it, is a thing from Venus. Zontar is on his way to Earth. Is he here to help us or enslave us? The answer becomes pretty clear when all electronics stop working, and mind-controlling devil-bats start flying over the town.

In the 1960s, American International Pictures tasked Larry Buchanan with remaking several of their older films in color and creating a few original titles, all for the TV-movie market. The result was eight films that were all terrible, but eerily watchable in a ‘slogging through a brown nightmare’ kind of way. Zontar, the Thing from Venus isn’t even close to being the worst of the lot, but it is still tough going for many movie viewers.

"Sorry fellas, my area is restricted."
Zontar is a virtually moment-by-moment recreation of Roger Corman’s, It Conquered the World (1956). In this case swapping out Peter Graves for John Agar and the smooth evil of Lee Van Cleef for Tony Huston... so right there Zontar is at a big disadvantage. However, it is interesting to note that Buchanan isn’t blindly remaking Corman’s film. His script makes some small tweaks to the original’s story that aren’t exactly improvements, (Zontar can create mind-controlling injectapods every few hours as opposed to days thereby upping the threat, and the final confrontation utilizes a laser rather than a close-range blow torch), but they do pull the story together ever so slightly tighter.

One place where Zontar does manage to improve is in its monster. The mutant traffic cone that makes a bid for the Earth has always been the downfall of It Conquered the World, even though there is an attempt to give reason for its goofy looking body, it is still ridiculous enough completely undermine all the dramatic build-up that has happened prior. Zontar, on the other hand, is a greasy looking green bat monster with multiple eyes. Far less imaginative than his forebearer, but coupled with the muddy brown visuals of the rest of the movie, it works.
Zontar was notoriously drunk on set.

What doesn’t work is the rest of the movie. Every scene is shot in the flattest, least interesting way possible. The lighting, the colors, the costume choices, the entire look of the movie is dull and murky. John Agar is the best actor in the production, but there isn’t much competition. The whole production feels like it was made exclusively to fill-up 90 minutes of television so that the station could show some commercials… which is precisely what it was meant to be.

Despite all of its flaws, I occasionally come back to this movie. The combination of cheap sets, flat acting, and the overall grubby look of it, accurately recreates the feeling of being home with a high fever, laying on couch and half comprehending what is happening on the TV.

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.