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Friday, May 20, 2022

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds


 

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds
1965
Bert Williams


When the word psychedelic is mentioned it comes with a notion of swirling colors, fuzzy discordant guitars, and LSD. Beyond that, the psychedelic film contains a certain mood, it’s not the colors that melt it’s time and space. In my opinion the best psychedelic films also contain air of mystery tinged with menace. The psychedelic experience values strangeness above all else. The uncanny bleeds into the world, and that is what makes psychedelia such a good match for horror. The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is a confusing mess but it is an atmospheric and deeply psychedelic confusing mess.


Johnson (Bert Williams) is Liquor Control Agent who is discovered while investigating moonshiners. He escapes into the swamp. Exhausted he manages to swim to an island only to be stabbed by a nude person wearing a mask.  Now wounded he stumbles to the Cuckoo Bird Inn only to find even more weirdos, all of whom are plotting against him. Johnson needs to get the heck out before he ends up preserved in the Cathedral of the Dead.

 

"Lemme just put that back for you..."
 

Hold onto that plot summary tight, because the film is never terribly interested in making its plot elements very clear. The story unfolds like a confusing dream. I wasn’t even sure who the lead was for a while as several similar looking grimy men chase each other around the swamp in the beginning. Whether this somewhat dull and confusing beginning is by accident or design it is the perfect set-up for the jolting introduction of the masked killer. It’s a sudden and potent shock and an announcement that the film is changing gears.


From this point on the film becomes more unhinged with each passing moment. Johnson is besieged from all sides by weirdos, stuffed corpses, and a mysterious killer who could strike at any moment. The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds feels like a prototype for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in the way it descends into screaming madness as it approaches the finale. There is also a certainly sweaty claustrophobia surrounding the entire film as the sweltering swamp threatens to close in on Johnson just as much as the residents of the inn.

 

Starring my sleep paralysis demon.
  

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds in its restored format is a gorgeous looks looking film drenched in rich black shadows that give it a noir edge. The killer is shot in a series of staccato shrieking cuts that is unnerving but overused to the point where it becomes annoying rather than frightening. The taxidermied corpses are the biggest visual failing of the film looking more like paper-mâché dummies rather than preserved bodies.


The Nest of the Cuckoo is wonderful discovery. It is a strange little noir horror hybrid that feels like it may have influential in the transformation of horror into its more modern form starting around the 1970s. It's a psychedelic film devoid of many of the trappings of that kind of film. Definitely worth checking out and you can view it for free at https://www.bynwr.com/articles/the-nest-of-the-cuckoo-birds.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Out There


 

Out There
1995
Sam Irvin


It’s 1995 and X-Files is riding high in popular culture and along with it, a wave of public interest in UFOs and the supernatural. Lots of ancillary media tapped into that interest (I know the first one to spring to your mind, Baywatch Nights season 2, right?). Aliens and conspiracies were a hot property, and the culture was ripe for some satire or in the case of Out There, some mild teasing. I wasn’t expecting much, but it did manage to offer more than I expected from a near forgotten TV movie made for Showtime.


Delbert Mosely (Billy Campbell) is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who is haunted by his most famous photo, a child falling to their death. While out he buys an old camera only to discover that it has photos of two missing men and what appears to be an alien abduction. As he begins to investigate, he encounters what may be a conspiracy to cover up and actual alien abduction or just a bunch of confused weirdos who mistook a movie set for the real thing.

"Hi there, I'm Rugged McWhiteguy."
 

I don’t watch a lot of comedies mainly because the risk/reward is too high. A bad horror movie almost always has at least one thing notable about, but a bad comedy is pure agony. Out There surprised me by genuinely funny at times and I appreciated its willingness to go as silly as it did. The attempt to give the film a more serious tone at time never works as well as the comedy, it’s far too maudlin and uninteresting in the face of an otherwise lighthearted film.


I think the most interesting element of the film is its conspiracy plot, the filmmakers decided to actually build a conspiracy with twists and turns, false fronts, and secret players. It plays well, I did not know which way the film was going to fall on an alien abduction being real of fake. The general tone of the films feels like a very goofy romantic comedy and that works well to lower the guard of the viewer to accept what they are seeing. It’s not genius plotting but it’s nimble enough to keep the viewer engaged and more than I expected from something a light as this.

 

Julie Brown is the best reason to watch anything.
 

Another surprise Out There has in store is a number of notable cameos, Julie Brown, Bobcat Goldthwait, Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Kenney, P.J. Soles, and June Lockhart among others. Thornton, makes the most of his short screen time with a great scenery chewing inmate and I will always take Julie Brown mixing it up with aliens (I really need to do an Earth Girls are Easy (1989) review).


Out There was a pleasant surprise, it’s genuinely funny at times, it actually makes the effort to craft and alien conspiracy, and it has a lot of talent on screen.  It isn’t going to reshape how you see cinema or anything but it is a welcome distraction during some pretty dark times.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Dr. Phibes Rises Again

  

Dr. Phibes Rises Again
1972
Robert Fuest


Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price) literally rises from suspended animation again a mere three years after the events of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Summoning a new assistant who’s face he didn’t melt off, the pair work to get Phibes’ dead wife, Victoria, to Egypt where the legendary River Life will be accessible for the first time in 2,000 years. The river can reportedly resurrect her and grant them both eternal lives. Another villain is looking for the same thing, one Mr. Darius Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), will he outsmart, Phibes?


Dr. Phibes Rises Again follows the same basic structure of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Phibes bumps off various people through amusing disguises and themes. This time around it’s a number of elements from Egyptian mythology rather than plagues. The added spice in this outing is that we now have a competitor for the same goal, which should theoretically up the tension, but there is no question that Phibes is going to succeed. Phibes is far cleverer than anyone else and you want him to succeed, sure he’s a murderer but he’s doing for the love of his wife.

 

"Do you mind? I'm trying to play."
 

The character of Dr. Phibes is a tribute to the power of Price’s acting. Denied his one of his strongest acting tools, his voice, Phibes can only speak through an amplifier when he has access to one, otherwise he is forced to emote through his physicality. Despite these restrictions, Price still crafts a marvelous character. The rest of the cast is fine, but it’s hard to make much of an impression when you have Price dominating every scene he is in. This does create the problem with his nemesis, Biederbeck who is always one step behind and barely registers as a threat. I feel it would have been more interesting to have him be Phibes’ equal in every way.


While The Abominable Dr. Phibes reveled in deliberately arty and beautiful compositions, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, is a definite step down in that respect. It is still a beautiful and interesting film, but the methods of killing Phibes' enemies aren’t as creative and strange. There is a grandiosity that this film brings to its horror scenes that sits wonderfully at odds with strange and violent deaths that befall the victims. It is hard to escape the fact that Dr. Phibes Rises Again is a paler imitation of The Abominable Dr. Phibes but that still means it’s only slightly less brilliant.

 

What it feels like when you have anxiety
but also want to order a pizza.


 

Fans of Vincent Price and classic horror and going to have a great time. If you are a hopeless romantic, you might even find something here for you.  If you are a Saw franchise enthusiast, you can definitely see the DNA from this series in those films and I think you will find something to enjoy. Dr. Phibes Rises Again struggles a little to capture the magic of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, it still manages to be an enjoyable film in its own right.

Friday, April 29, 2022

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair


 

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
2021
Jane Schoenbrun


We’re all living in a horror movie.


Casey (Anna Cobb) is a young woman who spends her days playing an Alternative Reality Game (ARG) called The World’s Fair Challenge, in which people perform a particular ritual and documents the results which are supposed to change that person forever. Casey’s videos catch the attention of JLB (Michael Rogers) another player who is concerned about her behavior. Is Casey really under the sway of some unknown evil or is she simply playing the game along with everyone else? What exactly are his motives?


We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is about the horror of isolation and how we use the internet to create narratives for ourselves and others to film those spaces in our lives. The story itself is fragmented much like our day-to-day interactions on the internet, we see Casey create her videos, we see her isolated quiet life, we jump to the videos of other people playing the World’s Fair Challenge, and we see JLB in his vast nearly empty home. Casey never appears on screen with another character, JLB only in brief moment is seen with another person in frame.

 

OK, but that bedroom is pretty cool.
 

There isn’t much in the way of a traditional narrative or even traditional horror. Instead, the film is an exploration of tone and void. Set around Xmas, the film forgoes the usual festive settings for a bleak gray and windswept world that is as alien as anything Casey reaches for in her game. The look of the film is sparse, as it should be. Relegated to just a few locations, and the drizzly bleak outdoors. Her waking life and her ARG blur together. The blending of worlds is normally a common trope in horror films but We’re All Going to the World’s Fair takes it one step further, as the viewer is never sure just how much of this is Casey playing a game, actually falling under the influence or something, or even having a narrative constructed for her by JLB and by extension the viewer. While her world feels haunted and empty, Casey feels the real horror from within, there is a fracture in her personality. She is reaching for something missing about herself, but there is nothing online or in the bleak world around her that offers any help. The film becomes about a person to contextualize themselves while another outside observer attempts the same thing.

"Stupid Windows updates...
I want to get back to my bleak existence."

 

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair does contain a couple of frightening scenes but it largely trades in dread from an oppressive world and an unknown destination. I can see this being a divisive film because it offers no answers to its questions, the audience is as lost in the hunt for concrete meaning as much as the characters are, but if you also allow yourself to be swept up in the emotional side of the journey as you will find a film that is as haunting and desperate as marginalized lives in this era can be.
 

Friday, April 22, 2022

After Last Season

 

After Last Season
2009
Mark Region


I am at a loss.


I honestly don’t know what to make of After Last Season. I can say with certainty that is very boring, very weird, and unwatchable in a way that lures you into a fugue state. It is the kind of film that if it had been released by Adult Swim, I would grasp what it is supposed to be doing but I am not given that gift of deliberate irony.


The plot, which is as mercurial as the rest of the movie, concerns a couple of interns at a company called Prorolis. Someone is murdering students and the other students use experimental brain chips to try and visualize the killer and stop them before they strike again.


The first and most striking thing about After Last Season is it’s look. Shot in what looks like an unfinished house, the sets, furniture, and props are often created from cardboard and/or covered in what appears to be large sheets of butcher paper. The effect does give everything a white sterile and completely artificial appearance. Every room feels sparse, the overwhelming whiteness of the imagery begins to wear on the eyes after just a few minutes.

The Ambien party kicks into high gear.
 

The acting from every single person is flat, no one shows much affectation even in the face of finding a dead body or trying out some kind of impressive technology. There are vast dead quiet spaces between lines. Inane dialogue about where to find a room, or a place someone visited a year ago go on at length. The film wastes time on the most banal improvised dialog that never sounds naturalistic.


The third element and maybe the most confounding of all are the lengthy CGI sequence which are meant to represent a technology that allows two people to share thoughts and generate images. The results are scenes of  what usually amount to blocks and shapes punctuated only by sparse dialog or random sounds of water that would have looked primitive in the 1990s much less 2009. These scenes go on for what seems like ages. They push past boring to become weirdly hypnotic. 

Clinical Depression 64
 

So, it really comes down to intention with this one. Were all these choices deliberate? Were they driven by a lack of resources or a dismissal of traditional storytelling? I honestly have no idea. If this quirkiness is on purpose the film never ever tips its hand and lets you know. If this is just the pure vision of Mark Region than I am eager to see more.


I can’t in any good faith recommend this movie for 99% of the movie going audience, it will be torturous. For the 1% of ultra weirdos. The kind of person who derives enjoyment from Science Crazed (1991) or legit thinks Things (1989) is a masterpiece in its own twisted way then this is a film you will appreciate. If you think something like Birdemic (2010) or The Room (2003) are the pinnacle of so bad it’s good outsider film, After Last Season could very well kill you stone dead.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Dr. Frankenstein on Campus


 

Dr. Frankenstein on Campus (aka Flick)
1970
Gilbert W. Taylor


Dr. Frankenstein on Campus isn’t a very good Frankenstein movie or even a horror movie, but it excels as a time capsule of the end of the hippie era and the beginning of the great dissolution in that culture that would lead to hedonistic excesses of the 1970s and the real horror of the Regan led 1980s. It is such a strange little pretentious mess that it is frustrating but also engaging thought its flourishes and high camp.


The film opens with a Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Robin Ward) dueling and subsequently being thrown out of his university. He runs off to Canada to study brain control technology with another Professor. Victor uses this technology to turn rivals into killing machines who murder those who displease him. Frankenstein also seems very averse to taking his shirt off or indulging in drinking or drugs. I wonder why?


Dr. Frankenstein on Campus thinks it is a very clever movie, it sets out to subvert the typical Frankenstein movie tropes. There is no apparent monster, there is no lurking around in graveyards or gothic atmosphere at all. It replaces all of that that with a sneering look at youth counterculture. Frankenstein is both immersed in this culture and an abject enemy of it, which brings us to the biggest problem in the film and that is Frankenstein’s characterization. He is by terms a charming person, an unreasonable snob, and then a monstrous criminal. There never feels like a connecting thread to these changes in personality, it inconsistent and distracting.


The most 70s face.
 

The saving grace of  Dr. Frankenstein on Campus is its campy nature, in particular the musical choices which give the film a film a comedic air while the content of the film is played straight for the most part. I can’t tell how much of this was intentional versus how much of it just hasn’t aged well at all. The effect of viewing in modern day creating a juxtaposition of elements that it is far and away the most interesting thing in a film that is slow and pretentious.


Spoiler territory ahead.


So, in the end it turns out that Victor Frankenstein was not in fact the doctor by the creature. The film drops some hints by having Frankenstein never indulging in drugs or alcohol and never wanting to take off his clothes in front of anyone else. The reveal scene of his body, covered in stitches that slowly start popping, is the only truly horrific scene in the entire film. It’s a clever moment and the fact that it goes on for so long and forces the viewer to sit there and watch this gross scene unfold is just the touch of sadism the rest of the film could have benefited from.

 

Yeah, I had a chemistry test like that too.
 

If you are in the mood for horror, I don’t think Dr. Frankenstein on Campus will satisfy you. If you are in the mood for a weird mess then I would definitely give this a look.


(I have no idea why this movie was originally titled Flick.)
 

Friday, April 8, 2022

The Bamboo Saucer

The Bamboo Saucer
1968
Frank Telford


Flying saucers and the Cold War were staples of genre cinema for decades and hit their height in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1968, with the Vietnam War causing so much strife both in Vietnam and the US, people had become weary of all the pointless death in the name of a proxy war that more and more were publicly turning against. It is interesting how this is reflected in The Bamboo Saucer and that it probably would have been a completely different film if it had been made just a few years earlier.


An Air Force test pilot (John Ericson) is chased by a UFO. After his adventure, not only is there no evidence, but also nobody believes him. His pursuit catches the notice of a secret organization that reveals a similar craft may have landed in China. A small team are air dropped in to the find the UFO. They run into another team of scientists from the USSR and two decide to form a truce to find the craft before the Chinese army finds them.

"It smells like Fritos in here!"

The majority of The Bamboo Saucer plays out like a spy adventure film. We have mysteries, secret organizations, a military that is hiding the truth, and a little glob trotting. Despite this being a low budget film, the adventure does feel big. It does the important work of making the effort to reach the flying saucer feel earned and I think the most interesting part of this is how the USA and USSR backed teams join forces and are shown to be equally heroic when things grow dire.


It was with no small amount of delight for me to watch this cold war spy film turn into a proper science-fiction film with a message of cooperation. The USSR and USA groups are given some nuance when it comes to their views and characters. The Chinese aren’t given quite this deep a look, serving more as the faceless bad guys who push our heroes to work together. It would have added yet another level of nuance and show that all people could benefit from cooperation had they been given more to do. This production had already caught the ire of the US military for not showing it in the most perfect light, which means they were doing something right at least.


"A craft from the planet Ertl."
 

I enjoyed seeing this as a color production, it helps the whole experience feel bigger and more important. The downside of this is that it makes the already dodgy special effects stand out even more. While there is something certainly charming the obvious model effects it does diminish the feeling of large-scale adventure up to that point, but it’s a minor quibble.


The Bamboo Saucer is a minor gem that offers quite a few surprises, especially if you’re used to the tone of cold war films from this era. A fun adventure that has something to say, The Bamboo Saucer is worth taking for a spin.