Friday, March 24, 2017

The Green Slime

The Green Slime
Kinji Fukasaku

Flora isn’t a terrifying name for an asteroid, but that isn’t stopping this one from threatening Earth. Enter Commander Jack Rankin (Robrot Horton) and Commander Vince Elliot (Richard Jaeckel) who manage to stop bickering over Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi) long enough to fly over to the asteroid and blow it up. Sadly for them, someone brings back a hitchhiker to their space station, Gamma One. The asteroid contained pools of a strange green slime that, once in the presence of radiation, mutates into one-eye monsters with flailing electric tipped tentacles. Cue the music!

Let us just get this out of the way; the best and most memorable thing about The Green Slime is its theme song. It is funky and catchy; it will haunt you for the rest of your life. You will sing it while driving; you will sing it in the shower, it will loop endlessly in your head while you are trying to write a movie review. Please enjoy it in all its glory.

"Commander, I'm just going to come out and say it: This is space poop. We are standing on space poop."
As for the film itself, it doesn’t quite live up to the goofy joy of the theme song. The movie takes itself far too seriously. I am all for a film taking an outlandish premise and playing it straightforward, but that doesn’t mean there is room to have fun. The Green Slime plays out its premise with a grim determination that is more fitting for a moody film like Alien (1979), rather than a brightly colored space adventure.  The second crime this film commits is not getting to the aliens quickly enough, it would rather spend far too long on the posturing of its two leading men. This might be an attempt to give the characters some depth, but they are both jerks, so who cares? Bring on the self-replicating monsters that electrocute people.

The one upside of this seriousness is that once the creatures do manage to swarm all over Gamma One, there is a feeling of actual threat to the characters. The fact that it comes from floppy-armed rubber monsters creates the core of absurd enjoyment that keeps the film from being a total slog. The little cyclopoid monsters are more cute  than menacing, but they do managed to deliver some gruesome deaths to any crew members unfortunate enough to wander into tentacle range. The green horrors make the cutest sounds too.

"That better be a laser gun digging into my hip, mister.".
For a Japanese production, the miniatures and models are, at best, passable. They lack attention to detail. The whole film is shot in a flat workman-like manner that limits the dramatic tension. I do rather like the psychedelic look of the slime infested asteroid. The whole movie would have benefited from more outlandish visuals, but our stay on Flora is short lived, and the movie returns to the dull gray confines of Gamma One for the remainder of the story.

The premise, the music, the monsters, all these elements could have come together to create something memorable, and indeed all these individual elements are fun, but they never congeal.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Boneyard

The Boneyard
James Cummins

Alley Cates (Deborah Rose) is a burned out psychic who is hauled out of retirement to help the police with a strange case. Traveling to the Boneyard, a fortress-like morgue, Alley is told about a crazed mortician who was found with the corpses of three children in his basement. The Boneyard is run by one Ms. Poopinplatz (Phyllis Diller), a no-nonsense battle axe, who only has affection for her poodle. It soon becomes evident that the corpses aren’t just corpses, they are hungry ghouls. Our heroes find themselves locked in the Boneyard and under constant siege from the little demons.

To be honest, I avoided The Boneyard back in the 1990s, because I was already tired of horror-comedies. The late 1980s had seen a glut of them to diminishing returns. When The Boneyard proudly displayed its killer poodle monster on the cover, I just rolled my eyes and moved on. I wasn’t in the mood for it, and I forgot all about it over the years. Later, after spying it on the shelf of my local video rental store, I decided to give it a chance. I was happy I did, there are certainly some silly moments to be found, but there is some legitimate horror, and a great unconventional protagonist as well.
The Wood Paneling Yard just didn't have the same scare factor.
The Boneyard is a real horror film despite what the cover would have you believe. It’s a base under siege story, as our heroes search for a way to escape being locked in with monstrous undead children. The child monsters or kuei-shen are horrible quick little beasts that gleefully tear people apart. Their design is great and they are both threatening and evoke a strange sympathy once their origin is revealed. A couple later entries are less successful, the killer poodle monster and another giant undead thing. They are a bit too cartoonish for what has been a relatively straight forward film, but the actual physical costume and effects for these creations are excellent.

Phyllis Diller is surprisingly great in her role as the loud and stubborn Ms. Poopinplatz. She plays the part with hardened sarcasm that hides a real world-weariness underneath. I had feared she was just going to be zany and over-the-top, but she makes this brash character come alive. Deborah Rose is an atypical heroine, you rarely see a middle-aged heavy-set woman as anything other than an object of ridicule or a victim in horror films, so it’s actually startling to see Alley placed front and center as the hero of the story. Her backstory is tragic and the movie doesn’t back away from showing you the source of her pain and how it drives her reluctance to get involved.

This really should have been the movie's theme song.
The Boneyard stands as a great example of why I adopted a policy of watching everything I can no matter how dire the reputation. This is a film I ignored only to discover later that it has a lot of hidden strengths and unexpected touches that made me really appreciate it. The Boneyard contains a number of pacing flaws that keep from being truly great, but its quirks and personality more than make up for that. A great find, and I’m very glad I gave it a chance, you should check it out too.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Creeping Flesh

The Creeping Flesh
Freddie Francis

Dr. Hildren (Peter Cushing) recounts a tale that involves him returning from New Guinea with the skeleton of a being that is decidedly not human. The doctor investigates the skeleton believing it to be a source of physical evil, and with it, he can generate a vaccine against human wrongdoing. His daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilborn), is busy uncovering the truth about her mother, a revelation which tempts Dr. Hildren to use his new found vaccine…

The underlying story of The Creeping Flesh is fascinating. The possibilities that arise from this ancient advanced being that could be a source of real physical evil makes from some cosmic tinged horror. While the film never becomes directly Lovecraftian, it does draw a little bit from that well of vast dread. I can see this movie having some influence on Alien (1979) by opening its mystery with an oversized and distorted skeleton. I also see a touchstone for Prince of Darkness (1987), with a long forgotten source of human evil that is on the verge of awakening to herald the end of the world.

"Oh, I really hope that this a finger..."
It’s shame this wonderful premise gets sidelined for a much less interesting, although probably much much more cost effective subplot involving Dr. Hildern’s daughter, Penelope. Penelope is a recipient of a ‘vaccine against evil’ that of course goes wrong, turning her into an amoral monster who casually murderers on a whim. Watching Penelope’s descent at the hands of her well-meaning father isn’t dull, but the whole story dominates the central part of the film. If the plot could keep the evil skeleton narrative simmering in the background with more skill, this would work just fine. However, it feels like that element is dropped for too long. There’s a notable rise in the energy of the film when it finally turns back to it's original question for the finale.

As always, Peter Cushing turns in a tremendous performance as a man caught between his research, protecting his daughter (and himself) from the truth of a tragic past, and a not so hidden rivalry with his brother. Christopher Lee has limited screen time here as Hildern's brother, but he makes the most of it, layering on a sinister graciousness. Lorna Heilborn makes Penelope’s change from innocent and distraught girl to psychotic murderer work by demonstrating just how much joy inflicting pain brings her.

The film looks great, filled with gloomy autumn images, and dark claustrophobic interiors. Director Freddie Francis does an amazing job of making the ambulatory skeleton look menacing, mostly by concentrating on its looming shadow as searches for its target.  There is a very limited about of gore on display, most of the titular creeping flesh is rendered in stop motion and a few simple prosthetics.

Something is seriously wrong with this Viewmaster
This was the last film made by Tigon, a British film company that produced a number of notable horror films, such as The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Witchfinder General (1968). While it is not up to the standards of those two films, The Creeping Flesh is very enjoyable in its own right.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Queen of Blood

Queen of Blood
Curtis Harrington

In the far-flung future of 1990, an international space agency receives a distress call from a downed alien craft. The vessel held an alien ambassador who was sent to Earth, but has crashed on Mars. A rescue crew eventually finds a lone alien survivor, a beautiful green feminine creature who doesn’t speak or eat food. She does, however, smile a lot and has a rather hypnotic gaze. Once the astronauts find out what she does actually eat, they are faced with a dilemma, do they kill her, or do they look for a way to satisfy her unquenchable thirst for blood?

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) is often cited as the main influence for Alien (1979), but after viewing Queen of Blood, I would say it was just as important an influence, maybe even more so. Whereas, It! captured the idea of a space crew being trapped on-board a ship with a deadly alien, Queen of Blood immerses itself in body horror, an element which is key to the success of Alien. While Queen of Blood certainly never reaches the grotesque heights of its descendant, there is a quiet horror in the vampiric nature of the alien who appears humanoid but is most decidedly not human.

"His reception is bad, I'm going to jiggle his antenna."
Roger Corman funded this film and several of his productions from this era reused footage from Soviet science-fiction films. Queen of Blood takes a few of its space scenes from Mechte Navstrechu (1963), largely the beautiful model effects. It has definitely whet my appetite to see some more of that original film. Queen of Blood is mostly confined to the interior of a single ship. The set designs and costumes are pretty typical for the era, the sole exception being the Alien Queen’s astounding fancy space helmet and her pointy beehive.  Her make-up is a simple light green body paint, but there are a few sequences where her eyes light-up in an eerie manner that is unexpectedly effective.

It’s always a treat to see Dennis Hopper and John Saxon on screen, and here we even get to see them together for a brief period. Their approaches to the film couldn’t be more opposed, we see John Saxon attacking each scene with a seriousness and gravitas that the material might not deserve, but is so much the better for it. Hopper on the other hand, can be seen barely keeping from laughing, but there is still an undeniable charm and energy in his performance. Florence Marly plays the (mostly) mute Alien Queen and she does marvelous job of creating a character who is remote, alluring, horrifying and ultimately pitiable.

"My eyes are up here, pal."
Queen of Blood is an interesting watch for the fact that it sits firmly in the tradition of the gaudy pulp-styled SF of the 1960s, yet starts to show hints of more serious minded horror/SF hybrids that would come later. Not only is it an interesting proto-horror/SF film, it’s also a well-made and entertaining b-movie in its own right. Kino Lorber has recently put out a vibrant looking Blu-ray that is well worth seeking out

Friday, February 24, 2017

Mind Killer

Mind Killer
Michael Kruger

Warren (Joe McDonald) is an employee at the local library. He has an awful boss, and no luck with women at all. To make matters worse, his roommate Brad (Kevin hart) seems to have no trouble securing dates. One day at work, Warren stumbles up on a book that purports to increase mental capacity just by reading it. Warren does and soon enough he discovers that he can mentally influence people and things. A new employee, Sandy (Shirley Ross) becomes his obsession after she proves impervious to his new powers. Warren’s co-worker Larry takes note of Warren’s increasingly aggressive behavior, but it may be too late to stop him.

The film opens with a disturbing and tantalizing pre-credits sequence, but then settles into being something more akin to a light workplace comedy for much of its run. Warren’s developing mental powers are played for laughs, he helps his friend solve a Rubik’s Cube, he makes his overbearing boss strip down to his matching underwear set in front of everyone at work, and he picks up women. Warren’s lack of dating skills is the whole cause for this mess, and I think its good writing to have the one woman he truly desires immune to his powers, a fact which drives him further and further into madness. There is already a darkness in using mental manipulation to trick people into doing your bidding, even when it’s played lightly. So, to have that aspect turn the comedy into full-blown horror is fitting.

"I command you to bring me the last donut out of the box."
Mind Killer takes forever to finally get going, but it once it does, it’s extremely entertaining during its all too brief finale.  The look of the film borrows heavily from Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986), with a lurid pink and purple color scheme and plenty of slime covered rubber prosthetics. Ther are also distinct Cronenberg style touches with the idea of the mind rebelling against the body. The low-fi video look gives the whole production a cheap and revolting atmosphere that works in its favor. It often feels like you're watching a mediocre sitcom from the 1980s that has something unsettling going on just behind the scenes.

Often low budget SOV productions really fall down in the acting and script writing department. This is usually due to those involved having more enthusiasm than experience. Mind Killer is surprising in that it actually contains some clever dialogue and all around good performances.  Warren is a desperate sleaze bag from almost the moment he appears, so I didn’t develop much sympathy for his plight.  Joe McDonald does manage to sell both the menace and the pain of Warren’s late stage transformation very well.  Christopher Ward’s Larry is played a little too broadly for my tastes, but then again, this a movie featuring a four legged brain monster, so what encapsulates ‘too broadly’ is up for discussion.

Mind Killer falls just short of being a hidden gem. Its slow and sagging middle section drags down what could have been a classic low budget slimefest, still there is plenty to recommend here for the patient; good performances, and some fun monster effects.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Where Have All the People Gone?

Where Have All the People Gone?
John Llewellyn Moxey

Steve (Peter Graves) and his family are out camping. Steve’s wife, Barbara (Jay W. Macintosh) heads home early. While goofing around in a cave, Steve, his son, and daughter experience a powerful earthquake. When they emerge, they find that stray dogs have become aggressive, cars won't start, and nearly everyone around has vanished leaving only clothes and piles of white dust behind. The family make their way home, eager to discover the fate of Barbara and to see if they can find any answers to what has happened to the world.

With Where Have All the People Gone? being a TV movie from the 1970s, it is not a visual powerhouse. The movie makes good use of the washed-out deserted locations, giving everything a feeling of being abandoned, and almost haunted, by the now vanished former inhabitants. The rest of the movie is shot in a flat, functional way that doesn’t excite, but also doesn’t inhibit the story in any way. The story itself is a slow burn, we learn about the mystery as the characters do, so it may be that the staid presentation is more of an asset than it appears to be.
"One joke about this being a 'Graves situation' and I'm going to make you eat that gun."
The story of Where Have All the People Gone? is remarkably straightforward, the characters move from point A to point B on their quest to find Barbara. They encounter the central mystery of why people having seemingly vanished, put together the clues and come to a resolution by the end. There’s a not a deviation from this story, and with only 77 minutes of run-time, I suppose there just wasn’t room to explore more. That’s too bad, since the idea of the last few humans exploring an abandoned Earth is rife with possibilities. Often TV movies were really pilot episode test for a series, but I can’t find any evidence that this was the case here.

One thing I really did appreciate about this film is that is doesn’t pull away from some bleak answers, and it doesn’t wrap everything up nicely. Even if the resolution of why (almost) everyone has vanished or turned into piles of dust makes no sense, the story gamely plays along to a logical conclusion and manages to end with a little tragedy and hope. I think a sickly sweet happy ending would have made this entire venture totally forgettable, instead it becomes a tiny curiosity in the massive list of post-apocalyptic movies.

Faster, Lassie, Kill, Kill!
The only likeable character is Peter Graves as Steve, and that is largely because Peter Graves is likeable. Steven, on the other hand, is incredibly dumb, makes bad decisions and is forced to rely on his annoying son, whose limited college education is capable of providing all the scientific answers they need. Everyone else is a sweaty maniac, useless catatonic mess, or angry dog (only dogs have gone insane after the apocalypse, apparently horses are just fine) and no one seems to have a clue on how to handle anything. In a way, this might be the most realistic representation of how people would behave after a sudden mass disappearance, but it can make for aggravating movie viewing.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster
Robert Gaffney

After the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and with the Vietnam War becoming more and more of a reality for the average citizen, the 1950s era of invading monsters menacing girls was slowly on its way out, to be replaced with creatures that were more human in nature. Maniacs like The Sadist (1963), the lush horror of Hammer Studio’s take on classic monsters, and Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations were in vogue. Coming in at the tail end of the of the atomic age of SF film and into the more personal works of the 1960s, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster displays some curious elements from both eras.

The plot itself is straight out of the pulp SF playbook: All the Martian women (save one apparently) have perished in a civil war, so a mission has been sent to Earth to capture women for use in repopulating the dying planet. The Martians shoot down a space capsule thinking it is an attack, this capsule contains one Colonel Frank Saunders. Frank is the weird twist in this movie, he’s a machine that thinks he is a person. Frank survives the crash of his rocket, but ends up on the wrong end of a Martian death ray. It melts half of his face; Frank becomes Frankenstein, and goes on a Martian killing rampage. What’s unusual here is Frank’s horror at the realization of what he is. A potential square-jawed science hero becomes the misunderstood monster of the film, but still retains his narrative place as the protagonist that must stop the alien invasion.

"All I'm saying is, do not fall sleep when you're frying chicken..."
The film itself contains a number of strange flourishes, freeze frames, lengthy surf rock numbers with some very pointed lyrics, some excellent meltly face make-up for Frank, and a supremely goofy looking Martian space monster named Mull. Far and away the most memorable part of this movie is Lou Cutell’s performance as Dr. Nadir, henchman to the Martian Princess. With his bald cap, pointy ears, and exceedingly arch delivery, Dr. Nadir is a glorious force that takes Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster from minor b-movie curiosity to minor camp masterpiece.

You can find a washed-out print online to watch for free, but Dark Sky Films has released a nice cleaned-up DVD version. It is not a beautiful looking film, and the cleaner image makes the copious stock footage used for the military and space scenes stand out that much more, but I think at the very least, Frank’s melting robot face, and Dr. Nadir's questionable make-up job need to be seen in all their glory.

I'm an imp. No, I mean literally. I am an actual for real imp. I'm not messing around."
I think if this film had been made even two or three years prior, it would have been a very different beast. Between the throwback plot, some minor yet effective body horror, and the deliberate camp (at least on actor Lou Cutell’s part), there is an awareness to Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster that gives it just enough of an edge to be something worth checking out. It’s not a popular or well-regarded movie, but it has become one that I find myself rewatching often.

Bonus: Here's a really fun read about the creation of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster from one of the writers, George Garrett.