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Friday, February 19, 2021

Mutator

Mutator
1989
John R. Bowey

A medical company hires a new security guard after one 'vanishes'. David Allen (Brion James) is the new hire but he is also a highly trained scientist who is investigating the company. He comes to find out that genetic mutants are running free in the building and only he and a band of security guards know what is going on. Can they escape before they become cat food?

Mutator is yet another in a long string of Alien (1979)/Aliens (1986) oh, let us say inspired films. A group of people are trapped in a location and must get from point A to point B while monsters roam the air ducts and occasionally snatch unsuspecting people. It is a well-worn formula and that is because it works… mostly. A lot of these movies are terrible. Mutator is also terrible but it has three things that make it interesting. 


1) The Building

I am an aficionado of brutalism and a large portion of mutator takes place in a cool brutalist space. The whole evil corporation looks more like a haunted mall and it gives parts of the movie a low-key vaporwave vibe.  Other settings are interesting industrial spaces that are a step above the typical drab factories that plague many movies. More importantly, it’s all lit so that you can see it. This film is almost entirely shot on location which means the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to hide shoddy sets in the dark.


2) The Monsters

Let me be upfront, you never get to see the monsters in full view. What do you see is amazing. Pale furry boot/claws, ripped abs, and cute little paws. These aren’t just any old rubber monsters, these are giant mutant kitty cats! It’s a shame we really don’t get to see them do anything until the 45-minute mark and even then they are relegated to quick cuts and POV shots.



3) Brion James

You probably know Brion James from the dozens of roles where he is a bad guy. One of his most famous roles is as the replicant,  Leon Kowalski in Blade Runner (1982). He’s a big guy with a unique look and he was typecast as a heavy his whole life. So, it is a special treat to see him here as the hero, and not only that, he’s a scientist who uses his training to fight off the monsters. Mutator stops short of giving him a full-on romance plot but it comes closer than I expected. Brion James fans this your film.

These are the highlights of a movie that makes a lot of mistakes and by all rights should be a complete failure. I see its value really for people who are fans of low-budget movies, their culture, and their nuances, anyone in it to see a competent horror-action move is going to be very disappointed. There are some silly things for the joy of bad movie fans but probably not enough to keep them engaged.

If Brion James vs. The Thundercats sounds like your thing. Check it out. 



Friday, February 12, 2021

The She-Creature


The She-Creature
1956
Edward L. Cahn

Something is crushing the life out of people in a small seaside community. Elsewhere, Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris) is a small-time carnival worker with a hypnotism act. There is more than the act than meets the eyes as he seems to be able to make his assistant Andrea Talbott (Marla English) regress into her past lives and manifest those lives in reality. No one really believes him, most of all his romantic rival Dr. Ted Erickson (Lance Fuller) who seeks to disprove his act but might just end up on the wrong end of a prehistoric monster.

There is a perception that the horror films of the 1950s are largely the same parade of atomic-powered monsters facing down stiff-necked scientists with a screaming woman in their arms. Make no mistake, there were plenty of exactly those kinds of movies, but there are a number of outliers too. One of the strangest comes from the biggest purveyors of teenage drive-in horror, American International Pictures.

This is exactly what it looks like when I have to get
up to pee in the middle of the night but I don't want
to and I am also a monster.

The pacing of  The She-Creature is slow and meandering which a lot of reviews count as a negative, but I feel that coupled with the soft, dark photography and long stretches set near the ocean help contribute to a dream-like atmosphere. There is a slipperiness to the narrative that comes more from vague writing than anything intentional, but I find it effective none-the-less.

The entire structure of the film is unusual. The film’s villain, Lombardi, is a threat but never a direct one that the protagonists can act against. He is sleazy, opportunistic, and smart. The heroes spend much of the film aware he is behind the murders but without any idea of how it has done or even how to stop it. The viewers know Lombardi is behind the murders, we are shown that almost immediately, and then we ourselves spend much of the film trying to understand how he does it and the explanation we’re given asks more questions than it answers.

The She-Creature itself is a memorable design, reptilian and demonic by turns, it holds up after all these years as a great monster and one that deserved more than its two film appearances (the other being The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959)). There is a mildly Lovecraftian sentiment that this horrible thing is the originator of humans. The film never capitalizes on this disconnect, but it remains there as an unspoken element of horror in the larger narrative.

"Which one of us is drunk?"

It is also hard to escape that The She-Creature settles around two men contesting for a single woman by taking turns dominating her will. Almost none of the humans come off particularly well as everyone is driven by greed, social climbing, or sexual conquest. There is a noir quality to the story set around scientists and socialites which is interesting enough on its own but throw in a past life regressed monster and you have something strange and unique.

The She-Creature is a curious b-film and one that rewards some patience and open-mindedness when going into it. It is one of the AIP moves that I find myself going back to rewatch more than others.


Friday, February 5, 2021

Gamera vs. Jiger


Gamera vs. Jiger (aka Gamera vs. Monster X)
1970
Noriaki Yuasa

Gamera vs. Jiger is the sixth Gamera film in the series. By 1970 the Gamera movies had completely devoted themselves to being children’s films. Not there is anything wrong with that, it does helps give these films a distinct voice in comparison to Gamera’s most notable adversary, Godzilla. Angling for a younger audience also allowed the Gamera films to engage in some bizarre leaps of logic. If you are the kind of person who needs your kaiju deadly serious Gamera is not a good choice, but if you like things weird and cheap, Gamera is your turtle.

Gamera vs. Jiger operates as a mash-up of your traditional kaiju movie with two monsters kicking each other in the teeth and Fantastic Voyage (1966). In this case, two kids in a submarine (Showa era Gamera movies are obsessed with underwater vehicles) must venture inside Gamera to cure him of a parasite before he can live again to fight Jiger. There’s a whole semi-useless background detail of Expo ’70 in Osaka which does set the plot in motion but does little beyond that.

Jiger looks like a half-assed dinosaur-dog.

In the Gamera rogue’s gallery, Jiger is often forgotten. She’s not the most interesting looking monster. She’s a brown quadruped with a big beak-like snout. She does shoot quills and if you’re lucky she puts a baby version of herself in her victim via a stinger in her tail. That alone makes her notable. Her strange origin (or lack of it) is also interesting. She is summoned by the removal of a large statue that begins to whistle.

It wouldn’t be a Gamera film without a little bloodletting and body horror and we get plenty of that with not only a tour of Gamera’s guts, but we also get to witness him turn transparent from his illness. It also wouldn’t be a Gamera movie without him doing something truly ludicrous, in this case, he jams telephone poles into his ears to stop a disabling sound. As is tradition Gamera gets a final kill that is beyond anything Godzilla would usually get away with.

"I'm feeling a little light-headed."

You will notice that I have so far skipped over the humans of this film, while the human elements of kaiju films are often the weakest part, that is doubly so for many Gamera films. Children are the main characters and often come across as entitled and far too smart for the dopey adults. The point is to elevate the child characters in the eyes of the child audience, but it comes at the cost of making them into actual relatable characters. Screeching know-it-all kids are the bane of this film and several others. If you are this deep into the Gamera series this may be less of an issue for you but proceed at your own risk.

Gamera vs. Jiger isn’t a well-remembered Gamera film but it does have plenty to recommend for kaiju fans and people into very silly movies that have giant turtles with bloody telephone polls in their ears.


Friday, January 29, 2021

Psycho Goreman

Psycho Goreman
2020
Steven Kostanski

Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) are siblings who uncover a glowing gem from under the ground. The gem allows them to control the Archduke of Nightmares, an alien warlord who has been imprisoned. Mimi quickly takes control and renames him Psycho Goreman (or PG for short). Meanwhile, a religious fanatic cult lead by an angel-like figure named Pandora (Kristen MacCulloch) heads to Earth to destroy Psycho Goreman once and for all. She hasn’t counted on him learning the value of love and friendship (well… kind of.)

At this point, the 1980s aesthetic has been mined nearly to death. It seems every week there will be a new film that borrows the slick neon, synthesizer-driven aesthetic. Usually, these elements rarely go beyond a surface level, but occasionally we get a work that really digs down to the core of what films in the 1980s were dealing with, some in an obtuse way such as Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) and some in a much more direct way that rides that careful line between satire and homage. Psycho Goreman is the latter.

Back in the 1980s we could leave our houses and eat inside restaurants.

Psycho Gorman knits together the 1980s staples of kids & monsters (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Gremlins (1984)), and the over-the-top gore (Re-Animator (1985), Evil Dead 2 (1987)). The love for these things is evident in every slimy rubber monster and explosion of blood throughout the film. One of the reoccurring elements of 1980s cinema is a much more black and white sense of morality. The good guys were pure (if a little damaged on occasion) and the bad guys are rarely motivated by anything else aside from being evil. The clever subversion in all this comes from the fact that there really aren’t any good guys in this film. Psycho Goreman is the worst villain in the universe. To call Mimi mad with power would be a kindness. Pandora works for the side of order but it is order without morality.

There are plenty of visual gross-out gags, but a lot of comedy comes from characters who have subdued reactions to the absolute chaos around them. It isn’t that they take things for granted, it’s more like the humans are really unable to conceive of the cosmic forces they are dealing with it. This underplayed comedy works as a lovely counterpoint to cartoonish graphic violence. Not every joke lands but Psycho Goreman keeps a steady flow of comedy coming at the viewer.

A good movie can let you know everything you need to know in one image.

If the film just kept the comedy and horror in equal measure it would be fine but hollow. Underneath all the chaos there is an actual heart. We have a family that is disintegrating and although that disintegration is usually played for laughs there is an undertone of tragedy. At the climax this nuance makes things feel earned. The core relationship between Mimi and Luke is what is really at stake in this film and things have always been building to that payoff.

Psycho Goreman is not only a love letter to some very specific 1980s tropes but it works as a film in its own right.


Friday, January 22, 2021

The Hypnotic Eye


The Hypnotic Eye
1960
George Blair

A string of women are mutilating themselves and have no recollection of doing it. A trio of investigators begins to suspect that the women have been hypnotized into harming themselves. The prime suspect is a stage hypnotist named Desmond (Jacques Bergerac), but even he may not be acting under his own will. Who is really behind all this chaos and why?

The Hypnotic Eye knows how to grab an audience with an opening scene; A young woman washing her hair leans over a stovetop burner. With no explanation, she put her hair in the flames and sets herself on fire.  She screams as her hair bursts into flames in an obvious composite shot but it is still quite striking to see in a film from 1960. It’s a great opening that sets-up a mystery, gives a general idea of what the themes are going to be, and serves as a hint of the graphic violence to come. Good job, The Hypnotic Eye, you have me intrigued.

"I am looking up your nose."

What unfolds is a mystery story involving hypnosis and women being mesmerized into mutilating themselves. The Hypnotic Eye never shies away from treating us to some primitive, yet still effective scenes of scars, missing eyes, and other horrors that have been done to these women. The film never revels in these disfigurements but plays them for shock moments. The reason all the victims are women is given a narrative context by the end, but it still feels off. This is not an illuminating mediation on the culture of beauty standards than many women faced in the 20th century but there is more thought going on in the script than in most exploitation fare.

It is not all mystery and gore, there is also plenty of exploitation nonsense too. The film comes with several intense warnings about the dangers of hypnotism. It doesn’t reach Reefer Madness (1936) levels of overreaction, but it is hard to take the notion that attending a hypnosis show is akin to taking your life into your own hands. The film raises the stakes with several scenes of master hypnotist Desmond breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly with hypnotic suggestions. I have serious doubts that it ever worked but I do appreciate the effort. The Hypnotic Eye dabbles in a little William Castle gimmickry with a Hypnotic Eye Balloon that is featured in the film and was given out to audiences.

How sulfides ruin your hair.

The Hypnotic Eye is a nifty little horror mystery with some choice body horror, a mystery that is paper-thin but still entertaining, and it brings it all together with some less than serious exploitation elements. This all means that the film regularly switches gears to keep itself engaging and it works well. Just be careful that you are not hypnotized into drinking that bottle of hydrochloric acid you have hanging around the house.


Friday, January 15, 2021

Gamera vs. Guiron


Gamera vs. Guiron (aka Gamera tai daiakuju)
1969
Noriaki Yuasa

We live in trying times and it's a good excuse to turn to some comfort films. Out of the entire Gamera oeuvre, Gamera vs. Guiron is the most comfortable for me. Many people came to Gamera after the 1960s, through Mystery Science Theater 3000. Much like some other films on that show, I realized that I liked the movie that Joel and bots were riffing on. It captures that essential magic that makes Showa era Gamera so much fun, it's serious, silly, sneaks in some monster gore, and as a bonus it generally whips along at such a quick pace that doesn’t get bogged down in reusing stock footage or rehashing scenes from the previous films.

Part of the charm of Gamera vs. Guiron is that it plays out like a story written by children. Akio (Nobuhiro Kajima) and Tom (Christopher Murphy) are obsessed with space, so naturally, they spot a flying saucer land nearby. They find it and board it. The saucer takes off and after one unsuccessful encounter with Gamera they end up on a Counter-Earth populated by two people and one monster. The aliens, Florbella (Reiko Kasahara) and Barbella (Hiroko Kai) are attractive humanoids who have a vested interest in eating children’s brains and their pet Guiron is a knife-headed kaiju who defends them. The kids run around and thwart the aliens. Giant monsters fight and spill multi-colored blood everywhere and everyone goes home happy singing the Gamera theme.

WHO WILL SURVIVE AND
WHAT WILL BE LEFT OF THEM?

You’re here for Gamera and although he takes his time showing up you are treated Guiron slicing and dicing up a Space Gyaos (which is just a regular Gyaos costume spray painted silver) in a surprisingly graphic fashion complete with Guiron mutilating the corpse after the fight. Not only is it a big goofy rubber monster fight but it does set Guiron up as a threat and one who can potentially do a lot of harm to Gamera (which he does). The fights show a lot more life than some other Gamera films and the higher than normal amount of bloodletting gives the scenes some spice.

The aliens drive up the creep factor when they are introduced with their shadowy faces, blinking light-up eyes, and their interest in cracking open children’s heads to get to the delicious brains inside. Despite being creepy, these aliens are never threatening. They are barely able to keep two children at bay and are totally out of their depth when dealing with giant monsters. The rest of the human cast only occupy the first act of the film and aside from goofball cop Kondo (Kon Ohmura) none of them are worth much of your attention.

"Watch out, sometimes these things
pop open like a tube of biscuits."

Gamera vs. Guiron is my favorite sequel in the Gamera series, it has the sense of loopy fun that is unique to the Gamera films and it is enhanced with some cartoonish gore that gives just a little edge you don't normally find in giant monster films. It is a delight for young gorehounds and a cozy afternoon film for older ones.


Friday, January 8, 2021

Beyond the Rising Moon

Beyond the Rising Moon (aka Outerworld aka Star Quest: Beyond the Rising Moon)
1987
Philip J. Cook

Beyond the Rising Moon was a charming surprise. When I originally selected it, due to the date it was released and the fact it looked like it was a small direct to video feature. I expected something akin to the numerous Alien (1986) rip-offs that were very popular around this time. I was delighted to find a more cyberpunk film that was filled with ambitious miniature and model effects. Beyond the Rising Moon borrows actually ends up borrowing from Star Wars (1977)  more than Alien. There are plenty of shortcomings but there is also so much love and effort put into the production that it is easier to overlook these things. 

The writing is perhaps the weakest element of the entire movie. The first act of the film contains endless amounts of expository dialog all of which add up to very little. We learn of a corporate created cyborg assassin and her companion as they race against that same corporation to locate and claim a spacecraft created by an ancient alien race. Nothing explained is especially relevant to the story. It gives the characters some minimal motivation, but it comes across as workmanlike at best.

Waiting around for the plot to happen.

The acting is stiff and awkward, but this feels more like a combination of amateur acting and the less than perfect writing, than the actors being bad. The dialogue is stiff in a way that harkens back to SF films of the 1950s. If you are in a generous mood you can pretend that is a deliberate choice.

The special effects on the other hand a quite good and once I found out that the film was made for around $8000, they are downright stupendous. The models and cities go a long to building an interesting future world. The spaceship designs are cool and sleek. The space dogfights are exciting and dynamic in ways I did not expect from a small film like this. When you are used to seeing the same 6 effects shots from Corman films from this era, seeing a bunch of lovingly filmed sequences is refreshing. This is still an obviously amateur effort but that makes it even more impressive at times.

Space Hotel (Spotel)

During the home video boom, it was easy to find clone after clone of big-budget films looking to grab the interest of people. The best of them approach their subject in a unique way or push their content into places that a large studio would never dare to do.  Beyond the Rising Moon takes what could have been a typical Star Wars clone and breathes life into it with a lot of enthusiasm and love. It cloaks the film with a charm that might otherwise be absent in a more mercenary production.

Check out Beyond the Rising Moon, but make sure you track down the original version on YouTube. At some point, the SFX sequences were redone with CGI for the SyFy Channel. Much like the Star Wars Special Editions they look terrible, out of place, and diminish the film.