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Friday, January 11, 2019

The Sound of Horror



The Sound of Horror (aka El Sonido de la Muerte)
1966
José Antonio Nieves Conde

Dr. Asilov (James Philbrook) and his friend Andre (Antonio Casas) are treasure hunting in a cave in Spain. Their partner Dorman (José Bódalo) along with his driver Pete (Arturo Fernández) and Pete’s girlfriend Sofia (Ingrid Pitt) arrive. Soon after the trio blows open part of the cave, they find not only some strange egg-like rocks but a mummified Neanderthal… oh, and there is a lot of screeching and blood as they become the targets of an invisible dinosaur that also there.

The Sound of Horror engages in the most cost-saving kind of monster, the invisible kind. In this case, it is a dinosaur that has some ability to blend into its surroundings, but functionally it’s completely invisible. The movie does not spend a lot of time on gimmicks like objects floating through the air or seeing something slowly become transparent. The dinosaur is invisible for 99% of the movie and that’s just how it’s going to be. Sure there is a short reveal at the very end, but it is so underwhelming that I would caution you from putting any expectations on it.

Los pies del sonido de la muerte.
The Sound of Horror might shy away from shoving a dinosaur in your face but it does not skimp on the gore. Faces are slashed, blood is spilled, and it feels like intense stuff especially coming from something released in 1966. Engaging in some brazen violence really helps push the monster as an actual threat rather than just watching a bunch of actors react to nothing. There is a delightful tension from seeing characters in danger from something that is right in front of them and could strike at any moment. The invisible beast sparks the imagination more than a rubber-suited monster could ever do, which another reason why the final reveal is a letdown.

The Sound of Horror starts as a mystery and slowly becomes a siege movie as the characters find themselves trapped in their house against a foe they can’t see. I found the solution to combating the dinosaur pretty clever, and their (almost) final showdown with it is a cool little moment in a film that didn’t try to do too much with its own invisible creation.

When shaving your chest goes horribly wrong.
The version I saw was dubbed into English from the original Spanish, so I find it difficult to say much about the performances. All the of the characters are likable enough. Pete (Arturo Fernández)  the young driver who is pushed into the leading role by the end is a fun goofball, singing the charms of his favorite vehicle whom he has dubbed Diana. Horror icon, Ingrid Pitt makes an early career appearance as Sofia and even manages to get showcased in a slinky dance number about half-way through the film.

The Sound of Horror sounds like a silly premise and with only a few missteps it could have turned into a blunder. It wisely plays to the inherent strengths of its own premise and offers some gruesome sights to go with the pressure cooker situation. It is a weird film, but it is a weird film that works very well.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Kin


Kin
2018
Jonathon Baker, Josh Baker

Eli (Myles Tuitt) is a young kid adopted into a family with some problems. His older brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) has just gotten out of prison and is trying to get his life together. Complicating that is Taylor (James Franco), the leader of the gang that protected Jimmy in prison but now wants their due. While Eli is poking around an abandoned building looking for scrap to sell, he find a strange box that turns out to be a powerful weapon. Soon Eli and Jimmy are on the run not only from Taylor but also from a couple of strange armored figures who want their gun back.

Kin initially feels like it is going to be a modern-day take on Laserblast (1978) with a marginalized kid who is given a piece of technology that can put him over on the people who’ve hurt him. A film with more pulp aspirations would have turned this into a revenge film, but Kin is much more interested in its characters than its hyper-technology, perhaps to a fault. This is first and foremost a character-driven drama and a science-fiction film second, but don’t let that stop you, there are some interesting things going on in this unjustly ignored film.

"Do you have to saw 'pew pew' every time I pull the trigger?"
Myles Tuitt as Eli is an easy character to like. He’s in a much worse situation than he realizes for most of the film thanks to his brother hiding to the truth. It is interesting that after he finds the ray-gun, he strikes a few cool poses with it, but it does not fuel any macho power fantasies. His brother Jimmy immediately comes to realize the weapon’s potential and isn’t above using Eli to meet his ends. Jimmy is a troubled guy who constantly makes rash choices. I found it difficult to sympathize with him, but that is part of his journey as a character from an wreckless bad guy to a bad guy who takes some responsibility for his actions. Zoë Kravitz plays Milly who is mostly along for the ride with these two. Her character feels underdeveloped especially as she all but vanishes during the 3rd act. James Franco is the antagonist Taylor, and he’s greasy and awful, but Franco never completely disappears into the character, so it is often distracting.

If the film has one major flaw is that it hangs on its interpersonal drama just a little too long, making the science-fiction elements seem almost forgotten before we get around to the conclusion. I think audiences going in expecting a glorified action movie with a laser gun are going to be tested by the pacing, but if you can accept what the film is trying to do it succeeds.

Special appearance by Daft Punk.
The gun and the gadgets employed by the two mysterious figures are fun and show some thought behind their design and function. There is nothing groundbreaking in their execution, but they offer some visual punch to what threatens to be an otherwise mundane looking crime drama. When the ray-gun comes out the film takes on a decidedly 1980s slickness with glowing lights and a pulsing synthesizer score. This film serves as a great example of how to tap into the 1980s aesthetic without making it a pastiche. The finale goes all out with some decent action pieces and a satisfying conclusion that thematically and narratively ties things up pretty well.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Black Scorpion


The Black Scorpion
1957
Edward Ludwig

Not far from Mexico City an earthquake strikes, Dr. Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Dr. Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) head out to investigate. They find not only an active volcano but some unusual destruction. Hank falls in love with a rancher named Teresa Alveraz (Mara Corday). A second earthquake reveals that giant scorpions live deep underground and they are now stirred-up, hungry and ready to eat the local populous. They are massive, aggressive and impervious to all weapons. How will mankind survive?

"Scorpion shmorpion, I'm getting wrecked on all this nitrous."
What’s cooler than giant bugs? Pretty much nothing. As a kid, I loved scorpions, largely due to watching Clash of the Titans (1981) three-hundred times on HBO and seeing Perseus duke it out with some horse sized arachnids. As a budding movie nerd, I really took a shine to the atomic horror films of the 1950s, they were movies I could simultaneously enjoy as a monsterfest, take delight in the sometimes brilliant but also occasionally shoddy effects and laugh/be ashamed at the hopelessly out of date cultural norms. The 1950s obsession with giant invertebrates has been well documented, the massive ants of Them! (1954) kicked off the craze and soon the world was facing down huge praying mantises, swarms of bus-sized locusts and even a sizable mollusk.

The stop-motion animated horrors of The Black Scorpion come courtesy of  Willis O'Brien the pioneer behind the original King Kong (1933) and  Pete Peterson who worked with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949). The giant scorpions and other assorted strange creatures look marvelous in action. They move fluidly, all their various limbs bending and stretching give these monster a feeling of weight and realism. Due to time and budget constraints, much of the footage gets reused several times, especially during the final battle between the Mexican army and the last giant scorpion. There are also close-up shots of the scorpion heads that are giant drooling monsters which bear no resemblance to the realistic stop-motion creatures. They are silly but loveable in their own way.

"Make sure you film my good side."
Where The Black Scorpion is less successful is its story. The characters take too long investigating the reason whole villages are being wiped out, there is an annoying kid and a tepid romantic subplot to drag things out until we get to the monsters. The Black Scorpion seems to have been structured in the same way that King Kong takes it’s own sweet time to build up to the reveal of the title character, but The Black Scorpion just doesn’t have the same engaging characters to make that journey enjoyable. There are also a couple dumb plot turns, the most ignoble being during the final battle when our heroes are trying to shoot an electrified harpoon into the weak spot of the scorpion. The gunner misses and then stupidly grabs the still electrified harpoon only to die so that the white guy can get in the shot and save the day.

The Black Scorpion is a solid entry in the 1950s science-fiction giant bug subgenre. It has its fair share of structural problems, but you’re there for the giant monsters rampaging around, destroying tanks and stinging people to death, and in those respects, the sting of The Black Scorpion is delightfully sweet.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Magic Christmas Tree


The Magic Christmas Tree
1964
Richard C. Parish

If you were to watch The Magic Christmas Tree from the start without seeing the opening credits and having no idea what you were getting into, you’d swear it was a Halloween movie at first. There’s a witch who may or may not be a misunderstood old lady in a creepy house, there is also a black cat and a few nosy kids. One tumble from a tree later and the movie is suddenly in color and the witch has given a kid a magic bracelet with Santa Claus on it. Just in case the film wasn’t already confusing, the kid buries a Thanksgiving turkey wishbone in his backyard and it turns into an indestructible talking Christmas tree.

"Can I try on your hat?"
The Magic Christmas Tree almost feels like a precursor to a film like Forbidden Zone (1980), with its fanciful dream logic and weird grotesque characters. Our “hero” Mark (Chris Koresen) is an unlikable jerk through pretty much the entire film. Not only does he goad his friends into invading the privacy of an old woman, but later he receives three wishes and proceeds to act like a complete creep by asking for the power to irritate everyone in his town for a whole hour. Later on, he wishes to enslave Santa Claus and he just starts acting worse from there. The whole thing culminates in an encounter with a giant who likes kids perhaps just a little too much in a scene that can only be experienced rather than described.

To make matters even more numbing the movie engages in a number of slapstick comedy gags that go nowhere and exist only to push the running time to one hour. You’ll want to crawl out of your skin as you watch Mark’s dad (Director Dick Parish) trying to start a lawn mower over and over again only to eventually have it explode when attempts to mow down the magic tree. Enjoy watching Santa Claus beg for his life when Mark captures him, feel the Christmas spirit when we watch news reports of children not receiving presents because Mark is an asshole. Even the tree is crabby, seeming put-upon by this whole chain of events, but honestly, I can’t blame it.

"OK, Santa, gimme the goods or it's going to get real Hostel in here."
There is something truly odd in the way that The Magic Christmas Tree lurches from one scene to the next. The story feels like a childhood nightmare induced by being overstimulated opening presents on Christmas morning followed by a horrible stomach ache from eating too much candy. The bleached out colors, the odd angry characters, the story that should only be an hour long but feels twice that, it all funnels into a dreamlike unease that would make David Lynch proud.

Much like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), The Magic Christmas Tree exists only as something created to occupy kids while adults attend to their holiday duties. I can only imagine the terror and confusion as this wandering fever dream of a story unspooled in front of unsuspecting children. At the same time it has an off beat charm in a modern era where children’s entertainment is analyzed and programmed down to the second. The Magic Christmas Tree is a holiday nightmare but perhaps it is a holiday nightmare that we deserve.



Friday, December 14, 2018

Predator World



Predator World (aka Aliens vs. Titanic)
2017
Jeff Leroy

After Aliens vs. Avatars (2011) won my heart (just a little) over for its sheer cheap audacity, I saw the poster for Aliens vs. Titanic which was similar and hinted at some kind of follow-up. I am all for an entire cinematic universe of ultra-low-budget James Cameron rip-offs, but the film took a long time to finally appear, probably due to its title causing some legal issues. Aliens vs. Titanic transformed into Predator World, in an attempt to cash-in on the release of The Predator (2017). Was it worth the wait?

No.

No, it was not.

I defy you to care about any one of these characters.
Predator World exists in the liminal space between The Asylum mockbusters and Troma’s trashier output. The film banks on a familiar premise with a crashed spaceship, slimy aliens that like to burrow into human bodies and then burst out later. The title and poster art make it look like it is going to be a serious film in the vein of The Predator, but any seriousness is tossed aside in the opening moments as a toy spaceship lands on a human butt and then the credits play out as a toy truck travels up and down a woman’s naked body. From there on the movie is an out and out T&A sex comedy with a side of cheap gore and rubber monster suits.

The tragedy of Predator World is that it almost works as an anything goes dopey splatter comedy. There are few genuine laughs here and there, along with a hint of the DIY spirit that director Jeff Leroy brought to Creepies (2004). It seems shockingly rare anymore to get a film with aliens crawling out from under nipples like they were manhole covers or a monster with a boner stinger, and there is definitely some creativity at play here the raises it above any budget concerns. The downfall comes via characters that quickly go from, ‘So annoying I can’t wait to see them die’ to ‘So annoying this is ruining the movie.’ Add to that a third act turn into more serious territory which the film isn’t nimble enough to pull off, and the whole venture grinds to a halt.

Still better than Alien Covenant.
Predator World tries to take a page from The Thing (1982) and start questioning which characters are who they say they are and who are actually aliens in disguise. This might have worked but a) the movie actively discourages you from caring about any of these characters beyond wondering what gruesome fate awaits them and b) there appear to be no rules about who and how anyone becomes infected by the aliens so there is no fun in trying to guess anyway. It’s all a big miscalculation.

For about forty minutes, Predator World is enjoyably stupid before the whole thing collapses under its own weight. Still, I have to give credit to Jeff Leroy for really pushing his strange visual aesthetic and for actress Jin N. Tonic for being virtually nude the entire second half of the film.  Aliens vs. Titanic… excuse me, I mean Predator World is complete trash but mostly not in a good way.

No one knows who they were or what they were doing.
But their legacy remains.
Hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge.

Friday, December 7, 2018

It's Alive!




It’s Alive!
1969
Larry Buchanan

Larry Buchanan was given a tiny amount of money to crank out a batch of TV movies that mostly drew from the American International Pictures (AIP) library as sources for the remakes. This series includes such luminaries as the remake of Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) titled, The Eye Creatures (1965), and a redo of It Conquered the World (1956), which was called Zontar, The Thing from Venus (1966).  Not all of these films were remakes though, It’s Alive* is an original story albeit from a script that was kicked around AIP and never actually made into a film. After watching It’s Alive, some might suggest it still hasn’t been.

Norman (Corveth Ouserhouse) and Leela (Shirley Bonne) are newlyweds driving across the country when they manage to run out of gas and attract the attention of Wayne (Tommy Kirk), a paleontologist. They all decide to wander over to a nearby farm looking for gas. The farm is owned by a guy named Greely (Bill Thurman) and not only does he not have gas but he manages to lock everyone in the caves by his house. In the cave is Greely’s favorite pet, a giant dinosaur-man.

"Alright folks, let's get to Kirk..."
Out of all Buchanan’s TV movie output, It’s Alive is probably the best one. It has a compelling set-up and a decent proto Texas Chain-Saw Massacre (1974) vibe with unsuspecting travelers wandering into the backwoods den of a madman. The overgrown swaps and caves contribute to the oppressive atmosphere. Things keep up a steady pace until a lengthy flashback drags everything to a complete stop. The movie struggles to get back up to speed with a big finale, and it’s a credit to the script that it almost succeeds.

I tend to give older films some leeway when it comes to special effects, especially something as impoverished as this production, but the dinosaur-man that Greely is keeping captive is especially embarrassing.  Not only is it reused from an earlier Buchanan film, Creature of Destruction (1967), it is a decidedly non-scary ping pong balled eyed goof. It looks nothing like a dinosaur, and it’s never in the same frame as any of the actors. It is a complete failure… or perhaps an absurd success depending on the reason you are watching.

Are you scared yet?
If for some reason you find yourself on the wrong end of a bet or perhaps a gun and you are forced to select a Larry Buchanan movie to watch, you could do a lot worse than It’s Alive. You’re probably still going to have a bad time, but there is some modicum of entertainment to find here and depending on your love for terrible rubber-suited monsters you might even grow to like it a little. Just prepare for a momentum-killing and nearly silent flashback to ruin your fun before getting back to the monster action.

*This is the first film to be called It’s Alive directed by a guy named Larry. Larry Cohen would later make a completely different film about mutant babies. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Twisted Pair


Twisted Pair
2018
Neil Breen

Something happened in the early 2000s that gave us Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), James Nguyen of Birdemic (2010) fame’s first film, Julie and Jack (2003), and Neil Breen’s first film, Double Down (2005). All three directors financed and produced vanity projects that transcend their small origins to become something akin to outsider art, they are films that are laughed at, but underneath it all have an unmistakable earnestness. While Wiseau and Nguyen have largely decided to bank on their cult status, Breen still seems intent on demonstrating his need to save the world from some imagined technological nightmare to come.

In Twisted Pair, Neil Breen plays both Cade and Cale Altair, twins given superpowers by a mysterious force to battle terror and injustice. Cale falters for some unexplained reason and is stripped of his abilities. Both of them still attempt to fulfill their destiny. Cade is an invulnerable super-agent busting up a ring of techno-terrorists, while Cale is reduced to kidnapping and torturing ‘corporate businessmen’ for days on end.

Neil Breen's Myst
Breen’s wandering virtually nonsensical plot feels like a slightly more polished version of something Carl J. Sukenik (Alien Beasts (1991)) might toss out. Like all good art, Twisted Pair allows the viewer a glimpse artist. Cade is a typical Breen character, invulnerable, highly skilled, smarter and more enlightened than anyone around him. He is the sole person in the world who can save it. Cale is a dark reflection of this, drug-addicted, violent and cruel. Both men know their place in the world but lament the burden of being so righteous. In another common Breen element, women in their lives betray both men. The majority of the movie consists of Breen wandering around a small college by himself or interacting with stock footage against a green screen. There is something profoundly lonely about his isolated existence but at the same time it is all so absurd.

Do you want quirks in your weird outsider vanity film? Twisted Pair is filled with them. Cade leads some stock footage of soldiers to safety while the same two kinds of digitally added explosions occur again and again. Cale sports a stunningly fake beard that is only upstaged by another actor sporting an incredibly fake mustache for two separate characters. You will witness the slowest quick draw in cinema history. You will meet a transient feeding rubber rats who is later stabbed and doesn’t seem to mind all that much. Just when Twisted Pair seems to fall into a lull, something happens to confuse and delight the viewer.

Neil Breen's Beastmaster 4
Viewing Twisted Pair is a bizarre experience, every choice made is eccentric, and every performance is stilted and hampered by terrible dialog. Underneath it all, Breen has a message he is very passionate about, but what exactly that message is supposed to be is clouded by his messiah complex.  You will never witness anything like Twisted Pair and I can’t decide if that is a good thing or not.