Friday, April 28, 2017

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Robert Furest

A string of elaborate murders leads Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) to believe that Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), an expert in music and theology, didn’t die in a car accident after all. More and more people fall to Phibes wave of death, as he dispatches a group of doctors and nurses, whom he blames for the death of his wife. The murders take the form of the ten biblical plagues of Egypt. Trout and one of the doctors on Phibes' kill list, race to stop him before he completes his sinister plan.

I was simply not expecting The Abominable Dr. Phibes to be as gleefully dark and strange as it was. In my head, I had conflated it with another Vincent Price movie, Theater of Blood (1973) which also features him dispatching people in various amusingly themed ways. This particular film is a lush black comedy with a heavy dose of surrealism; it feels like it might co-exist in the same universe as Phantom of the Paradise (1974).

"Go ahead and gong me... I dare you."
It is a brave choice to hire Vincent Price and then to deny the audience one of his most notable attributes: his voice. Dr. Phibes can only speak when attached to an amplifier via an audio jack in his neck (something Phantom of the Paradise also riffs on). The good doctor speaks little, and when he does it is with a distorted echo. This does give an opportunity to see what a fantastic physical actor Price can be. Dr. Phibes can throw out giant grandiose gestures and then can turn to the crumpled shuffling of someone beat down from suffering. Price embodies the character fully, and transforms Phibes into a monster you can really root for.

One of the most startling elements of the film is its music. Like its central character, the score is grandiose, humorous, and occasionally sad.  The story will take the occasional break to allow Phibes’ own mechanical band to perform a musical number. Since Phibes was a expert in music, it stands to reason that it would be prominent in the film. Director Furest takes risks and as a result, gives the whole production yet another interesting facet that elevates it from being just another bombastic horror movie score.

Take that, Pepe.
This is a horror movie, so what about the horror? Dr. Phibes bases his plan for revenge on the ten plagues of Egypt, but the execution is never simple. It involves such things as brass unicorns, and boiled Brussels sprouts. Phibes also seems to like his death traps; one featured in the finale, would not be out of place in the Saw films. I really would not be surprised if those movies drew upon The Abominable Dr. Phibes for inspiration. The build-up to a horror scene is often rife with dark humor, but it turns gruesome and serious in mere moments. The story does an excellent job in varying up its tone in order to keep the audience off balance.

Colorful, funny, and occasionally grim, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is expertly crafted and performed. An outstanding horror film, and worthy of cult status.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Death by Love

Death by Love
Alan Grant

One of the things that makes low-budget shot-on-video (SOV) movies so interesting, is there is often much less of a filter between creator and audience. In a less media savvy era, a creator would often unabashedly put their interests on screen with little concern for a perceived audience. This is often excruciating (Boardinghouse (1982)), transgressive (Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984)), and deeply weird (Sledgehammer (1983)) by turns. Death by Love might fall short in the exciting category, but it does serve as an excellent documentation of a director/star who really wanted to grind on actresses and built a movie around his cause.

Joel Frank (Alan Grant) is a famous sculptor. His favorite subject is giant papier-mâché ladies, and he’s quite good at courting sexy women to pose for him. He is also quite good at getting them into bed. Unfortunately, these women seem to end up dead at an alarming rate. This has attracted the attention of two inept cops and mysterious figure who seems to be tracking Joel’s every move. Who is someone stalking Joel? Who is actually responsible for the killings? Could those cops look any more unprofessional? Also, what is up with that terrible sculpture?

Nuprin advertisement or horror movie? You decide.
Death by Love has a relatively simple story: Joel meets a woman, they have sex, she ends up dead, cut to either the mysterious figure or the dumb cops, and repeat. It becomes evident that the film is really a thin veneer for Alan Grant to get naked with women on camera. Director Grant does manage to push the story in a direction that neatly ties it all together. At its heart, Death by Love is a very traditional monster story, and I think with some less irksome characterization, it could have been a better film. On the other hand, without the languid pace and off-putting characters, the film would not have much personality at all.

There is plenty of sex and nudity in this movie, none of it is appetizing. If the movie possesses any one major fault is that these sex scenes slow down an already slow story and eventually they grate on the viewer by interrupting what little plot there is. There are number of scenes of people standing around talking endless which doesn't help things much either.

"Oh, I can hear the ocean."
It can be very difficult to push commercial video recording equipment from the pre-digital era into looking good on screen. Death by Love is good example of this, everything is washed out and brown. If you only saw the opening scenes, you would swear it is leading up to show you how to do aerobics for seniors or cat grooming isntructions, it has the unassuming blandness that the vaporwave or creepy faux infomercials that air on Adult Swim often try to capture.

Death by Love is an odd minor note in the already odd subgenre of SOV. It is quirky without being notably so, I don’t think it’s going to make any converts to micro-budget moviemaking, but it is an entertaining enough way to make eighty-five minutes pass by.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Void

The Void
Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski

Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) is a cop who is just about to go off duty when he sees a man stumble out of the woods, wounded and delirious. He takes the man to a hospital. Unfortunately, the only one close by is in the process of closing for good, thanks to a recent fire. As Daniel delivers the stranger, the building is suddenly surrounded by robed figures bearing a single dark pyramid shape on their hoods. Something awful awaits to be birthed from the hospital, and no one there can leave.

It is odd that, for all its popularity among horror fans, cosmic horror is not really touched on very often in television or cinema. Perhaps it is because effective cosmic horror hangs on the intangible; its source is a sense of dread from something vast and unseen. One of the strengths of the written word is that it can evoke the intangible with relative ease, in a visual medium, that is much more difficult.
The infamous Triangle Man
One of the things I am most pleased about is that despite its numerous homages to Carpenter, Lovecraft, and Fulchi, The Void forges its own identity. Too often modern films get so caught up in displaying reverence for a time-period or director they feel like little more than fan films.  The Void wisely keeps from doing any clever name checking, or creating any specific connection to the Lovecraft mythos. The setting, tropes, and characters feel familiar, but have enough quirks and hidden traits that create something of their own.

Visually, The Void is excellent. It never belies its small budget. Keeping the events mostly confined to a single location is used as an advantage as to keep the pressure turned up on the characters. The hospital is cavernous, you never get a good idea of geography but that may be intentional. The creatures are grotesque lumpy horrors that lovingly created through practical effects. In fine cosmic horror tradition, you rarely get more than a glance at them, leaving much of their anatomy to your imagination. In contrast, the cosmic part of the cosmic horror is often presented in a way that is clean and beautiful. The black pyramid motif serves as bridge between these elements, being shown both simply and cleanly and sometimes in a more chaotic fashion.

"This light is working wonders for my Seasonal Affective Disorder."
The plot could use a little more of the elegance of the visuals. What seems like a simple ‘base under siege’ story starts to grow needlessly complex with multiple pregnancies, threats from within and without, and needlessly antagonistic characters. I understand the need for the story to keep upping the threat to characters who cannot escape from their situation, but it feels clunky in the process. Thankfully, by the time, the story hits its climax, all the elements have fallen into place in a very satisfying way.

While The Void never quite manages to create the stomach-dropping fear of something like the opening and closing dream sequences from Prince of Darkness (1987), it is none-the-less a solid entry in the subgenre. The Void is a masterfully crafted work of cosmic horror. I hope this is a sign of more great (and eldritch) things to come.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Daigoro vs. Goliath

Daigoro vs. Goliath (aka Kaiju funsen–Daigoro tai Goriasu)
Toshihiro Iijima

Daigoro is a teenage kaiju who lives on an island with his trainer and a group of scientists. He was put there after his mother was destroyed trying to defend him. As he grows, he’s eating more and more food and costing the government too much money. They want to put him on a growth-suppressing drug. His trainer balks at the idea. Meanwhile, a strange object crashes into the sea nearby, and a hulking monster with an electrified horn rises from the deep.

Your enjoyment of Daigoro vs. Goliath is in direct proportion to your ability to tolerate the silliest nonsense of kid’s movies. I understand that a movie for children might be less intense or grim (or at least that is the popular perception of what kid’s movie should be), but Daigoro vs. Goliath undercuts any moment of excitement or danger with a wackiness that is more grating that it is humorous.

What little dramatic investment is available comes from Daigoro’s friend/trainer, an earnest guy who just wants to keep the monster fed, but is under pressure to administer a drug that will keep Daigoro from growing needing to consume more food. The rest of the human subplots follow a goofball inventor and an alcoholic who eventually fall into Daigoro’s orbit when his nemesis, Goliath, arrives to kick over some buildings and blow stuff up.

"Hey don't worry, Daigoro, we'll win them over in the sequel... oh, oh, wait... I'm so sorry."
Once the monsters are on the scene, a kaiju film usually picks up the pace. Daigoro vs. Goliath isn’t interested in pace, and instead, continues to drag things out. Goliath (or the Great Stellar Monster as he’s referred to in the film) was originally planned to be Godzilla, but Toho wisely decided to put a stop to that. He is not a terribly designed kaiju, and he would not be out of place in a later Gamera movie, but he’s not particularly interesting either. He’s just a big green pig-nosed lizard with a horn on his head that shoots lasers. Goliath should be an omnipresent and almost faceless threat to the much more cartoonish Daigoro, and within those parameters, he works just fine.

Daigoro, looks like some kind of hippo/walrus monster with accordion arms. The design is almost as unsettling as Minilla, Godzilla’s son. He’s not the absolute worst looking kaiju I’ve ever seen, that distinction goes to Kong from King Kong Escapes (1967), but for a main character, I didn’t find him very endearing. Far more successful is Daigoro’s ill-fated mother, who only appears in a flashback. With her mass of white writhing hair, and much more monstrous face, she strikes a much better balance between scary monster and something more kid friendly.

"Bye everyone! See you in the sequ... wait, we did that joke already."
The miniature work is largely acceptable, if uninspired. Most of the action takes place on a beach or in the ocean; places relatively simple to execute on a sound stage. We are treated to yet another oil refinery attack, giant monsters seemingly can’t resist stomping all over them. The actual battles between Daigoro and Goliath are weak, as they build to a overly complicated climax where it’s down to Daigoro believing in himself, while our trio of dumb humans attempt to cover Goliath's horn with a cloth.

The 1970s, Godzilla films are often criticized for being kiddie-fare, and those criticisms aren’t unfounded. There is definitely some diminished storytelling here, with greater emphasis on tepid slapstick and selling toys. Still, most of the later Godzilla films are still enjoyable on some level,  Daigoro vs. Goliath shows just how much worse it could have been.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lady Battle Cop

Lady Battle Cop (aka Onna batoru koppu)
Akihisa Okamoto

The rip-off… excuse me, cash-in… wait, I mean homage, is staple of exploitation cinema. The popularity and cultural impact of Robocop (1987) is almost immeasurable. The iconography and way Robocop frames the excesses of the 1980s is pitch perfect and it’s no wonder that countless imitators appeared soon afterwards; e.g. R.O.T.O.R. (1987), The Vindicator (1986), The Demolitionist (1995). Lady Battle Cop fuses Robocop with the Japanese tokusatsu tradition of costumed heroes (Ultraman etc.), and creates something uniquely weird in the process.

Neo Tokyo is under siege from an international crime syndicate called The Cartel. The Cartel employs a number of thugs including a powerful psychic named Amadeus. The Cartel’s hit squad takes out a scientist and seemingly kills his girlfriend, a notable tennis player, in the process. A few months later, the scientist’s friend, a cop named Sanjo, discovers a feminine looking cyborg is stalking the streets of Neo Tokyo with an eye on destroying The Cartel.

Amadeus while watching Robocop 3.
To say Lady Battle Cop is quirky is underselling it. For starters, our hero is a professional tennis player, something which seems to have no bearing on the plot, but does provide a song lyric for the ages: “Woman are made for tennis.” Lady Battle Cop is equipped with a leg holster, a rocket launcher in her wrist, and of course, hydraulic high heels. Despite all this, she pales next to her arch-foe, Amadeus, a grimacing maniac who possesses psychic powers, but only when he doing a ridiculous pose. Amadeus blows everyone off the screen every time he appears, and the movie uses him liberally.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Lady Battle Cop is that it never feels like she gets the upper hand on her foes. Most of the fights consist of her getting kicked around and shot for the majority of the time, and then only through luck, does she dispatch an enemy. If she were presented as a hard luck hero out of their their depth, like say, John McClane from Die Hard (1988), this would make sense, but the movie props her up as an stoppable force of cyborg vengeance. Even low-level flunkies from The Cartel give her a lot of trouble.

Things people say when trying to hunt down a VHS copy of this movie.
One thing that Lady Battle Cop does successfully bring over from Robocop, is that film’s mean streak. Although not as graphically violent as that film, Lady Battle Cop has no qualms about killing virtually anyone who appears on screen. Rooms full of scientists, innocent bystanders, and even seemingly safe supporting characters are susceptible to a hail of bullets. Yet, this high body count never makes the movie feel grim.

Lady Battle Cop makes a number of odd acting and musical choices to alter its path from just being another Robocop clone. It is violent and mean, but still somehow tonally light as a feather. Lady Battle Cop is definitely worth the time to seek out and enjoy. Thankfully the film exists in it's entirety on YouTube, so here's your chance to find out if women are made for tennis.

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.