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.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow
Babak Anvari

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a student who has been denied remittance to medical school due to her political activities in post-revolution Iran. Defeated, she is resigned to taking care her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), while her is drafted and sent to the front during the Iran-Iraq War. One day, an unexploded Iraqi missile lands in the apartment above them, bringing with it a djinn that threatens to haunt Shideh forever.

Although the comparisons to the Babadook (2014) are inevitable, both films place an isolated mother and her child against encroaching horrors both domestic and supernatural, Under the Shadow is a tale of political horror just as much as it is one of personal horror. Shideh is besieged from every possible direction, her home has been invaded, her country is under threat from a foreign power, and by virtue of being a woman and a political dissident, her own homeland is pitted against her. Under the Shadow is masterful at taking these various threats and pushing Shideh closer and closer to the brink. Doom lays heavy over her head from the very moment she appears on screen.

Me watching movies to review.
When real historic tragedy and war is woven into a supernatural horror film, there is always the risk of one diminishing the other. Fortunately, Under the Shadow keeps its supernatural threat minimized and nearly inseparable from approaching calamity of Iraqi missile attacks. When the djinn makes its presence known, it’s often a strange and terrifying moment of uncertainty. It’s certainly possible to read all of the uncanny events in this film as merely a metaphor or evidence of Shideh’s decaying state of mind, but I think it lessens the depth that this film is capable of demonstrating.

Narges Rashidi has the carry the bulk of the story. Shideh is an interesting character, slowly being ground down by the stringent religious rules imposed on her in post-revolution Iran, she nevertheless still has a rebellious streak as evidenced by the fact she has a contraband VCR and likes to work out to Jane Fonda tapes. Outside she conforms enough to get through the day, but behind closed doors she resists the patronizing overtures of her husband. Narges makes it all work in a believable naturalistic fashion. The other actor, who has plenty of screen time, is Avin Manshadi as Dorsa. Child actors can often drag down a movie, but Dorsa comes across as an earnest, if occasionally irritating child. I think that was the intent, seeing as she’s very young and faced with huge events beyond her comprehension. The end result is she gets hyperfocused on a single thing, her doll.

Me after the 2016 presidential election.
The look of the film is muted and dusty. Most of the film takes places in an apartment complex, and while it is initially bright and orderly, it slowly becomes a dirty mess as Shideh’s situation becomes dire.  The X of tape across a window that supposed to keep the glass from shattering if a bomb should drop becomes a reoccurring motif as its protection falters. 

Under the Shadow is magnificent horror film that is both frightening and poignant. It’s been put on Netflix and DVD with little fanfare but it is very much worth seeking out.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The 27th Day

The 27th Day
William Asher

Individuals from, the US, UK, China, Russia, and Germany are plucked out of their lives by aliens and given a box containing three capsules that only that person can open. Inside each box are three capsules that can destroy a 3,000 mile diameter area. All the individuals need to do is think about opening the box and it will open. Then anyone can think of coordinates and deliver the payload. If humanity can keep from killing itself for 27 days the aliens will leave, if not, the aliens will have a cleared off planet to colonize.

With The 27th Day being a 1950s era science-fiction film that touches on world politics, you can expect some jingoism. While the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are indeed positioned as complete moral opposites, I did find it interesting that it was the individuals who were given the boxes would take actions that were morally responsible regardless of their nationality. Single people didn’t want to risk the utter destruction of humanity, but governments were either interested or at least forced into playing a game of chicken with these weapons. The allusions to the cold war are obvious here, but there is just the tiniest room for some nuance in the story.

"Cower puny humans! Cower before my collection of erotic vibrating eggs!"

The best part of The 27th Day, is that the set-up for this scenario immediately leads the viewer to consider what they would do in the situation. It’s a thought provoking set-up and having the aliens turn up the heat by letting the world know what is happening is a magnificent way to ratchet up the tension. The movie settles in to an escalating series of events that can only lead the world closer and closer to destruction. Sadly, the story can’t maintain this initial level of suspense, but it does manage to keep the question of how this is all going to resolve up in the air throughout its brief run time.

There are couple legitimately chilling moments to be found here, a suicide that immediately takes one of the selected players out of the game, and a scene where the US military blows up a volunteer with a terminal illness just to make sure the capsules work as advertised. Moments like these give some gravitas to the story.

Meanwhile at Wal-Mart HQ...
[At this point, I’m going to discuss the end to The 27th Day, so if you wish to see it unspoiled this is your warning. It’s not a long film and it has an interesting enough premise, I would definitely give it a look.]

In reality, The 27th Day can only end one of two ways, the weapons gets used or the weapons don’t get used. The movie tries to hedge its bet, by throwing in a Deus Ex Machina in the form of a secret mathematical code on the capsules, one that, when solved, allows the user to specially target, “Every known enemy of human freedom.” On top of adding a silly moral dimension to the proceedings, it is  worth noting (but not surprising) that all the enemies of freedom appear to from countries other than America. There’s something deeply unsatisfying about the film’s message which veers from “Try not to kill everything with your super-weapons” to “Just make sure to kill the right sort of people with your super-weapons.”

Friday, January 20, 2017


Brian Yuzna

Bill Whitney is the adopted son of a wealthy family in Beverly Hills. He’s successful and popular, but he feels estranged from his family and friends. He receives an audio tape that seems to implicate his family in a bizarre ritual. As Bill digs further into their odd behavior, he uncovers a vast conspiracy. The wealthy elite aren’t just well bred, they are another species entirely. They feed off of humans in a ritual called ‘The Shunt,’ and it looks like Bill might be the next guest at one of their parties.

Society is gross and often uncomfortably so. The film eschews over the top gore for something much more cartoonish and slimy. Skin is stretched and bodies meld in a way that feels like a Cronenberg movie that has made unwholesome love to a Looney Tunes short. To further add to these unsettling scenes, the music and editing is more akin to a comedy, complete with silly gags and a lilting score. It all combines to make these big show stopping effects sequences all the more nightmarish. My one complaint is that the opening credits give away the grand finale, I understand that the swirling images of undulating flesh are supposed to peak interest in what’s to come, but I feel like it spoils the surprise too much.

I hate when the blankets get all twisted up like that.
Perhaps even more upsetting than a room full of gooey rivers of flesh is the pointed social commentary. The rich and powerful are literally another species, and a parasitic one at that. They retain all of their advantages, but survive only through the consumption of humans. This commentary might be a bit too obvious for some, but it should be pretty obvious from the first frame that Society isn’t interested in being subtle. Even here, the situation is played on the surface as comedy, but just underneath the whole situation is upsetting and dark. The protagonists have no way to resolve their situation other than escape. Toss in an incest related subplot and you have the perfect mix for cringe-horror.

*Angry kazoo noises*
Billy Warlock works just fine as Bill Whitney, he is in all ways the stereotypical 1980s movie teenager in a situation that is way over his head. What makes the character interesting is that he slowly becomes aware of the elevated level of privilege his sister and others enjoy, just by virtue of being born who they are. Bill, being adopted, is poised between the worlds of the Society and humanity and it puts him in a natural narrative place to uncover the whole conspiracy. It’s a far more cleverly written part than I think it gets credit for. David Wiley steals the third act as Judge Carter, he exudes a powerful grotesqueness even before he’s a writhing mass of flesh sucking the nutrients out of a poor unfortunate kid.

Society is a great film, and one that seems to be finally gaining recognition after languishing in obscurity for a long time. Technically, it’s a wonder of prosthetics and practical make-up. It was presented as a sickening comment on the waning days of the excessive 1980s, but it remains (unfortunately) still relevant today.

Friday, January 13, 2017

War Between the Planets

War Between the Planets aka (Il Pianeta Errante)
Antonio Margheriti

War Between the Planets is the third film in Antonio Margheriti’s loosely connected Gamma One series of science-fiction films. The connecting factor is mostly the economical reuse of props and models, but in general the series centers around the crew of space station Gamma One and their adventures dealing with various mad scientists and space monsters.

The Earth is beset by earthquakes and storms. Scientists can’t figure out the source of these strange occurrences, but one theory is that a rogue planet has entered the solar system and is causing havoc. Commander Rod Jackson (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is sent to Gamma One to begin the investigation. He is at odds with Lieutenant Dubrowski (Pietro Martellanza), but the two get along well enough to locate the planet. It’s a strange world though, it has a low density, it can expel gasses to navigate, and it can fire off swarms of meteors at attackers. Commander Jackson realizes that the planet is alive and that it could destroy the Earth.

"Activate your Flowbee 3000, men!"
War Between the Planets plays out like a talky Gorath (1962) mixed in with Battle of the Worlds (1963). The idea of a killer world coming to destroy Earth is an intriguing one, and it’s a shame the movie seems much more invested in following its two macho leads as they continually lock horns over women. It’s the route to economical film making, but it isn’t necessarily a pleasant one. It would help if either space stud, Rod Jackson or Lieutenant Dubrowski were likeable. I imagine the goal was to make them passionate alpha male adventurer types, but I was mostly looking forward to the planet eating them.

Perhaps Margheriti knew that his special effects sequences weren’t going to be very successful, so he doubled down on the interpersonal drama. There are a few great model effects, including a city and Gamma One itself. Anytime an astronaut is in space things take a turn for the comical with obvious wires holding up actors who are doing their best to not flail around but failing miserably. This even extends to the model astronauts as they zip around the evil planet, looking more like they are hanging from a child’s mobile in a crib than anything else. The living interior of the planet is much more successful with its blood red walls and long snaking arteries that serve as astronaut grasping tentacles.

"I proclaim this place, Planet Hemorrhoid!"

There is something wonderfully childlike about the whole endeavor when it finally gets to the action in the 3rd act. Maybe it’s the shiny bright colors of the models, the obvious strings, and bubbling red slime of the killer planet, but things start to feel like the fanciest toy commercial for a play set that never existed. This is the kind of movie that is perfect for Saturday mornings as you sit and eat a bowl of cereal and idly read comic books until the giant red planet on screen eats its first spaceship. Then it’s time to watch, but prior to that point, its an excruciating experience.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Mind Benders

The Mind Benders (aka Invasion of the Mindbenders aka Alien High)
Genie Joseph

For some reason the August of 1985 produced an unrelated trilogy of ‘teen science comedies.’ Weird Science (1985), was the most high profile of these films that featured wacky teenagers engaging in equally wacky science projects, it was followed by My Science Project (1985), and Real Genius (1985). There was a brief cultural fascination with science being ‘cool’ that western culture wouldn’t really see again until the 2000s and the rise of the nerd as a cultural icon. The direct to video industry, at its height, was never one to let a good premise die, even years past its expiration date, and so The Mind Benders was born.

Crash (Lee Tergesen) and his pal Frankie (Skip Lackey) are two doofuses who engage in food fights, listen to their Walkmans in class, and are generally directionless party animals. The two host a show on the radio school station along with sweater wearing dork, Calvin (David Kener).  Principal Borden (Roy Thinnes) feels that his school has become uncontrollable and enlists the aid of Dr. Gunbow (Bill Curry) from the Behavior Modification Research Institute. Dr. Gunbow’s solution is to pipe in hypnotic messages into a classroom and make the students more obedient. The principle’s meddling with the system turns the student body violent and only Crash and Frankie have the answer to break the hypnosis… rock and roll.

Our "heroes."
The box art makes this film look like it will a serious SF drama about hypnotized teens along the lines of Disturbing Behavior (1998), but in actuality it’s a an airy goofball comedy. The privileged whiny rich-boy antics of Crash and Frankie, might have played well in 1987, but now they feel a bit grating. You can make rules breaking class clowns into compelling heroes by placing them up against unyielding and overreaching authority figures. Here we are only given Principle Borden, who is a militaristic foil for the boys, and those scenes work. It’s when they act like jerks to normal teachers who are just doing a normal job they come off as creeps, and no scenes of a broken home life, or shirtless moping in the window will fix that.

A typical Canadian.
The central mind control plot is thin, but it is engaging enough. The script takes a too long getting around to this element, but once it gets going there are some surprising moments, especially once things turn violent. The fighting isn’t that brutal, but it is not played for laughs either. I was even impressed by a hair on fire stunt that was well executed and ambitious for such a low budget production. The whole thing culminates in an ending that is as bizarre as it is rushed . It’s easily the most memorable thing about the whole production, and the movie could certainly have used a few more moments like it. (Hint: One of the alternate titles totally gives it away)

The Mind Benders is a mediocre comedy, and a razor thin science-fiction story, but as a weird capsule of 1987 VHS ephemera it manages some limited appeal. Approach with caution.