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Friday, August 5, 2022

Gateway


 

Gateway
2022
Niall Owens


Gateway demonstrates that you can tell an effective ghost story with very little in the way of special effects. Gateway communicates it horror almost entirely through careful composing of shots and by the uncanny way in which its specters behave. A lot of modern horror give us ghost as just another monster meant to chase people around in dynamic ways. They lack a sense of being unearthly and that’s where Gateway succeeds.


A group of men who are looking for a spot to move their marijuana growing operation, find an abandoned house in excellent shape, but with one door that will not open. Mike (Tim Creed) is one of these people and he’s in a bad way, his sister’s murder haunts him constantly. The group feels watched and stressed inside the house, the locked door begins to open for certain people who end up dead shortly after, and then the spirts come walking up the stairs and things get really bad.

 

This is an aggressively brown movie.
 

Gateway is a hell of a slow burn. It opens like a low-key crime drama, and it’s the first half-hour that will test a lot of viewers' patience. This is a very low budget production, as demonstrated by some iffy sound engineering and a lot of standing around and talking. After the movie gets everyone in the house things pick up considerably. Everything about the film improves, from the pacing to the sound design.


The supernatural elements are never given adequate explanation. They exist outside of such mortal concerns. Any answers given only lead to further questions. We long to learn what’s behind the door and it is held tantalizingly in front of us for a while. Once we do get to see, we are only left with, ‘well what is beyond that?’.  Also, at this point a couple of black clad and utterly silent beings begin to appear in the house and rather than shrieking and chasing people around they go about their own strange business which is far more sinister.

 

"We saw you across the threshold of life and and
unlife and we liked your vibe."


 

The human element is primarily carried by Mike’s story, he’s the one under pressure to make the grow operation work or he’s going to be on the wrong end of a gangster, he’s the one with a dead sister and accompanying sleep paralysis. Mike is so well developed that the rest of cast falls by the wayside. I suppose the focus on him is necessary in the early 1/3 of the film because he’s literally all we have to sit with as this entire criminal enterprise is revealed to us.


Gateway was a delightful discovery, a genuinely unsettling supernatural story and unsettling in a way that I don’t see often. The crime drama element feels a little half-baked, but it is an excuse to get a bunch of people who don’t trust each other into a death trap of a house.

 
Maybe it isn’t death, maybe it is something far worse.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge


 

Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge
1989
Richard Friedman


I don’t know why we need to know its Eric’s revenge up front. Is it important that we know Eric is going to be doing some revenging, before the movie starts? Unsurprisingly, the Phantom of the Mall terrorizes the residents of a brand-new mall. This mall just happens to be built on the remains of the burned down house of Eric Matthews (Derek Rydall). Susie (Kimber Sissons), Eric’s former girlfriend is on the case to discover the identify the mysterious figure killing mall employees.


It's Eric.

"Okay, maybe I should have read the Instant Pot Instructions."
  

Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge is set to be prime junk cinema and I think if it had been made just a few years prior it might have been. The film we get is unfortunately listless and lacks that maniacal spark that can make a rote slasher film like this feel fresh. There are attempts to make something unique, the mall setting, giving the Phantom modern technology, his kung-fu skills, and making him an angsty teen. These never work as well as they might. The uninteresting staging and dull lighting don’t help matters much either. By 1989 the slasher film was feeling tired, and it shows in a film like this, there’s just nothing here that feels fresh.


By 1989 horror films had also been under intense scrutiny for years, miserable authoritarians had gone after them for their depictions of violence. Many films in the later 1980s were rendered toothless by editors who were told to cut depictions of gore in order to be suitable entertainment for places like Blockbuster Video which had a terrible track record of censoring the films it made available. Phantom of the Mall is filled with scenes that might have had an impact on the screen but are rendered as forgettable.

"What is a weasel?"
"A miserable pile of secrets."

 

None of the cast is terrible but even the charismatic Ken Foree feels like he doesn’t have much to do as a mall security guard. Morgan Fairchild has a handful of fun scenes as an archly evil mayor, the rest of the production certainly could have taken a few cues from her. Pauly Shore appears as Buzz who happens to act just like Paul Shore. If The Phantom (or Eric if you’re nasty) is supposed to be an updated version of the classic horror character he is supposed to be charming, or at the very least a talented and soulful person, but Eric (aka The Phantom of the Mall) is bland. He’s just angry and mean, and although he’s given a tragic backstory it never translates into a sympathetic character.


The most notable thing to ever come out of Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge is the end credits theme song which is an amusing enough goof on the whole movie (it does repeatedly drop the r-slur so your ability to enjoy it may vary), when I have brought up the movie to others, it’s the only thing that ever gets mentioned.


Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge isn’t great but if you need some 80’s mall horror nostalgia… I’d just watch Chopping Mall (1986). It’s better in every way and it's even set in the same mall.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Double Feature: Girl in His Pocket & Final Curtain


 

Girl in His Pocket (aka Amour de poche)
1957
Pierre Kast


Girl in His Pocket drapes a very light science fiction story over a very light romantic comedy. The whole thing is a breezy 77 minutes, but it is harder to escape some of the more sinister implications of the technology presented and how it is used. The technology in question is a chemical when drank, turns someone into a small statue which can only be revived with salt water. This becomes a vehicle for a scientist to carry on a romance with his lab partner without letting his fiancĂ© find out… or at least she doesn’t find out for a little while.

Breaking Baguette
 

The idea of being turned into a tiny immortal statue that can just sit there forever is low key horrifying to me. You are at the mercy of everything. There’s never a mention of what happens to a broken statue, but you could just as easily be lost somewhere with millennia in between until you come in contact with salt water.  Girl in His Pocket is so lightweight as to never address these issues, but I found myself pondering them as the silly romance unfolded.


This is a French production although the version I was watched had a remarkably good English dub. These scenes where the lab assistant is revived contained some mild nudity, but the US version ruthlessly hacks these out, resulting in a garbled end to the first act as it builds to a scene that we never get to see. United States puritanism strikes again.

The science is silly, the romance is silly, this is a weightless yet mildly charming little film. Just don't let me thing about being isolated in a tiny statue for too long or I start to panic.



 Final Curtain
1957
Edward D. Wood Jr.


Final Curtain was a seemingly lost Ed Wood project that was eventually tracked down and restored. Final Curtain served a pitch/pilot episode for what would have an anthology horror show in the vein of Twilight Zone.


The plot (such as it is) is basically an actor walking around and empty theater and having scary thoughts about ghosts or something. That’s literally it. Aside from one other character near the end, it’s just 22 minutes of a guy standing in an empty theater while a narrator tells us how scary it is. 

 

"Say, do you haunt this place often?"
 

Despite its thinness this film is a treasure trove of Ed Wood’s purple prose. We are served an endless stream of dialogue explaining to us how this actor is frightened by the benign looking theater.
This might be one of the best-looking Ed Wood productions I’ve seen. The picture is actually beautiful at times with rich blacks and just the barest hint of moodiness in the lighting. 


Like a lot of early Ed Wood projects, there is something marvelous in seeing him work with what he has available, in this case two actors and an empty building. Its not successful but it takes a certain amount of drive to put together a story on virtually nothing and then have the chutzpah to put it in front of producers in hope of getting a television show. 


Final Curtain in not good but it is Ed Wood to its core.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Double Feature: The Professor and Howl from Beyond the Fog


The Professor

1958
Tom McCain


OK this plot rules: A communist agent looks to destroy America by creating werewolves that will cause mass panic and allow the commies to swoop in and take over the USA. Pretty cool, right? We get all kinds of 1950s goodies here: commie conspiracies, mad science, and werewolves. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty

OK this movie sucks:  With a runtime of 25 minutes this appears to be a failed pilot of some sort, although what kind of show you could make out of such a listless story is beyond me. Most of the story takes place in a lab with people talking. If you go in expecting some hot werewolf action, you’re in for a big disappointment. There’s nothing here I would qualify as entertaining, even the hardiest of bad movie fans will find it difficult to unearth anything of worth beyond the general premise of the film.

Due to its rarity, the only existing version you can find is in pretty bad shape, but there isn’t much to see anyway. Even on a TV pilot budget, The Professor looks dire, cheap sets, little location work, and the less said about the werewolf the better.


I would avoid it, unless you have 25 minutes of your life you don’t value (like me). If you are looking for a much better werewolf movie from the 1950s, I would recommend The Werewolf (1956) a traditional lycanthrope story but told with an atomic horror angle, or the far more well-known I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).




Howl from Beyond the Fog
2019
Daisuke Sato


Takiri (Akane Kanamori) is a young blind woman in Meiji era Japan. She befriends the local monster, a giant sauropod named Nebula. Local land developers look to wipe out her village but they don’t count on her special connection to the monster that she unleashes on the people who would harm her.
Howl from Beyond the Fog is a fascinating short film. A kaiju film told purely with puppetry and miniatures. Traditional kaiju films employ a number of techniques, including puppetry and most certainly miniature work but it is an interesting approach to produce the entire film in this fashion. The love and skill put on screen is breathtaking, every frame is lush with detail. The story centers around vengeance and the environment, often reoccurring theme in kaiju films.

"Twaaaaang"

When still and contemplative Howl from Beyond the Fog works extremely well. The monster action is lively although it occasionally shows the limits of the budgets with some dodgy video editing. It’s never enough to sink the whole production, the opulence of the images far outweighs the flaws.

The film clocks in at a leisurely 66 minutes, and it is the perfect length, any longer would threaten to bog down this simple slow-paced story. This is a film to be enjoyed for its visuals and not its plot. A gorgeous film and a reminder  that even a monster movie can approach its often-maligned content as something beautiful.



Friday, July 8, 2022

I Come in Peace

  

I Come in Peace (aka Dark Angel)
1990
Craig R. Baxley


I just want to say that I Come in Peace is a fantastic title. There is never a real reason for the being in question to say it, but it works as a threat and a punchline and is easily the best thing about this film.


By 1990, our buddy cop action movie technology was very well developed. I Come in Peace serves as an example of just about every trope you’d ever expect to see in this kind of film. A partner getting killed early on? Check. A loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules? Check. A new partner who’s by the book? Check. Top that off with a mild science-fiction element and we have an unoriginal but still entertaining action movie.


Detective Jack Caine (Dolph Lundgren) is a wise talking cop who loses his partner while investigating a local heroin ring. His new partner is a straight arrow Federal agent (Brian Benben). The two find a strange disc weapon at a crime scene. Elsewhere in the city an 8ft tall humanoid (Matthias Hues) is stealing heroin for its own needs while a space cop (Jay Bilas) arrives to take it down. Eventually these various people cross paths in shootout after shootout, in what amounts to a movie you’ve probably seen a dozen times in other forms.

"Excuse me, I have to go take my estrogen."
 

Despite being rote, the movie is still engaging thanks to some great looking action scenes. The aliens are the twist in the formula and to make their focus extraterrestrial drug dealing is a decent twist, but in function there’s really nothing that separates these aliens from human drug dealers in any other movie. It does add in fun weapons and these lumbering giant people making weird faces while talking.


Dolph Lundgren plays a very typical cop character for the era, nothing seems to get to him, the death of his partner and the realization that aliens exist end up happening within hours of each other and he just keeps on wisecracking. This is definitely a holdover from the 1980s, on the other hand, there is an undeniable charm to his performance and it is a fun if paper thin character.  His chemistry with Brian Benben’s Agent Smith is another trope, but it works in that capacity. Both Matthias Tuttle and Jay Bilas put some very idiosyncratic performances as our alien opponents. They are both a mass of weird twitches and expressions. It’s a very simple approach but it works well to communicate that these are not humans merely, but trying to imitate them.

"Dolph, can you get me in an Expendables movie or something?"
 

I Come in Peace is not a great film, it’s derivative and repetitive, but I still found myself enjoying it. Yes it trash, but it’s comfortable trash from the end of particular era of film when something like this would get a theatrical release. If want a far better version of this movie go and watch The Hidden (1987), but if you are up for some silly action, with silly characters and a really carefree attitude, I Come Peace does just fine.
 

Friday, July 1, 2022

The Alchemist's Cookbook


 

The Alchemist’s Cookbook
2016
Joel Potrykus

Joel Potrykus movies often centered around a single individual at odds with his world, despite this conflict, the main character struggles to achieve a goal often focused on personal transformation. Often these characters are hyper focused on their goal, usually have fallen through any kind of social safety net (insofar as any such thing exists in the United States), and they usually only have one person they call a friend. Potrykus returns to this set-up through several films in his career, all his of them contain some humor, but The Alchemist’s Cookbook is the closest he comes to making traditional horror.


The Alchemist’s Cookbook takes this scenario to an extreme with a person purposefully isolated from the world to achieve the goal of maybe summoning a demon? Whether this obsession is actually achievable or merely in the mind of someone who is very ill is left up to the viewer. What makes this film work when literally hundreds of films about a person’s possible descent into madness lies in the writing and performance of its lead character, Sean, as played by Ty Hickson. Sean leads a strange little life that is often marked with frustration and self-endangerment but at the same time he finds joy in little moments especially with his cat, Kaspar.  We might not understand his goal, but we grow concerned to his safety in obtaining it.

 

This happens every year to me around the holidays.
 

The only other human character in the story is Sean’s friend Cortez who also appears to be out of touch as well but not really to the degree Sean is, underneath that though he genuinely cares about Sean and tries to do what he can to make sure he’s fed and healthy. There is such a weird camaraderie between these two that is difficult to not get invested in them. Which makes the encroaching horror all that more effective.


The entire film takes place in a single trailer home and the surrounding woods. As Sean’s exploration of his magic continues and his methods grow more grotesque and extreme, the woods grow more and more sinister. Soon there is a presence lurking out there, and it has its sights set on Sean. In a lot of ways, The Alchemist’s Cookbook works as a low-key Evil Dead (1981), with a figure isolated in the woods as he is assaulted by possession and demons.

 

"We got Red Heat on loop!"
 

The look of the film is split between the chaos of Sean’s trailer and calm beauty of the woods. Potrykus has a great visual sense to use visual clutter of the trailer and limited line of sight of the forest for maximum tension. There is nowhere to relax in this world and the viewer feels it more and more as time goes on. 


The Alchemist’s Cookbook is probably my favorite of Potrykus’ films (see my review of Buzzard (2015). I love its slow burn, weird humor, and ambiguous ending. Sean is a legitimately interesting and tragic figure. A great film from a director I enjoy. You might enjoy it too.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Buzzard


Buzzard
2015
Joel Potrykus


Buzzard exists in a world that just seems to a be a series of banal spaces and totally devoid of any personal meaning to anyone.  Houses and jobs are just spaces to occupy. What you do there is largely irrelevant. These are the corpses of what might have once been thriving places filled with people who have full lies, but all of that is dying or already dead. Enter into this world, Marty (Joshua Burge).


Marty is low-wage temp performing pointless work at an insurance company. Marty is schemer, always looking for ways to get things for free, he struggles to get traction in a world that has been smoothed down by indifference. His frustration at the world transforms into rage. At his core, Marty is an angry person and grows angrier with each passing day. Eventually he tries illegally cashing checks and returning stolen office supplies to the store for cash. His fragile criminal enterprises collapse and soon Marty is laying low in the basement of his sort of friend, Derek (Joel Potrykus). Eventually things threaten to get bad enough that Marty, along with his Freddy Krueger/Powerglove invention go on the run.

Getting ready for the midnight movie.
 

The director, Joel Potrykus, loves his weirdo loners being put through trials to reach enlightenment. Similar themes happen in all this films, Alchemist’s Cookbook (2016), and Relaxer (2018) being his most recent two. Does Marty reach some kind of enlightenment at the end?  It’s difficult to say, he’s so mired in the crapped-out world he inhabits that any struggle is going to be difficult. Every character in the film feels isolated in a similar way.


The world of Buzzard is full of tedious office buildings, faceless shops, and basements full of pathetic knickknacks. Marty’s signature object, a bladed Power Glove is a hybrid of pop-horror and video games, it’s what little culture he posses turned into a weapon. If the rest of the movie is deliberately unremarkable looking, Marty’s little toy is the opposite. It’s dangerous and funny and absurd in a way the rest of the world isn’t.

 

At the midnight movie.
  

Buzzard is a bleak but there are plenty of moments of comedy. Marty’s whole dysfunctional friendship with Derek is a constant source of painful laughs. These two people don’t respect each other, but they both seem to need each other around. Derek’s inflated sense of ego vs. Marty’s cockroach survival instincts provide for the bulk of the humor. The rest of the movie lives in a sort of glum absurdity. It is in these moments the real darkness bubbles to the surface as all this work to cheat the system fails and tears at Marty’s fragile sense of self. The final moments of the film speak of a threshold crossed but that threshold is left up the viewer.

Funny, disturbing, and a perfect story to touch on what it is like to be a wage working on flat, terrible world as seen through someone with little morals and even less planning skills. Highly recommended.