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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.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Hand of Death

Hand of Death
1962
Gene Nelson


Hand of Death was most notable as being considered a piece of lost media while it existed in legal limbo from the 1970s-2000s. Eventually it began to appear on AMC and other cable film stations, and we learned the difficult lesson that just because a film is difficult to find doesn’t mean it’s any good.


Dr. Alex Marsh (John Agar) is a scientist who is working with the government to develop a nerve toxin that stuns its victims rather than killing them. Carol Wilson (Paula Raymond) is Alex’s girlfriend and she has serious reservations about Alex working on such a project. Her fear turns out to be founded when Alex gets a dose of his own poison and becomes lethal to the touch. To make things worse his whole body is changing into something bloated and cracked. Alex races to find a cure while the authorities close in on him.


Ultimately Hand of Death follows the path of dozens and dozens of films prior in which a scientist is bodily subject to the monstrous results of their research.  They wander around looking for a cure and killing people accidentally or purposefully. This was the roadmap laid out by Jekyll and Hyde, and Hand of Death follows it unerringly. This is its biggest failing; Hand of Death just doesn’t have much new to offer a viewer. Most viewers will know exactly where this story is going from its opening moments and this predictability saps the movie of much of its energy.

"Last water cool talk turned into a brawl."

  

Hand of Death stars John Agar, who always manages to be serviceable in roles like this. His character of Dr. Marsh is incredibly underdeveloped, there is no indication that he would be so reckless as to work on nerve gas without any safety equipment, but that is exactly the silly development in which the plot hinges on. I don’t understand this choice, it makes Marsh look like a fool. 


The 62-minute running time still feels too long, the story and characters are just too paper thin. Hand of Death could have been a thirty-minute short film and even then, I feel like it would be just as slow and derivative, but at least you’d get to leave earlier and go do some laundry. 

Oof.
 

The most notable (or notorious) element of Hand of the Death is in its presentation of Dr. Marsh’s condition. Marsh’s nerve gas accident poisons his skin, first turning him dark complected and then bloating his body and face into a distorted black mass. It’s surprisingly weird creation, but it also resembles a grotesque caricature of POC. This sort of thing might have slid by without much comment in the 1960s but in the 21st century, it’s impossible to escape.


Hand of Death is nothing you haven’t seen before. If you can look past some serious flaws it works fine as a curiosity, but as an interesting film on its own, it crumbles under a slow pace, predictable story, and ill-chosen monster.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Space Master X-7


 

Space Master X-7
1958
Edward Bernds


Space Master X-7 takes a more realistic approach to its science fiction. There are no rubber monsters, flying saucers, or ray guns, instead we get a level of technology that is just slightly above what you would expect from the late 1950s. Space Master X-7 also forgoes the usual professional emotionless scientists and women in distress for far more grounded people who make mistakes and follow their baser desires in spite of their high intelligence. This puts Space Master X-7 next to more science minded films like The Magnetic Monster (1953). This also makes the title a bit of a misnomer as space barely factors into the overall story.


The story shares some similarities to First Man in Space (1961), a space probe to returns the Earth with a mysterious substance that creates a fast-growing rust when it comes in contact with human blood. When the lead scientist’s own infidelity comes back to haunt him, the ‘bloodrust’ is let loose on Earth thanks to a woman unwittingly spreading it as rushes back to Hawaii lest her husband found out about her affair with the scientist.

 

"Why do people keep asking me to slap them?"
  

Space Master X-7 starts like a more typical science-fiction film with lots of technical speak, stock footage and space stuff before it veers into an almost noir like tale of toxic love, finally the film takes a third turn into a procedural as the police and scientists attempt to track down the woman before she inadvertently destroys the world through a contagion that she doesn’t know she’s carrying. I often hear complains about 1950s era SF being plodding and dull, Space Master X-7 manages to keep things moving by constantly switching up its story.


This film can’t overcome the one issue that often plagues SF of this era and that is having memorable characters.  Paul Frees is a delight as Dr. Charles T. Pommer because it’s so rare we get a scientist character who also has a dire personal life filled with selfishness and cheating. He has more dimension than 99% of other 1950s SF characters so of course he’s not too long lived in this film. This leaves our other interesting character and flip side to Dr. Pommer, Lyn Thomas as Laura Greeling. Greeling’s entire motivation is get home before her husband finds out she’s been cheating. I do wish the story had stuck with her more and touched on the impact of her accidentally killing a lot of people, but the story opts for a happier if weaker ending.

 

"They called me mad when I said I could
make a nuclear pot roast."


  

Space Master X-7 is a decent example of a mature science fiction story in an era where rubber suits and spaceships ruled popular culture.  It’s well thought out and keeps things fresh by always having something different to offer as the story unfolds. A good film for those looking for a change of pace.


Oh yeah, Moe Howard shows up in a distracting cameo as a taxi driver. I have no idea why.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Double Feature: Miami Golem & The Kindred

  

Miami Golem (aka Miami Horror)
1985
Alberto De Martino


Craig Milford (David Warbeck) is a TV reporter who is caught up in a conspiracy after interviewing a scientist about cloning research. A wealthy businessman wants him dead and to make matters worse the cloned lifeform might be a potential threat to the universe.


Miami Golem is a middle of the road Italian action/SF film, but it happens to come during arguably the golden age of Italian genre cinema, so it is still very entertaining. Miami Golem keeps things fresh by jumping from detective mystery, action film, and science fiction story. In general, the story is lighter in tone and lacks the excessive gore that was often a hallmark of the Italian cinema of the time. This restraint is what really keeps this film from reaching a level of notoriety that films like Demons (1985) or The Beyond (1981).  Ultimately this strength is also the film’s undoing, as it loses focus by the climax and then wanders around for several minutes afterwards before finally concluding with a limp finale.

 

How I though babies were made as a child.
 

The best element of the entire film is catchy synthesizer score that gets plenty of play including an extended number over the opening credits. Some may say that it is repetitive and the synth sounds cheap, but I think that’s part of the charm. The cheapness of the music mirrors the cheapness of the special effects and if that sounds appealing to you, you should give Miami Golem a look.



 

The Kindred
1987
Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter


John Hollins (David Allen Brooks) honors the dying request of his mother by heading to her remote cabin to destroy her research. She also happens to mention a brother that he knew nothing about. John meets a woman (Amanda Pays) who claims to be a fan of his mother’s work. John, Melissa, and some friends travel to the cabin. Here they find something horrible that will make you side-eye every watermelon you see.


I have distinct memories of seeing the poster for The Kindred when I was younger and it giving me a little chill. The movie doesn’t live up to the effectiveness of the poster, but if you’re a horror fan you should be used to that at this point. The Kindred is never bad per se but it rarely rises above passable. The plot is listless where it should be a creeping dread the continues to rise until the appearance of ‘Anthony’.

 

Me thinking about how babies were made as a child.
 

Anthony is the monster, and it is pretty obvious this where all the energy of the film went. There are number of fun gooey rubber monster scenes and other inventive sequences, the most notorious being a scene of Anthony hitching a ride in a watermelon. All of this isn’t nearly enough to right the film, but it is enough to make the slog of the actual plot bearable. I think with a stronger story The Kindred could have fallen into the pantheon of beloved 1980s horror films, as it stands, it is a curious footnote.


Friday, May 27, 2022

Double Feature: The Astounding She-Monster & Devil Girl from Mars


 

The Astounding She-Monster
1957
Ronald V. Ashcroft


A group of criminals kidnaps a woman to ransom and hideout in a cabin. What they don’t count on is a) the owner of the cabin is in the area to investigate a meteor, and b) the meteor was in fact an alien woman who can kill with a touch. Who is this strange creature and what does she want? Apparently, she wants to murder people but is there something more beyond that?


The Astounding She-Monster is a threadbare production possibly most famous for being so low budget that they couldn’t repair a tear in the back of the She-Monster’s body suit, so they simply ran the film backwards to have her walk back into the woods without turning around. The whole production feels similarly drab and cheap.

 

That reminds me, drag brunch is coming up.

That’s really too bad because the set-up provides for what could have a real potboiler as we have an already tense situation made that much worse by the uncanny. The Astounding She-Monster can never summon much energy with it’s uninteresting look and flat acting. 


Insult to injury comes at the end with a Twilight Zone style ending that only serves to make the alien’s actions that much more nonsensical. Once again we have a movie where the best thing is the poster.




Devil Girl from Mars
1954
David MacDonald


Nyah (Patricia Laffan) is an alien from Mars who has accidentally crashed into an airliner while heading to earth. She’s here to scoop up some men since all the men of Mars died in some kind of gender war. She lands outside an inn in Scotland and deploys her robot bodyguard, Chani to help her find a suitable man to take back to Mars to repopulate the planet.


Devil Girl from Mars is an exercise in minimalism. A few stage bound locations, simple costuming, just a few special effects, and shot with no retakes. It’s also proof that with some skill behind and in front of the camera these limitations can be overcome. Devil Girl from Mars is staidly competent throughout the run of the film. Nyah’s costuming and her robot pal, Chani are the only real indulgences in this production and they are wonderfully designed. Nyah’s costume is pure camp and wouldn’t be out of place at your nearest drag show. Chani is a wonder of fantastical robot design. It’s impractical and stiff but still fun in a gee whiz 1950s kind of way.

 

"It's a heartless killing machine, stop calling it cute."
 

Despite the attention-grabbing title, Devil Girl from Mars plays out at a leisurely pace. There are no large-scale action scenes. The majority of the film plays out in a cozy Scottish inn and as a result there is something pleasantly calming about this alien invasion. Sure, Nyah is a menace and has a mean henchbot but there is congeniality between the human characters that takes away any real threat from the villains. Devil Girl from Mars feels like a perfect film to have playing on a rainy Saturday when you are spending time sorting your comic books.

Friday, May 20, 2022

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds


 

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds
1965
Bert Williams


When the word psychedelic is mentioned it comes with a notion of swirling colors, fuzzy discordant guitars, and LSD. Beyond that, the psychedelic film contains a certain mood, it’s not the colors that melt it’s time and space. In my opinion the best psychedelic films also contain air of mystery tinged with menace. The psychedelic experience values strangeness above all else. The uncanny bleeds into the world, and that is what makes psychedelia such a good match for horror. The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is a confusing mess but it is an atmospheric and deeply psychedelic confusing mess.


Johnson (Bert Williams) is Liquor Control Agent who is discovered while investigating moonshiners. He escapes into the swamp. Exhausted he manages to swim to an island only to be stabbed by a nude person wearing a mask.  Now wounded he stumbles to the Cuckoo Bird Inn only to find even more weirdos, all of whom are plotting against him. Johnson needs to get the heck out before he ends up preserved in the Cathedral of the Dead.

 

"Lemme just put that back for you..."
 

Hold onto that plot summary tight, because the film is never terribly interested in making its plot elements very clear. The story unfolds like a confusing dream. I wasn’t even sure who the lead was for a while as several similar looking grimy men chase each other around the swamp in the beginning. Whether this somewhat dull and confusing beginning is by accident or design it is the perfect set-up for the jolting introduction of the masked killer. It’s a sudden and potent shock and an announcement that the film is changing gears.


From this point on the film becomes more unhinged with each passing moment. Johnson is besieged from all sides by weirdos, stuffed corpses, and a mysterious killer who could strike at any moment. The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds feels like a prototype for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in the way it descends into screaming madness as it approaches the finale. There is also a certainly sweaty claustrophobia surrounding the entire film as the sweltering swamp threatens to close in on Johnson just as much as the residents of the inn.

 

Starring my sleep paralysis demon.
  

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds in its restored format is a gorgeous looks looking film drenched in rich black shadows that give it a noir edge. The killer is shot in a series of staccato shrieking cuts that is unnerving but overused to the point where it becomes annoying rather than frightening. The taxidermied corpses are the biggest visual failing of the film looking more like paper-mâché dummies rather than preserved bodies.


The Nest of the Cuckoo is wonderful discovery. It is a strange little noir horror hybrid that feels like it may have influential in the transformation of horror into its more modern form starting around the 1970s. It's a psychedelic film devoid of many of the trappings of that kind of film. Definitely worth checking out and you can view it for free at https://www.bynwr.com/articles/the-nest-of-the-cuckoo-birds.