Friday, June 18, 2021

Race with the Devil

Race with the Devil
Jack Starrett

Coming along with the monumental success of The Exorcist (1973) came a sea of satanic films. Wikipedia lists thirty titles alone after 1973 and that is far from a complete tally. This public interest in satanic cults would take a wild turn in the 1980s when the public would quake at the devil hiding in every bit of popular media in what would become known as the Satanic Panic. I think those caught in the grip of the Satanic Panic would have believed that Race with the Devil was an accurate portrayal of what it was like in America with the Devil’s minions massing across the countryside.

Two couples (Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, and Lara Parker), decide to take a trip in an RV for a ski trip. They make a stop in the middle of nowhere Texas. They have a cookout, race dirt bikes and are generally having a fine time, that is until they witness a satanic cult ritual that ends with a murder. The cult realizes that they’ve been seen and swarm the RV. From there, the group are on the run as the cult seems to have members all over the country and slowly but surely, they close in.

"We are definitely going to get killed
on this vacation."

Race with the Devil is a masterful exercise in escalating tension. The film starts with a slow, almost agonizingly relaxed pace. We are introduced to these characters, their friendships, and the small personal concerns of their lives. There is no warning about what they are about to encounter, no cutaways to menacing cultists watching them from afar. Once the mayhem breaks it comes increasingly larger and larger waves of attacks as our heroes grow more and more desperate to escape the clutches of this seemingly never-ending cult.

The highlight of Race with the Devil is the extended chase scene onboard the RV and various cultists trying to board it. We move though the high action of these scenes to tense moments of coming across narrow avenues where they have to slow down. At its core this is an action film with a horror flavor that is always present. Things really kick up in the final moments which deliver a good spooky shock.

"I really need to wash this mask."

I think it would be easy to get annoyed at the slow burn of the first half of the film as we watch these characters literally spin their wheels at one time. There is a side quest to a local library for people to figure that they witnessed a satanic ritual when in the end it doesn’t matter. The intelligence gathering in no way helps when dozens of murderous satanists are clambering up the RV the kill everyone. Race with the Devil begins as a drama, moves to horror, and then to action before coming around to horror again.

Race with  the Devil is excellent little film that has a lot to offer and becomes more and more engaging as it goes. If you’re looking to kick off a satanic summer this is an excellent place to start.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (aka Xing ji dun tai)
Kwok-Ming Cheung

Shaw Brothers Studio is most well-known in the west for their kung-fu film output, and for good reason. They are the studio that brought out some of the most famous, wuxia, kung-fu dramas, and a whole variety of historical and modern-day action films. The output of Shaw Brothers is actually incredibly versatile, they released films ranging from animation to comedy and even in the case of Twinke Twinkle Little Star, science-fiction. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star occupies itself with very broad comedy and more than a little parody of some popular science-fiction cinema of the west.

Plot takes a back seat to silly set-pieces but here goes, Li Tien-Chen (Cherie) is a ditzy and unlucky woman who has difficulty holding down a job. She is swept off of her feet by the son of a wealthy businessman. The two are bound to be married but her potential father-in-law will only approve if she is a virgin. Unfortunately for Li she loses her virginity to a very Millennium Falcon looking UFO. Her future in shambles, she decides to end it all on some railroad tracks. Along come two detectives (James Yi Lui and Tam Tin-Nam) who are also down on their luck and looking to end things. The three decide to prove that Li is telling the truth and hopefully make some cash in the process

Desperately looking for the plot.

So, this is 1980s comedy is dealing with rape in a manner that is tasteless at best and is the one of the  big sour notes (the other is some 'haha men in dresses funny' transphobia) in the whole production. The whole plot hinges on this development so it is kind of hard to ignore. If you look get past that fact, the film dumps ridiculous moment upon moment onto the screen. There are car crashes, musical numbers, and visual gags galore. The barrage is constant to the point where it just becomes exhausting to engage with the film. We get plenty of nods to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) along the way.

It might behoove you to just skip to the third act where we are treated to an enjoyable lightsaber between James Yi Lui and a certain dark cloaked, heavy breathing assailant wearing a helmet. This is the one moment the film is really effective as the fight is not only silly and creative but manages to create some real drama as both opponents suffer at the ebb and flow of the combat. The set design is wonderful here creating an arena for the fight that feels lifted out of Star Wars (1977) with out directly copying a specific location.

"Golly, that is a big one."

Twinkle Little Star is a big mess. If you are in the mood for a noisy disaster, give it a go, but if you’re just interested in the watchable parts I would skip to the last third. You won’t miss much, and the entire plot is explained at that point, then you can just sit back and watch an enjoyable and very goofy fight.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Perjanjian di Malam Keramat (aka Pact with Forces of Darkness)

Perjanjian di Malam Keramat (aka Pact with Forces of Darkness)
Sisworo Gautama Putra

Countries trade film ideas and images with regularity. The USA's King Kong (1933) influenced  Japan's Godzilla (1954), which in turn influenced Britain's The Giant Behemoth (1958). It was not too long before Kong himself appeared alongside Godzilla. Films from other countries are often adapted and remade, often this is a disaster, but Ringu (1988) and The Ring (2002) remains one of the notable successes. For me, the most interesting version of this kind of culture exchange are films that engage in the wholesale lifting of ideas, characters, and even entire scenes from other larger films. Turkish Star Wars (1982) is perhaps the most well known of this corner of cinema.

Kartika needs her own music video with the Fat Boys.

Perjanjian di Malam Keramat is not as well known and unless you have an eye for the clip montages that play at the Alamo Drafthouse before the main feature, it probably would remain so. In this film, Kartika (Suzzanna), her husband, and two kids live in large mansion. The entire family is machine gunned to death by intruders one night. A couple of villagers nearby are directed to move into the house by the bank that now owns it. Whoops, Kartika’s ghost appears with a familiar razor fingered glove!  Kartika scares the family out of the house and begins to hunt down the people who killed her. A parade of exorcists and priests are sent to stop her but nothing seems to work. Who ordered the original murders and what will happen when Kartika gets her claws on them?

After the violent opening and talky first act, Perjanjian di Malam Keramat gets down to business and that business is combing spirit-on-the-loose shenanigans with scenes stolen entirely from Nightmare on Elm Street. 4: The Dream Master (1988) which is an oddly specific choice. It’s not a popular entry in the series (although it is my favorite). The real joy is seeing how the creators achieve the same set-pieces but without access to millions of dollars of SFX. To their credit, the scene to do create are often charming and quite fun. Of special note is the weightlifting turned bug transformation scene. An impressive sequence in Nightmare 4 where a character has her arms break off and is slowly turned into a cockroach. The poor victim is a turned into a strange crab monster in Perjanjian di Malam Keramat, but if anything, the whole scene if even more disturbing just by virtue of how low tech and strange it is. Aside from the violence and child murder there is healthy amount of silly comedy too. You might think it is out of place, but this too feels like it was borrowed from late cycle Freddy’s often ridiculous sense of humor.

"Is that a chainsaw or are you just happy to see me?"

Perjanjian di Malam Keramat is delightful mess of Indonesian horror. It is funny, gory, and once it hits its stride; it is extremely entertaining. This is film is a small miracle of outright theft, extreme creatively, and a real no-rules approach to horror filmmaking that makes it a delight to discover.

Friday, May 28, 2021


Angela Robinson

I am not sure what set me on course to find and watch D.E.B.S. When it came out in theaters back in 2004 I didn’t pay it much mind and it appears most of the movie viewing public didn’t either. After that it was perennial shelf warmer at video stores but nothing about it really encouraged me to watch it. I figured it was just another spy spoof with a little titillation and the veneer of girl power but mostly an exercise in light entertainment.

Turns out I was only half-right.

Perhaps it was coming out as trans. Maybe my gaydar is now finally honed that I can pick up signals long thought lost to my own brain, but for reasons I could not explain  I went and hunted up a copy of D.E.B.S. only to discover that yes, not only is many of the things I thought it was, it also a silly lesbian romance. Still not a common occurrence in 2004 and seeing one so carefree to boot was a lovely revelation.

This looks like an FMV game on the Genesis Saturn

The set-up for D.E.B.S. is pretty rote. A secret worldwide spy agency employs young women to bring criminals to justice. They just happen to wear schoolgirl outfits with blue plaid skirts and carry huge guns. Amy (Sara Foster) is the perfect student of the D.E.B.S. (Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength) organization, she aced the test to get in and is a consummate team member. Things go awry when she and a former spy turned super criminal, Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster) fall in love and try to navigate their romance without the rest of the D.E.B.S. discovering the truth.

Let’s get a few things out of the way, D.E.B.S. looks terrible. Shot on HD video, it looks cheap. The green screen and CGI work has not aged well at all. The action scenes lack any kind of punch or excitement. If this film had any pretention to being a real spy film, it would fail on every level. As a comedy it rarely elicited more than a few chuckles. The acting is fine if unremarkable. The soundtrack of D.E.B.S. however excels not only by primarily using women's music, but it also breathes life into the movie by keeping the energy moving when the visuals often fail.

The most stressful foreplay.

The romance of D.E.B.S. is also pretty standard stuff with two opposites attracted to one another. Given the generally light tone of the film I did not worry too much about things turning out poorly for our characters. What makes things notable is that these characters not only have to bridge their differences, but they also take action to extract them selves from the oppressive systems they are a part of, Lucy steps away from her life of crime and attempts to make amends, and Amy bucks the unjust structures of the D.E.B.S. organization. If nothing else D.E.B.S. is interesting in that such a light comedy takes a few steps to address systemic issues around queer romance. 

D.E.B.S. is not a great movie but it does offer a few surprises that have nothing to do with the spy comedy parts of the film. Just enjoy the lesbian romance and fun soundtrack. The rest is disposable.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Dracula's Widow

Dracula’s Widow
Christopher Coppola

The plot of Dracula’s Window is about as standard as they come for vampire films… well almost. In movies of this subgenre, the vampire often awakens after a centuries long slumber and goes in search of a lost love (usually a reincarnation), along the way they bring someone under their control to help do their bidding. Dracula’s Widow indulges in quite a bit of this, Vanessa (Sylvia Kristel) is the wife of Dracula and after being resurrected by the hand of a wax museum proprietor, Raymond (Lenny von Dohlen), she’s off and hunting for her long-lost husband. Vanessa isn’t really the focus here, instead the film splits it’s time between Raymond’s descent into ghouldom and a cranky detective by the name of Lannon (Josef Sommer).

What is interesting is that there is no hope for Vanessa’s quest, Dracula is long dead. The last descendant of Van Helsing is an ancient old man. Her quest is over before it ever gets started and she is locked into the this cycle. There is a tragedy in her character that remains understated. This is especially notable in a film where virtually everything else is overstated. The downside of this approach is that Vanessa doesn’t have a character arc. She wakes up, wanders around looking for her husband until she finds out he’s dead.

"Where is Electric Dreams 2?"

Dracula's Widow sports some decent creature effects, plenty of blood, and even that staple of vampire movies, the very dodgy bat puppet. It’s a glorious celebration of SFX and grue that really gives this movie its charm. There is definite camp streak throughout the film, dramatic tilted angles, film noir voice overs, comic book style scene transitions, and plenty of gore. Vanessa is not the seducing kind of vampire, more the turn into a hideous monster and tear your throat open kind. It is a refreshing change that give this film some 1980s style monster movie energy. There are moments of humor, but they never overwhelm the horror, a common problem in late 1980s horror movies.

I married Dracula and all I got
was this lousy wig (and vampirism)

Lenny Van Dohlen really steals the show here. Van Dohlen has always been an underrated actor, and here he’s perfect as the tragic and romantic lead of Dracula’s Widow. He seems to perfectly grasp what kind of film he’s in and take a melodramatic angle that wouldn’t be out of place in a Universal Dracula film. Despite this, he is an effective as a tortured soul who finds himself in an impossible tug of war between his blood bound actions under Vanessa and his love for his own girlfriend.

I had never heard of Dracula’s Widow until recently and that is surprising. It is a solid little creature feature that goes heavy on the camp at times but always stays true to the fact that it is a horror movie. At its core, Dracula’s Window is a small horror film that keeps its aims modest and meets them. It is the kind of film that doesn’t exist anymore, and the world of horror cinema is the worse for it. 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Fried Barry

Fried Barry
Ryan Kruger

Fried Barry does not have much of a plot. Much like Barry himself it lurches from moment to moment seemingly without reason, only to have previous experiences slowly build and connect into a story. This is not without purpose. The film is here to put us in the mindset of an alien and an alien often on drugs to boot. A loose story like that with an unreliable and not entirely human narrator could easily fall into chaos, but Fried Barry is guided by a surprising core of kindness underneath all the flash and bodily fluids.

Barry (Gary Green) is a heroin addicted mess of a human being. When he’s not shooting up, he’s yelling at his wife or looking for somewhere to shoot up. Luckily for everyone, Barry is abducted and probed by aliens, who decide to take his body for a ride. This new and improved Barry is silent, somehow irresistibly attractive to women, and unendingly sweet in his own distant way. Barry crosses paths with gangsters, lonely women, drug dealers, and even a child abductor, all without having a clue about what he’s really doing. In that respect Barry is more human than we expect.

Our hero.

Fried Barry is an assault on the senses moving from the run down and dingy confines of a heron den, to the flashing lights and heavy bass of an alien space craft, the film tonally and visually changes at any given moment. For a film about heavy drug use, featuring puking, a giant boner, and a chainsaw fight, Fried Barry is often silly and occasionally even charming. Among the grime of the city there are flashes of brilliant neon and strobing lights. The entire alien abduction sequence is slick looking and gorgeous, a reminder that every moment of this film is considered and crafted to a fine point.

The score of Fried Barry by composer and performer Haezer is as much of a character as Barry himself. Like the narrative, it shifts from subtle tonal ambience to heavy techno beats. Like the imagery, the score is masterful in the way it controls the energy from scene to scene only to explode in a frenzy of noise. With a lesser score this film would be no where nearly as dynamic.

Laser hair removal really stings.

The most shocking thing about Fried Barry at how sweet it is at the core. The opening scenes prepared me for something dour and a little mean. Barry is not a good person, the people he associates are not good people, and the place he exists is unpleasant. Post abduction, Barry is a blank slate. He spends most of his time gawping at things and wandering around, but when he acts, it is to try and help someone or make things around him a little better.  The being inhabiting Barry is alien and unknowable except for the fact that it is kind. 

In the end a heroin addicted alien sex fiend is the most human character of all. I love it. An amazing film and film and one of my favorites of 2021.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Meatcleaver Massacre

Meatcleaver Massacre (aka The Hollywood Meatcleaver Massacre aka Evil Force)
Even Lee

Meatcleaver Massacre touts Christopher Lee as its big draw. This is a lie. Yes, Christopher Lee is in it, but also, he’s not. Mr. Lee opens and closes the movie with long rambling speeches about demons and the occult. He is not interested in what he is saying, and it shows. I am certain this was something left off of his sizzle reel. In fact, these opening and closing segments where not originally filmed for Meatcleaver Massacre but were added after the fact. Not an auspicious start (or end) for this movie but nothing can really prepare you for what is coming.

"I don't know what I"m doing in the movie either."

After what I can only describe as the world’s most evil slide show, Professor Cantrell (James Habif) an expert in the occult and demons, heads home to his family. Some disgruntled students(?) get drunk in a van, drive to his house and murder his family for no reason that is ever actually explained. They all wear an identical patch on their jackets, are they supposed to be a cult or a gang? We are never told in a movie that is not interested in explaining anything at all.

After the unexpected murder of the professor’s family (that is totally devoid of a meat cleaver by the way), we get down to the bulk of the film in which the near catatonic professor is summoning demons to dispatch the killers. From there we get this band of the murderers doing random things, stopping those things to go do other random things, having nightmares, and then getting killed in a gory fashion. Repeat this cycle till the end of the movie.

It sounds like a disaster and it is, but the atmosphere it generates is so dreamlike yet grimy, it creates an undoubtedly compelling little film. Events just happen with no real explanation and end just abruptly.  A suicide is interrupted by work, a man just stops having sex and goes home, and a man gets electrocuted in series of events I still do not quite grasp. We even get a monster at the climax with looks like a Bigfoot covered in seaweed. Like the rest of this movie, it is odd more than frightening. After this nightmare we visit Christopher Lee again, who goes on far too long about occult conventions and mysteries. Even an actor of his caliber cannot elevate this material and Lee is only barely trying here.

The smell of this thing is incredible.

Meatcleaver Massacre is not what I expected from the title, and that is an understatement. Should you watch it? If you are looking for a straightforward slasher or demonic possession movie, you’re going to be bored and annoyed.  If you like things slow and confusing but somehow compellingly weird at the same time, then you will certainly find some things to enjoy here.