Friday, January 24, 2020

The Triangle

The Triangle
David Blair, Nathaniel Peterson, Adam Pitman, Andrew Rizzo, Adam Stilwell

Found footage horror is still a pretty divisive sub-genre. Like zombie movies, the entry bar is so low that virtually anyone with some kind of camera (even a phone cam) can put together a movie. As a result, the horror landscape has been flooded with found footage movies. 99% of them are terrible boarding on unwatchable. While the technical side of a found footage film is accessible, crafting a story and acting that doesn’t break the verisimilitude of the film is extremely difficult. The strength of a found footage movie comes from its naturalism put into contrast with its horror.

The future is... BEARDS.
The Triangle is a slow-burning horror story that immediately sets off an alarm in the viewer with its premise: a group of documentary filmmakers receives a postcard from an old friend begging them for help. That friend has joined a cult/commune in the middle of nowhere Montana. It’s a smart set-up, it gives our protagonists a goal and someone to be concerned for right away and it also puts them in an isolated place with a potentially hostile environment. The Triangle is happy to let the characters stew in that situation for a while, all the while bringing up the actual threat in the background.

The Triangle firmly falls into horror for at least its first 2/3 before taking a weird shift towards a more New Age vibe. I think it is here that the film may lose some viewers. That is not to say that there aren't still some chilling moments in the finale but the force behind a wave of illness that is sweeping the camp has more to do with ancient space beings than an eldritch evil. The film never spells out exactly what is happening but if you are even slightly familiar with a lot of New Age views on extraterrestrial beings, you should be able to understand it.

Welcome to the most racistly named bus in Montana.
The strongest element of The Triangle comes in its representation of the cult, at first they are off-putting as they keep our protagonists at arm’s length until they can be trusted. As that trust is earned we get a more nuanced view of these people who have gone to such extremes to distance themselves from the world underneath it all we see that they are driven, joyous, and relatively happy. A lesser film would have made them misguided or dupes under the sway of a charismatic but unscrupulous leader, instead, we see that they are people trying to make sense of a world they don’t like. The tragedy is that there is another world even more unknowable and malevolent just waiting for them in the place they chose as their refuge.

The Triangle was a pleasant little discovery, it is a competent found footage horror film that has a few surprises and builds to climax that may irritate some, but I found it a fascinating change of pace for a subgenre that is usually stuck in a rut.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Invasion of the Star Creatures

Invasion of the Star Creatures
Bruno VeSota

Comedy is, of course, very subjective. What is considered humorous by a culture at large shifts and ebbs over time. The core elements of comedy persist, surprise, wordplay, slapstick, irony, etc,  but the particular flavors and mixes of those things change often. I find it interesting that certain kinds of genre films such as horror or suspense can still resonate after decades of cultural change, but comedies often have the hardest time staying relevant and funny. Perhaps this has something to do with what horrifies us being so deeply fundamental to us as living beings while what is funny is more situational. Either way, Invasion of the Star Creatures wasn't funny when it premiered and it is even less funny now.

Invasion of the Star Creatures takes a standard (especially by 1962) SF plot featuring an alien invasion and a few monsters. The invaders, in this case, are two very tall women named Dr. Puna (Gloria Victor) and Professor Tanga (Dolores Reed). Their plot is uncovered by two dopey soldiers, Philbrick (Bob Ball) and Penn (Frankie Ray).  The monsters are bargain basement vegetable men. I’m going to be charitable and assume these monsters were made to look deliberately terrible.

"I don't know what a giantess fetish is, human, but it sounds awful."
The humor in the movie leans heavily on absurdity and physical comedy. The film never manages to pull-off either very well. There is an artificial wackiness that never gels and only manages to irritate. Philbrick and Penn are mildly amusing as lazy Privates on the army base but once they are pushed into being the heroes of the story there is nothing compelling or fun about them. The aliens are played relatively straight which works fine, and even though the vegetable men are silly looking they are more often than not are shown to be an actual threat. Possibly the biggest issue the film has is that there is no real plot to speak of, soldiers uncover a cave with some aliens in it and everyone runs around for an hour. I will credit this movie for having some pot jokes in the third act, which seems daring for a production like this.

This is a low budget comedy from 1962 so it should come as no surprise there is sexism and racism in the mix. The female aliens are capable of physically dominating Earth men but it is only by being kissed can they be frozen in place and defeated. Later they become stranded on Earth and are completely dependent on the men to exist. Worse off is the introduction of some Native American characters who whoop and holler and pull knives on everyone. It's a joke that wears out its welcome quickly and then is brought back for one final cringe filled bow. It’s a deeply embarrassing element in an already embarrassing movie.

This is what happens when you don't eat enough fiber.
Comedic science-fiction is a tough genre to get right, it requires a commitment to both being funny and offering a science-fiction element beyond just the surface trappings. The pitfalls are numerous and there is possibly no better bad example of this subgenre than Invasion of the Star Creatures.

Friday, January 10, 2020

This Island Earth

This Island Earth
Joseph Newman/Jack Arnold

Even though it was released a year prior, This Island Earth will forever live in the shadow of Forbidden Planet (1956). Both are grandiose 1950s SF epics, complete with monsters, spaceships, and brilliant technicolor. Where Forbidden Planet had the one-two punch of being based on  Shakespeare and featuring Robby the Robot to launch itself into popular culture, This Island Earth can only sport a mutant in trousers and a serialized story that never quite gels as a feature film. This is a shame because while Forbidden Planet uses its platform to have us consider the inner workings of the human psyche, This Island Earth approaches a more topical subject, nuclear war, and it isn’t afraid to reach a grim conclusion.

"Keep your hands in your own tube, OK pal?
The plot of This Island Earth is concerned with a series of mysteries put forth one at a time and initially it is very engaging. What is the strange green ray that saves Cal Mecham (Rex Reason)? What is the source of the advanced electronic components that show up in Mechamn’s lab? Who is Exeter and what is the purpose of his cadre of scientists? These are all interesting developments, but when we get to the final reveal at the start of the 3rd act, the movie isn’t exactly sure where to go. Exeter, Mecham, and fellow scientist, Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) all head to the world of Metaluna, wander around for ten minutes and then leave again.

The 3rd act’s failure to deliver on the promise of the film is unfortunate because we are shown a protracted war between Metaluna and a neighboring world of Zagon. The Metalunans need uranium to protect themselves and they’ve run out. The parallels here to the cold war are obvious, but I really appreciate the willingness for the film to play this tragedy out. There is no hope, no winning a war like this. The only thing you can do is try and survive. Metaluna is wiped out, Exeter chooses death over hope, and our leads are left hanging. Sure they managed to stay alive, but what of it? What happens when Zargon aka nuclear annihilation comes for them in the future?

"I'm not staring!"
The look of the film is impressive, with big set designs, and bold colors. The landscape of Metaluna is rendered in a series of evocative matte paintings. Aside from the unfortunate pants, the Metaluna Mutant is a fun creation even if he never really gets to do much in the film. The soundtrack also is a mixture of traditional and electronic music. Although not quite as revolutionary as the score for Forbidden Planet, it none the less manages to create an alien overtone to permeates the film.

This Island Earth is possibly now more well known for being the subject of Mystery Science Theater: The Movie (1996) than anything else, and that’s not to say it doesn’t warrant some teasing, but underneath all that there is a serious heart beating at the core of this pulpy film and it is one that could use a little more exploration.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Joy of Failure

The Joy of Failure 

The Room (2003) is the biggest and most well known ‘bad movie’ of this century. Its presence in the cultural landscape is unmistakable, showings on Adult Swim and public theaters, it is endlessly quoted among friends, it is remixed and memed across the internet, it was even the subject of a tell-all book and film about its creation inThe Disaster Artist (2017). Much of this notoriety is due to repeated showings, but probably more so to the quirks of its director and star, Tommy Wiseau.

Wiseau displays a bizarre persona both in public and allegedly in private, and his first film bears this out. The Room is strange in every capacity. It looks like a cheap television show with its limited and unconvincing sets, questionable green screen work, and odd choices of location shoots. The actors do their best with Wiseau’s stilted and often tortured dialog. As a traditional film, it is found wanting in just about every quality except being entertaining. No rational person would call The Room art...

Yet it is.

The Room as it exists is also a very revealing look at how Tommy Wiseau views the world around him. Wiseau himself is often very evasive about his past and other aspects of his life, but The Room as written and performed by Wiseau in the lead shows someone who is successful at business and love but finds it all turned on him thanks to the duplicitous people in his life. It is not hard to look at Wiseau’s guarded nature and the betrayal of his idealized self on the screen and see that Wiseau himself is using this story as a way to work through a betrayal or at least a fear of betrayal.

It is totally justifiable to make fun of The Room’s failures, but it is also justifiable to dig into it a little see that underneath the mess there is the voice of an artist peeking out. I find these days in the era of slickly produced tentpole films that have smoothed out all the rough edges via research and test screenings resulting in nothing more than a consumer product Films which are personal, messy, and often noble failures are much more memorable. What’s more relatable to the human condition, a CGI mess of lasers and explosions that exists to be equally acceptable to everyone on the planet or a bizarre take on melodrama that could only come from one particular person?

For me the enjour of b-movies and so-called 'bad cinema' is the celebration of failure, because it is through the failure of the cinematic languge we often get a glimpse of the living breathing humanity that goes into any work of art. It is a pop-culture tradition that includes people like Ed Wood Jr. and Tommy Wiseau.

Failure is the most universal of human conditions, we all fail. The last act we ever engage in will be a failure of some kind. Take those movies that are failures, enjoy those failures, celebrate them in fact.  You’ll never find anything more human.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Crocodile Fury

Crocodile Fury
Godfrey Ho

Godfrey Ho might be most well-known for his dozens and dozens of cheaply made ninja movies created via a Frankenstein stitch-up of footage from different sources, but ninja movies weren’t his only output. Along with non-ninja war movies, straight-up crime films, he also produced a couple of animated features and… whatever the hell Crocodile Fury is supposed to be. Out of the 148 movies that he directed, or more accurately that we know he directed (He used a lot of other names), Crocodile Fury might just be the strangest. Not a small declaration in a world where Robo Vampire (1988) exists.

I see someone dressed themself today.
This is my interpretation of the plot, but as with most Godfrey Ho creations, it is very subjective. A small village faces a series of vicious crocodile attacks. These aren’t just any old crocodile attacks though, they are in fact being perpetrated by Cooper, the master of a race of spirits who can transform into crocodiles. Cooper is working with Monica, an evil witch with an army of zombies and hopping vampires. Only Jack a good crocodile spirt can hope to stop the massacre.

The crocodiles are the stars of this film and well they should be, the props are ludicrously monstrous. They look like a child’s idea of what a crocodile might be. They aren’t content with just grabbing people (and the occasional baby) out of the water, no these beasts launch up to the top of trees and also fly through the air to scoop up unsuspecting people, they are in short the greatest cinematic crocodiles ever created by mortal humans.

"Nobody here but us plants."
Since this is a Godfrey Ho joint, he might not include ninjas but he is sure as hell is going to throw in some hopping vampires. The hopping vampires aren’t nearly as fun as the crocodiles, but their boss, Monica does have some stellar moments when waving her arms around and chanting, “Hubba hubba hubba” to summon them. The Monica subplot is a bit of drag, but the climax in which she transforms into a clawed beast and then just gets arrested like any other criminal must be seen to be believed.

Many Godfrey Ho movies offer a few fleeting moments of fun, but they are usually sandwiched by a dull crime film or some other less interesting movie that he picked up for cheap. Crocodile Fury never suffers this issue. The entire crocodile plot offers incredibly strange moments colliding into one another, and while the hopping vampire b-plot might not be as over the top, it still manages to offer up some moments of fun.

What crocodile movie doesn't nee hopping vampires barfing up fish?
If anything the fevered pace and overwrought drama of Crocodile Fury eventually begins to wear out its welcome. This film is exhausting and I was glad when it reached its abrupt conclusion. Despite all of that, this is probably the most entertaining Godfrey Ho movie I have seen to date, It is the perfect blend of ambitious and deeply silly.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Ninja, the Violent Sorcerer

Ninja, the Violent Sorcerer
Godfrey Ho

In which I attempt to summarize this film: Myer, a master gambler, is challenged by Baker, a man who is using the dark powers of an evil priest named Collins to cheat. Myer kills himself after losing a bet. Myer’s son searches for another gambler named, James to help him defeat Baker. Meanwhile, Myer’s dead wife Rose contacts two ninjas, in hopes of stopping the vampire menace.

Ninja Commandments (1987) featured high-stakes gambling, and Vampire Raiders vs. Ninja Queen (1988) featured hopping vampires, so it makes sense to combine those two things in Ninja, the Violent Sorcerer… well, maybe not ‘sense’ exactly, but you take what you can get in the world of Godfrey Ho ninja cinema. The notion of bad magic influenced gambling isn’t even that far-fetched of an idea coming from Asian cinema, but when it is created via splicing some ninja/hopping vampire/Taoist sorcerer footage into a gambling action movie the results are barely coherent.

Taiwanese Rocky Horror was very different.
What sets Ninja, the Violent Sorcerer apart from much of Godfrey Ho’s output is that there is quite a bit of original footage included here. The supernatural elements are grafted onto a Taiwanese film called The Stunning Gambling (1982) which, as far as I can tell, contains not a single vampire hopping or otherwise. Is this new footage any good? There is a certain sameness to it all, evil priest commands some vampires to do a thing, ninjas find vampires, ninjas fight vampires to a standstill, and repeat. The secret joys of most Godfrey Ho movies are the moments of ninja insanity that are sprinkled throughout an often dull film. These moments work as short bursts of energy and color but when they are drawn out into lengthy scenes meant to support some kind of larger narrative they wear out their welcome rather quickly. There is still some fun to be had watching ninjas mix it up with hopping vampires but around the third time this happens, it fails to excite.

Hopping vampires sponsored by Spirit Halloween™
Admittedly, I don’t know much about Asian gambling movies, I have no idea what the rules of the game being played in Ninja, the Violent Sorcerer are supposed to be. There just appears to be a lot of flipping cups of dice around to get sixes or ones? At one point someone cuts a die in half and no one seems to regard this as unusual. The dynamic acrobatics of the gambling end up mirroring the equally flamboyant motions of the Taoist priests in the film. A more focused film (i.e. one not cheaply made out of two unconnected features) might have found a way to bring these similarities into an interesting comparison.

In the landscape of Godfrey Ho films, Ninja the Violent Sorcerer lands somewhere in the middle in terms of “quality”. The plot, as it exists, is actually novel enough to be interesting but the structure and editing undermine it. Often, in this case, a Godfrey Ho ninja film can just dazzle the audience with oddities and action, but  Ninja, the Violent Sorcerer turns to this trick once too often to save itself from being a slog.

Oh yeah, here are the ninjas.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Vampire Raiders vs. Ninja Queen

Vampire Raiders vs. Ninja Queen
Godfrey Ho

In a complete about-face from the overwrought tragedy of Ninja Commandments (1987), Vampire Raiders vs. Ninja Queen sees cut-up artist and ninja raconteur Godfrey Ho splice some ninja action into a very silly horror-comedy complete with hopping vampires and an actual dead pig being thrown off of a roof. Just in case you don’t get the fact that this is a comedy, the music takes on an equally zany tone… except for normal talking scenes that lift the soundtrack from Phantasm (1979) for reasons only understood by Godfrey Ho himself.

So, what is the plot this time? I can't say there is anything like a coherent story here, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed a Godfrey Ho ninja film. The gist is that there are two warring ninja clans vying for supremacy in the Hong Kong hotel industry. The Purple Ninjas are led by a blonde woman (Deborah Grant) and the Blue ninjas are a bunch of jerks who employ hopping vampires to do their dirty work. Three telephone operators overhear some of the Blue Ninja clan’s plans and end up on the run from vampires. There are some ninja fights, some vampire fights, and then a flying head explodes. The end.

I have the same look on my face when I have to answer the phone at work.
The whole process of inserting ninja footage into another film and then dubbing over all of it lends itself to inadvertent comedy naturally, so what happens when you also introduce deliberate comedy? The whole experience becomes overwhelming at points as the broadness of the vampire comedy with its slapstick and screaming makes the ninja shenanigans seem almost sublime by comparison. It is an odd and exhausting experience, but one that still manages to surprise and occasionally even charm with some of its more bizarre moments, such as an off-handed mention that there are nuclear explosions happening around the world (a fact which is never expounded upon again.)

Also, if you ever wanted to see a hog corpse dropped from a building onto some unsuspecting people then this is the movie for you.

The action set-pieces of Vampire Raiders vs. Ninja Queen are all around well-done. The vampire attacks are often frenetic and feature inventive moments with things stretchy arms or a dual vampire attack on the deck of a ship. The ninja fights are acrobatic and fast-paced, I can’t tell you who is who and why they are fighting half the time, but at least it looks good.

I don’t know if such a thing as a good entry-level Godfrey Ho ninja film exists, they are all deep dives for even dedicated junk movie watches, but if you are so cruel as to feel the need to introduce someone to them, Vampire Raiders vs. Ninja Queen isn’t a bad choice. It is well-paced has comedy that is both purposeful and accidental and shows off some decent action beats.

Just expect to have to answer a lot of questions when it’s over.