Friday, February 26, 2016


We know that February, the shortest, coldest, and most oddly spelled month of the year, is Black History Month.  It is also, less well known as, Women in Horror Month.  It’s probably a bunch of really obscure things, too, like Belgium Waffle Month or Shar Pei Month, but I’m focusing on the first two.  I realized I dropped the ball on Black History Month, up to now, so I decided to go with a horror movie with an African American woman lead.  The first thing that came to mind was DEMON KNIGHT, starring Captain Niobi herself, Jada Pinkett (pre-Smith).  After a little more thinking, I still only had DEMON KNIGHT.  Sure, there’s BLACULA (and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM), SUGAR HILL, GANJA AND HESS, but I didn’t think of those until literally just now and I’ve already watched DEMON KNIGHT, so that’s what you get. It’s okay though, DEMON KNIGHT is a fun one.  
The Capsule:
The sleepy town of Wormwood, NM (pop. 11) suddenly gets a wake-up call when a late night car chase ends in a fireball.  The sole survivor seems to be Brayker, a mysterious, lumpy faced stranger (William Sadler) on the run.  He meets up with lovable drunk Uncle Willy (Dick Miller!), who takes him to the Mission Hotel to lie low.  His dinner with the colorful locals at the hotel is cut short when his pursuer, Billy Zane in a cowboy hat, shows up miraculously unharmed by the fiery car crash and demanding the return of an ancient flask-like key he claims Brayker stole.  He’s fooled the town’s two cops into believing he’s a normal, non-demonic collections agent. When the lead cop wises up, Zane drops the pretense and punches through his head.  Brayker forces Zane out of the hotel using the power of the key, but the Collector (that’s Billy Zane) is not about to give up.  The Mission Hotel is about to become the Alamo for Brayker, ex-con Jeryline (Pinkett), no non-sense owner Irene (CCH Pounder), Uncle Willy, an emotionally insecure hooker, the guy who did the voice of Roger Rabbit, and the guy from WINGS who was also the grumpy guy’s friend in that movie about wine.  The Collector cooks up a batch of glowing eyed ghouls to find their way into the hotel, but he also tries to telepathically seduce the patrons into turning on Brayker.  The stakes are higher than they know.  If the key falls into the Collector’s hands, the world becomes a demon playground.  To further complicate things, Brayker’s time is running out. Fate has brought him to the Mission Hotel to find a successor, someone to carry on the fight against the Collector and his demon knight brethren, and eventually marry Will Smith.  
DEMON KNIGHT is officially titled TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT.  It was the first movie version of the TV horror anthology series TALES FROM THE CRYPT, to be followed by TALES FROM THE CRYPT: BORDELLO OF BLOOD, which was to be followed by nothing. They originally wanted FROM DUSK TIL DAWN to be one also, but Tarantino wanted too much money.  It is bookended with cheesy Crypt Keeper pun-tastic vignettes, but aside from that, it’s a real movie.     The director is Ernest R. Dickerson, who up to this point had only done the urban drama JUICE and the awesome SURVIVING THE GAME, a THE DEADLIEST GAME type movie with Ice T outsmarting a bunch of psychotic rich white guys.  He did a few more movies after, but is mostly known now as an in demand TV director, including stints on THE WIRE and WALKING DEAD.  He does a good job here keeping a pretty standard siege style movie lively and letting the solid cast do their stuff.  He also balances out the horror to humor ratio well, though he goes a touch overboard with the wackiness in a couple of places.  Still, things are satisfyingly bloody and even a bit disturbing at times.  He does kill off a kid, but he lets a cat live, so he’s not totally hardcore.
The movie is very much an ensemble piece; most of the actors really get a chance to shine.  William Sadler plays a good hero, adding a nice degree of desperation and weariness to the stoic Brayker.  Thomas Haden Church’s Roach is a phenomenal douche bag, more than willing to sell out humanity in a very short sighted attempt to come out on top.  Sort of a white trashier Donald Trump.  At one point he has a car battery hooked up to his nipples.  He’s not being tortured, he’s just being kinky.  Charles Fleischer’s nebbish ex-postal worker Wally doesn’t get to do that much before being taken out, but there is a cute joke about the seemingly nice guy stashing a crate of machine guns and planning to actually go postal.  Dick Miller gets way more screen time to be scruffy and lovable than in his usual cameos.  He also gets an amazing death scene (SPOILER, but come on, has the lovable drunk ever survived a horror movie?).   CCH Pounder plays a total badass, as usual (how could she not with a name like CCH Pounder).  She has such an intimidating stare down that I half expected the demons to sheepishly look at the floor and apologize for messing up her hotel. Not even losing an arm can slow her down.  When Billy Zane’s character tries to tempt her into switching sides, she gives him the phantom finger.
Speaking of Billy Zane, he gives one of my all-time favorite bad guy performances.  With his awshucks grin, Zane just radiates charisma in this role (and most of his roles that don’t involve TITANIC).  Aside from the occasional long fingernail, he’s never done up in demon makeup.  He’s just a charming guy who wants to be your friend… and destroy everything you’ve ever cared about.  There are a couple of times he treads close to BEETLEJUICE hijinks, but he rides it out well and even manages to make an impromptu disco ball dance scene with Pinkett seem tolerable.  He is especially good in the seduction scenes, each tailored to exploit the hotel survivors’ weaknesses.  They don’t all work, Pinkett and Pounder stand up to him, but his temptations of Brenda Bakke’s doe eyed prostitute and Dick Miller’s Uncle Willy are believably successful.  It’s funny that Zane doesn’t even bother trying to tempt Roach, he just waits for the self-serving prick to come to him.  He’s got great chemistry with Pinkett, especially in the beginning when she's scared but impressed with him (as opposed to the end when she’s scared but pissed).  Even though it would mean the end of the world, I still kinda wanted him to win.  
Clearly Zane is the best part of the movie, but Jada Pinkett is a close second.  I like the way they pull a Ripley with her.  She was fairly new to the scene in 1995, immediately striking with short blond hair and a defiant pose, but for the first half of the movie she seems like just another potential victim.  When the shit really gets crazy, though, she steps up her game until she’s going toe to toe with the Demon Knight.  There’s a fantastic scene where she slowly emerges from the shadows covered in the protective blood of a martyr, ready to pick a fight.  We know she’s scared, but she woman’s up.  She’s the chosen one.  
Plus, she’s in her underwear, so that’s a bonus.  
One weird thing, for a movie that actually depicts the crucifixion of Christ, it’s not all that religious.  There is some talk about God and Genesis (the book, not the band), but Christ is just referred to as “a carpenter”.  The key originally contained some of his blood, which would ward off the demons, but it was because he was a martyr, not specifically the Son of God.  In fact, the blood of a thief or a WWI soldier works just as well.  It’s a good thing, because they go through a lot of martyr blood in the movie, and that’s just one night.  I’m sure finding a martyr to tap off from isn’t easy, but she’s going to be damn harder pressed to find a Blood of Christ refill pack.
Obviously, it’s not an important work of cinema.  It’s a fun little diversion with some very enjoyable performances.  It’s so low key, in fact, that you almost fail to notice what sets it apart from most other horror movies.  It has two African American actresses in prominent, kick ass roles, one of whom not only survives, but is the real hero of the film.  What I think is really cool about it is that they are not specifically black roles for actors, but roles for actors who happen to be black.  It’s the kind of casual diversity that Hollywood should strive for.  Not bad for a horror movie introduced by a wisecracking puppet.
C Chaka

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Future Is Garbage - HARDWARE

I love exploring new worlds in movies, especially the ones that are both familiar enough to relate to and funky enough to be intriguing.  The best ones are crammed full of little unexplained details.  The expansive settings of STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS are great, but sometimes I prefer the more slanted remodeling of our own society, usually in the future, and mostly for the worst.  I’m talking about the dystopia, a movie that is simultaneously a grim warning (stop fucking up the planet) and a reassurance (you think you got it bad?).  Part of the fun is seeing how our regular human needs and desires, and particularly our weaknesses, are met and exploited in crazy new ways.  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD has its twisted salvation-through-horsepower religion, STARSHIP TROOPERS has its smiley faced fascism, and HARDWARE (1990) has its self-sustaining/destructing world of garbage.
The Capsule:
Sometime in the unspecified future, things are looking bright.  Bright red, especially over the radioactive desert near Hardware City (real name and location also unspecified).  A gas mask wearing scavenger digs up a robot skull in the sand and sells it to ex-military tough guy Moses (Dylan McDermott, before he was a lawyer in Boston).  He gives the skull to his metal sculpting artist girlfriend, Jill, who uses it for the centerpiece of her latest piece of industrial pop art.  Turns out that Moses has terrible taste in gifts, because the robot skull is part of the Mark 13, an advanced, self-repairing, people hating cyborg.  The Mark 13 builds a new body out of scrap and power tools and looks to disassemble anyone it comes across, starting with Jill, some security guards, a creepy peeping tom, Moses, and his acid dropping pal, Shades.  If they can’t stop this robot rampage, the world is slightly more screwed than it already was.
The crazy, used up world of HARDWARE is as much a character as Jill, Moses, or the Mark 13.  It isn’t a straight up, after-the-bomb wasteland.  It’s somewhere after the social decay of MAD MAX, but before the Lord Humongous anarchy of ROAD WARRIOR.  Whatever nation it’s supposed to be in still has a government, just not a very good one.  It offers free sterilization programs in order to promote population control, or as the politicians call it, “a clean break with procreation.”  Instead of one devastating global war, the planet is being ruined by a bunch of little ones, rebellions, and general strife.  The streets of Hardware City are filled with trashy open air bazaars, jury-rigged rickshaws, and huddled masses.  One of the only forms of revenue for the people not lucky enough to be on welfare is to salvage junk from the desert and sell it to Alvy, a stingy, chubby faced scrap dealer.  Hmm, I wonder if that idea will catch on.
In a cute twist, getting on government assistance automatically elevates people like Jill to what I guess is middle class.  The lower class is so low they aren’t even recognized.  As far as I could tell, HARDWARE doesn’t have an upper class, at least not one that lives planet side (there is some talk of off world colonies, I bet all the rich bastards live there).  Being on welfare does allow Jill to live in a semi-secure apartment building, be free to weld, smoke lots of government sanctioned dope, and have a refrigerator full of Ultragator Synthmilk.  It’s still a shitty building, though.  As Moses and Shades go up the stairwell, they pass a toddler leashed to a dead person, sort of like a dog tied up outside a coffee shop.  They barely notice.  I’m sure the owner will be back soon.

The Mark 13 is a pretty unconventional killer robot.  It was created by the government for warfare.  The project was suspended, not because it’s partially organic brain was so kill-crazy, but because it susceptible to humidity.  Since it had to rebuild its body from whatever scraps and wires it could find, it’s not sleek and efficient like a Terminator.  More horror than sci-fi, it has stumpy little legs so it spends most of its time crawling.  Kind of like a scorpion with buzzsaws instead of claws (note: it has claws too, and power drills and chainsaws).  It seems very much like the world around it, a hodgepodge abomination pieced together from dangerous junk.  Just looking at it is enough to give you tetanus.  

There’s a nice slow build before the mayhem starts, allowing you to soak in the weird, depressing environment.  Once the Mark 13 really gets going, though, the movie becomes a very tense, disorienting cat and mouse thriller.  Most of the action is confined to Jill’s claustrophobic little apartment.  It’s sort of like if the Nostromo from ALIEN had only three cramped rooms.  The robot bides its time in the shadows a lot, toying with Jill before springing at her.  The most horrifying scene in the movie, though, is when Jill opens the door to her apartment to this…
…her skeevy, tongue waggling peeping tom neighbor, Lincoln Wineberg, Jr.  This is perhaps the most repulsive character I’ve ever seen, Troma movies and MEET THE FEEBLES included.  He’s like one of those horrible KY coated animatronic creature from a sleazy, low budget ‘80’s monster movie, except that he’s a real person.  They douse him in sweat and give him a few disgusting facial sores, but mostly it’s all in the performance, because the actor, William Hootkins, is primarily known for being an average looking human being.  You might remember him from his “Top men” speech to Harrison Ford at the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or as Red Six, the X-Wing pilot who did not stay on target in the Death Star attack from STAR WARS.  He’s primarily not a freak.  Not so in this movie.  Lincoln (or Link to his friends, all of whom he has surely murdered) spends all day in his hellish apartment, making obscene phone calls and leering through a high tech telescope at Jill as she has sex.  He has a carefully annotated display of girl’s sandals hanging from his wall, along with a plastic Santa head.  He always wears surgical gloves.  Seriously, in any other movie, this motherfucker would be the villain.  When he slips through Jill’s door, ostensibly to help Jill with her malfunctioning apartment, it actually makes the rampaging robot she’s trapped with seem less menacing.  It’s an incredibly tense scene in an already tense movie.  For a moment, it seems like Link might just be a socially awkward weirdo when he starts talking like a regular IT nerd poking at her computer.  Then he starts singing creepy made-up nursery rhymes to her, and he’s back to full-on serial killer vibe.  When the Mark 13 suddenly and messily kills him (SPOILER), our sympathies momentarily realign.  Maybe the robot isn’t so bad after all.

Stacey Travis, the actress playing Jill, has done about a million small parts in movies and TV since this, but has never had such a meaty leading role.  It’s a pity, because her performance really stands out.  Jill starts off as an emotionally distant shut-in, but considering the world around her, being shut in is the most reasonable option.  Despite the amount of dope she smokes, she is very clever.  Once she realizes the Mark 13 is tracking her with thermal sensors PREDATOR style, she lowers her temperature in the refrigerator.  She lures the robot into traps, trying to determine its weakness.  She also keeps her cool, not panicking when faced with both a killer robot and a sicko stalker neighbor.  The movie has a nice feminist edge to it.  Jill is the only woman (aside from the Chinese mother in the apartment below who bangs on the ceiling with a broom when the racket gets too loud), and she is by far the most competent character.  She is surrounded by well-meaning but ineffectual men.  Even tough guy Moses, who does get a few good shots in, ultimately fails to save her.  She has to deal with the Mark 13 herself.  
Director Richard Stanley had plans for a sequel, but he’s had shit luck as a director and never got as far as he should have.  These days, the world-as-a-junkyard torch is held highest by Neill Blomkamp, with his grotty South African dystopias like DISTRICT 9 and ELYSIUM.  He manages to mix amazing visuals, hard pounding action, and social commentary into a satisfyingly quirky stew.  I’ll always have a soft spot for HARDWARE’s ambitious, rust covered coziness, though.  It goes great with a few rad-free reindeer steaks and a tall glass of Lactoplasm.

C Chaka

Friday, February 12, 2016

Love You to Death – A Valentine’s Day X-RAY

Like everyone, Valentine’s Day makes me think of two things, obsessive love and murderous jealousy.   Cinematically speaking, at least.  I believe there are one or two fringe movies out there that focus on the holiday without involving a body count, but no titles come to mind.  The gold standard for this time of year is, of course, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, a movie so good it spawned a sonically ferocious indie band (My Bloody Valentine) and a 3D remake (MY BLOODY VALENTINE, BUT IN 3D).  Instead of being obvious, though, I’m going to look at a lesser yet still raggedly entertaining V-Day film, Cannon Group’s X-RAY (1981).
The Capsule:
Susan stops by the hospital to pick up some test results.  Unfortunately, a lunatic in a surgical mask and a long-time fixation with her kills her doctor and switches her x-rays.  One of the hospital’s three other doctors insists she be admitted so they can 1) run more tests, 2) not give her any details about her sudden life threatening illness, and 3) perform a lecherous examination.  The hospital becomes stranger and stranger as Susan encounters free roaming drunks, aggressive nurses, fog filled hallways, and a chorus of deranged old women.  Meanwhile, the love sick lunatic continues to bump off anyone who could help her leave the hospital.  Could he really be Harold, the homicidal nerd she spurned on Valentine’s Day nineteen years ago?  Signs point to yes.
X-RAY, aka HOSPITAL MASSACRE, aka HAROLD REALLY KNOWS HOW TO HOLD A GRUDGE, isn’t the most Valentine-y  of Valentine’s Day horror movies.  No one gets choked to death with handfuls of chalky heart shaped candy, no one is shot with arrows, no one gets their actual heart removed.  There is a head in a Valentine’s Day cake box, which is always welcome, but the big connection to the holiday is with the killer’s motivation.  The movie starts with ten year old Susan enjoying an electric train (the traditional toy of Valentine’s Day) with her young Leif Garrett looking friend Dave.  Shy Harold leaves a Valentine on her doorstep and spies through the window as she opens it, crushed as she laughs when she reads his name.  He expresses his frustrations by hanging Dave from a hat rack when she goes to the kitchen, and then stews silently for nineteen years.  As far as a killer’s traumatic backstory goes, this has to be the most insignificant, even beating out PIECES’ mom-caught-me-with-a-pornographic-puzzle flipout.  Yeah, it was rude, but Susan didn’t even know Harold was watching.  HUGE overreaction on Harold’s part, in my opinion. 
Since the identity of the killer is obvious from the beginning, the trick is to figure out which of the hospital staff or patients is the grown-up Harold.  It’s fairly easy to figure out, especially once the suspect pool starts to thin out, but the movie throws more red herrings at you than SCREAM.  No one in the hospital behaves like a normal human being.  Everyone moves very slowly and deliberately, everyone leers menacingly.  Even her ex-husband acts suspiciously, and he isn’t even at the hospital.  He just sits around his apartment with their daughter, ignoring her phone calls and incessantly stabbing fruit with a pocket knife.  If it wasn’t for her milquetoast boyfriend, I would think Susan’s mere presence somehow made people go nuts.
This is probably because she unwisely chooses Nightmare Hospital for her healthcare provider.  Even without the killer, the place is a madhouse.  For one thing, it’s one of those huge hospitals that seems to have a staff of only ten people.   Also, none of the patients are there for any discernible reason.  A drunk wanders the halls swigging from a bottle of booze, while accosting Susan at every opportunity.  Susan’s roommates are three disapproving old women, one of whom is clearly a man in drag (never acknowledged).  When Susan insists a killer is after her, the overbearing nurses strap her to a gurney.  At one point she runs into a tiny room where three men in full traction are lined up side by side.  They begin frantically moaning and waving their bandaged limbs as soon as they see her.  As far as I can tell, none of this is played for comedy, just weirdness.  Seriously, this place is only a couple of rungs above the vision-of-hell hospital in JACOB’S LADDER. 
X-RAY was directed by Golan & Globus pal Boaz Davidson, who was admittedly unfamiliar with the horror genre.  It shows.  Technically, it’s not bad.  The kills are varied and bloody, the atmosphere is unsettling, and some scenes deliver a good amount of suspense.  It can be a bit off, though, hilariously so at times.  Ridiculously over the top OMEN style theme music plays whenever Harold is in evil surgeon mode.  One scene has Susan hiding behind a changing screen as the killer slowly walks past.   It’s nicely cut and full of tension, except that there is more than a foot of open space between the screen and the floor, where Susan’s legs are painfully obvious.  Lucky for her, Harold is apparently incapable of looking down.  Another scene has him rushing towards his victim holding a white sheet extended in front of him.  Visually arresting, but kind of impractical if you want to see where you are going.  
It’s also funny that none of the doctors ask Susan any questions about symptoms, even though her fake x-ray makes it look like she has a boa constrictor living in her abdomen.  Seems like that would at least be uncomfortable, but no one seems curious.  They just quietly consult with each other, stare, and make plans to operate.  
SPOILER ahead.  It turns out grown up Harold is actually the friendly and handsome internist who tries to help Susan but keeps mysteriously disappearing.   Not obvious at all, except that he is the only person not behaving like a potential killer.  And that his name is Harry.  Otherwise, total surprise.  I would have loved if the killer turned out to be the wandering drunk, but there you go.  There’s no mention of why he waited 19 years to avenge his broken heart.  I guess he got distracted for a while.
So remember, when an awkward, emotionally fragile loner gives you a crudely drawn declaration of love, let him down easy.  He might grow up, go to medical school, get a successful job at a hospital, wait for you to coincidentally visit the same hospital for routine test results, murder a dozen innocent, mostly unrelated people, and try to cut your heart out.  It's all part of the game of love.

C Chaka