Friday, March 25, 2016

Stop Explaining: NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (2009)

Terrible movies were so much more fun in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.  These days, instead of being enjoyably awful, terrible movies just tend to be boring.  They either try too hard to be clever or they lack the weirdness or obliviousness that makes even the worst movie interesting.  There are a handful of modern, entertainingly terrible movies out there, but the numbers pale in comparison to the old days.   I have a few theories as to why this is.  

One is the SCREAM curse.  SCREAM was a great movie, but heralded the grim dawn of the self-aware film.  Characters began referencing clich├ęs in older movies that resembled their current situation, usually derisively.  A little bit here and there is fine.  Too much and it becomes a snarky put down of the referenced movie.    The characters imply that they are smarter than the ones in those dumb old movies, although they usually only wind up making different dumb mistakes.  It mostly happens in horror movies, but it can leak out into other genres as well (Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger should have been forced to do community service for their roles in THE EXPENDABLES 2).  It isn’t always that blatant.  Some movies try way too hard to be clever.  Sometimes the script just self-consciously tries to over explain why something isn’t really stupid when it clearly is.  You can’t be in the middle.  Either write a script that isn’t stupid, or own it.  

I admit, I’m biased.  I will give almost any old horror movie the benefit of the doubt.  I recently became aware of a 1984 horror movie starring Alice Cooper called MONSTER DOG.  I will likely get this on Blu Ray sight unseen, because it stars Alice Cooper and is called MONSTER DOG.  When it comes to modern indie horror, though, I can barely get through the pop up description on Netflix before moving on.  I know I should take more chances, because some of them have to be halfway decent.  Like the 2009 remake of NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, which I bought thinking it was the 1988 original.    
A bunch of obnoxious college kids go to a Halloween party.  Two of them are dressed like slutty cats.  One is dressed like a goth/emo boy (not sure if it’s a costume).  One is dressed like a victim from a hospital horror movie (possibly X-RAY, but I doubt it).  One might be a zombie, but looks more like she just got drunk and fell into a rose bush.  Edward Furlong also shows up dressed as the kid from TERMINATOR 2.  The party is hosted by Angela, who is dressed like a girl soon to be possessed by a demon.  For that authentic vibe that only people in horror movies care about, the party is in an abandoned, supposedly haunted New Orleans mansion.  After the cops bust up the festivities, Angela and her pals find themselves locked in the spooky old house.  They discover some decayed bodies in a hidden room in the basement and Angela is bitten by a skeleton when she tries to pull out its gold tooth.  It’s not a reanimated skeleton, just an ordinary 85 year old corpse with a snap jaw hidden in a basement, so no one freaks out or anything.  It is enough for Angela to catch demon rabies, though.  While the other kids drink and screw around, the demon curse spreads among them through traditional methods like a bite, a kiss, or – less documented – anal sex.  As the unpossessed to possessed ratio dwindles, spunky heroine Maddie and her friends fight to survive the night.  Of the demons.

This movie does not start off promisingly.  The opening prologue is done in bullshit silent movie style, complete with sepia tone and dialogue cards.  You know, to give you the feeling you are watching an authentic film from 1925, except with more decapitations.  Then it springs into the present with an equally horrible, oversaturated, quick cut Bourbon St. party montage.  There is a cheap looking CG title, worse than the simple grindhouse title cards or even the Eighties two-tone video titles.  There is a completely pointless and embarrassing cameo by Linnea Quigley (Trash from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD deserves so much better).  Luckily, it gets all the worst shit out of the way early.  We meet our vacant young adult crew, who are knuckleheads but not as aggressively annoying as ones from an Eli Roth movie.  They all seem to like each other and there’s not a lot of bitching and backstabbing.  I wasn’t praying for their deaths, but I wasn’t broken up when they happened.  Final Girl Maddie is played by Monica Keena, who I liked in FREDDY VS JASON and is similarly likeable here.  She keeps a cool head and gets a chance to be badass later in the movie.  Ed Furlong looks way older than he should, either to be hanging out with these youngins or just in general.  Time has not been kind to him.  He does a good job of playing a loser drug dealer, though.  It’s a good mix of world weary and desperation.  I could have sworn that one of the dudes was on VERONICA MARS, but it turns out he’s just the kind of dude who you think would be on VERONICA MARS.

My favorite part of the movie is when the few possessed partiers are still trying to play it cool and seduce the normal folk.  Apparently these demons would consider the behavior in SPRING BREAKERS to be subtle, because their technique is ridiculously over the top.  Even the horny single dude is kind of disgusted.  One demon demonstrates a neat trick of making a lipstick tube disappear through her nipple and produces it from her hoochie.  Warning to parents, DO NOT hire demon magicians for your kid’s birthday party, even if they are cheap.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it will not shut up with the explanations.  There are three separate backstory exposition dumps.  I felt like I was on a New Orleans ghost tour.  At one point Maddie reads from a bunch of gibberish scrawled on a wall.  She makes the surprising discovery that the demons who have been trying to kill them are, in fact, demons.  You can skip that part, we got it.  It’s in the title, for crying out loud.  Listen movie, I don’t need your cockamamie hypothesis on why rust hurts demons.  No one is wondering that.  “For some reason” is perfectly fine.  Any reason we the audience cook up probably makes more sense, anyway.  

The movie is at its best when it loosens up and just rolls with the insanity.  One of the characters suddenly falls through not one but three floors for no discernible reason.  Maddie shoves iron nails down the barrel of a shotgun and fires them like she was Elmer Fudd.  Everyone is trapped on the deadly property because the outer gate is locked.  It’s not an electrified gate or covered in snakes or anything, just a regular gate.  Yet no one even suggests climbing over it.  Maybe their costumes were rentals and they didn’t want to risk tearing them.  I even like the little moments of stupidity, like how the bathroom is always vacant during a party with a hundred drunken revelers.  Or how Angela charges for admission, but has spent at least twenty times the total cover on an open bar and ridiculous lighting and sound systems.  Or why Furlong’s scary New Orleans drug connection is British.  

One not so great weird thing is the way they criminally underused the N.O. setting.  They have one (terrible) establishing shot of Bourbon St. in the beginning, then it’s all sound stages.  Due to the drabness, I actually suspected it was filmed in Bulgaria, like every DTV action movie made in the last fifteen years.  I was surprised to find it really was filmed entirely in New Orleans.  

They do a much better job with the soundtrack, including an exceptional use of Concrete Blonde’s “Vampire Song”.  I’m surprised they didn’t find a way to point out the movie is about demons, not vampires, though.  Just in case we were confused.  The theme song is by 45 Grave, of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD fame.  It’s no “Party Time”, but it’s a nice touch.  I didn’t recognize any of the other music, but the soundtrack has a handpicked quality and works thematically.  Plus, one of the bands is named Goatwhore.  I approve.

The make-up work is justifiably the highlight of the movie.  There is some CG enhanced (?) shots, but most of it is practical.   The opening decapitation is nice and blood spurty, even if it is in sepia tone.  There is a bathtub of blood, which I always appreciate.  The demons in particular are well done, with a lot of weird and asymmetric touches.   Someone gets her face ripped off and her demon form remains faceless.  There are boob tentacles.  Any movie with boob tentacles is worth your time.

So despite its self-conscious self-awareness, I found the movie charming.  It has a lot of heart.  You can tell director Adam Gierasch is really into ‘80’s horror and wanted to give it that fun feel.  There’s nothing mean spirited about it, just gory and goofy without becoming a parody.   Not a bad job.  I haven’t seen (or recognized) any of Gierasch’s other movies.  I’m not sure I’m going to actively seek them out, but if I flip by them on Netflix one weekend, maybe I’ll give it a shot.  Hopefully he’s learned to loosen up and embrace the stupidity. 

C Chaka

Friday, March 18, 2016

Outback Education: FORTRESS

Everything might be big in Texas, but everything in Australia is deadly.  It has the world’s deadliest snakes, the world’s deadliest spiders, the world’s deadliest kangaroos.  And if movies are to be believed, and why shouldn’t they, the world’s deadliest people.  I’m sure there must be some safe people in Sydney, but I don’t watch movies about people in Sydney.  The Australian movies I watch are in the Outback.  People are not safe in the Outback, in any sense.  The depiction of the Outback is like the depiction of New York City in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s.  It’s a dangerous place filled with crazy people who mean to do you harm.  The Outback has slightly less porn theaters, though.  Like the period New York street punks, Outback crazies love to prey on innocent outsiders who stumble into their territory.  What happens, though, when the innocents themselves are from the Outback?  FORTRESS (1985) aims to show you.

The Capsule:
On the outskirts of the outskirts of civilization, single-room school house teacher Sally Jones, aka Miss, has her class interrupted by four gun-toting masked freaks.  She and all nine of her students, ranging in age from 8 to 15, are forced into a van and carted off into the bush.  They are sealed up in a cave while the kidnappers depart to figure out how to set up a ransom demand in the middle of nowhere.  Sally leads the kids on a dangerous escape, only to be recaptured later at a farmhouse.  They manage to get away again, taking out one of the kidnappers in the process.  Holding up in an easily defendable hilltop cave, Miss and her students prepare for a final fight with the remaining kidnappers.  It’s school kids vs. psychotic reprobates, and there might not be as much difference as you’d think.

FORTRESS was made for HBO, making it a few steps up from the standard made for TV movie of the day.  HBO meant that it could have profanity, blood, and (brief) nudity, so it was pretty much a real movie.  It’s a well-made film.  The acting is skillful across the board, it has tight pacing, and the script is solid.  In spite of this, it often has a down and dirty exploitation feel.  The kidnappers are genuinely scary.  The freaky animal masks are bad enough, but the people under the masks are worse.  They all have that edgy vibe of unscrupulous losers with that first taste of being in control.  The goal of the ransom gives them just a hair of restraint, but it could clearly go off the rails at any second.   There is a strong threat of sexual violence towards Sally and fifteen year old Narelle.  Sometimes it is insinuated, sometimes it’s blatant.  Every moment with them is extremely uncomfortable.  The other kidnappers wear animal masks, but the leader is in a Father Christmas one.  Now, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Christmas horror, and this motherfucker is without  a doubt the most disturbing Santa Claus ever.  These guys are so bad that the one in the Daffy Duck mask is played by Vernon Wells, one of the lead psychos from ROAD WARRIOR.  And he’s the most reasonable one of the lot. 

You do have to question their logic, though.  Sure, one teacher and nine kids may be easy pickings (at first), but they are in the middle of nowhere.  None of the kids look well-off.  Their parents are most likely dirt poor farmers like everyone else there.  How much ransom are the kidnappers expecting from that bunch, three, four hundred dollars tops?  That’s Australian dollars, too, not American dollars.  Will they accept payment in barley?  Dingo pelts, maybe?  Their get rich quick scheme seems to be missing the get rich part of the equation.

In addition to their seriously flawed concept, the kidnappers really misjudged the choice of kidnappees.  On paper, it does sound like a sure thing (though I doubt these guys ever put any plans down on paper, seems like more of a drunken epiphany kind of decision).  Nine little kids and a schoolmarm, what could go wrong?  Except that these are little kids living in the fucking Australian Outback (technically it’s the Australian bush, but Outback sounds better).  They grow up resourceful there, because they sure as hell don’t have actual resources.  The kids start out scared, and the kindergartners do whine and cry a bit, but under Sally’s firm guidance, they become a serious and capable pack.  As soon as they are sealed in the first cave, they start McGuyvering shit to escape.  They respond to the increasing threat by becoming more dangerous themselves.  It’s deceiving.  They still look like cute little kids, but they aren’t messing around.  The booby traps they set to protect their “fortress” cave are not like the ones in HOME ALONE, they are like the ones in PREDATOR.  An innocent school yard rhyme they are always singing takes on more sinister implications near the end.  These little bastards mean business.

As cunning as these pint-sized survivalists are, they wouldn’t stand a chance without their teacher.  Sally is a fantastic character, and Rachel Ward plays her perfectly.  She is strong, quick witted, and very determined.  She feels like a real person, though.  She gets scared, she messes up sometimes.  She has doubts.  Once, when she has to swim through an underwater passage to escape the first cave, she panics and almost drowns.  Her limitations don’t stop her, though.   I like that she never stops being a teacher.  The first thing she tells the kids when they are being loaded into the kidnappers’ van is that they are going on an adventure.  When they are talking about how to escape, she calls it a council of war.  She keeps her students calm, working together, and on track, whether it’s rationing out food or making spears.  The kids may be in mortal danger, but she still reminds them to watch their language.  I hope someone nominated her for the Australian Teacher of the Year award after this.

If you are wondering just how far this movie will push the juvenile justice, the answer is (SPOILER) all the fucking way.  When our pack finally gets the drop on Father Christmas, everyone from Sally to the 8 year olds get their licks in.  Except for Tommy and Narelle, who are hurt, but they give their murder proxy to the other kids.  The pack has become so determined and merciless that they don’t just kill Father Christmas, they completely butcher him.  Again, including the cute little 8 year olds.  Instead of showing the damage being done, the camera stays on their savage, snarling faces, which is even more unsettling.  The greatest thing, though, is the next scene.  It goes from them brutally murdering a (debatable) human being, to the whole class sitting outside the school enjoying story time as if nothing had ever happened.  Of course, the story is Beowulf, and the kids seem to cheerfully identify with the notion of keeping a trophy of an epic battle (which will payoff brilliantly in the last scene).  When the cops drive up, it’s not to congratulate them on surviving a horrible ordeal, it’s because they found the bodies.  As they question Sally about the inconsistencies in her story (namely, leaving out the class participation mutilation), the kids silently file into the school behind the cops and just stare at them.  It’s like a scene from THE BIRDS.  The cops wisely decide to drop the whole thing and get hell out of there.  School is in, bitches.

I’m so curious about what happens to the kids afterward.  I figure that either:  a) they become the Warriors of the Wasteland from ROAD WARRIOR, or b) they grow up normally, because this kind of thing is just a coming of age ritual in the Australian bush.  I’m leaning toward the latter.

Note to self:  Never visit the Australian bush.  

Note to Australians:  I’m kidding, of course.  Please don’t hurt me.

C Chaka

Friday, March 11, 2016

Exactly What You Think It Is: PIECES

Exploitation movies are known for giving the audience what they are looking for.  That's where the term comes from; they exploit the movie goer’s interests.  In this regard, all films could be called exploitation.  Certain movies are just more upfront and lowbrow about it.  It doesn’t mean that they are all uninspired garbage, though.  At its heart, JAWS is an exploitation movie, delivering the nudity, blood, and terror the audience craved.  It’s also wonderfully acted and expertly directed.  Exploitation can rise above its mandate to supply the goods. On the other end of the scale, they can also unapologetically wallow in those goods, filling the space in between misconceived, baffling nonsense.   These are great, too.  Case in point, PIECES.

The Capsule:
Boston, 1942, a mother finds her pre-teen son putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman and freaks the shit out.  The boy calmly listens to her shrieking, mirror smashing, anti-pornography rant and then chops her up with an axe.  Forty years later, at an unnamed college in Boston (or Madrid as Boston), female students are being carved up by a mysterious chainsaw killer.  Hard boiled cop Christopher George is brought in to find the murderer.  He sends in a former tennis star turned undercover lady cop to pose as a tennis coach.  Campus lothario Kendall, who knew some of the victims, is also included in the investigation because Christopher George “trusts him with his life”, despite just meeting him a few hours ago.  Meanwhile, the killer continues to disassemble nubile coeds in pursuit of his ultimate goal, putting together a jigsaw dreamgirl from the parts.  Can Tennis Cop stop the killer before her pieces are added to the puzzle?

PIECES is famous for being an early ‘80’s, ultra-gory trash masterpiece.  A trashterpiece, if you will.  Its reputation is well deserved.  It has one of my favorite tag lines ever, “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is” (right up there with ZOMBIE’s refreshingly straightforward “We Are Going To Eat You”).  And it is exactly what you think it is, to a degree.  If you think it is an excuse to show a lot of blood and boobs -- and I mean a lot -- then yes, it is exactly what you think it is.  As opposed to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which seemed so much more gruesome than what it actually shows on screen, PIECES leaves nothing to the imagination.  Even though the kills are insanely bloody, they are also fairly quick.  There are no protracted scenes of the victims suffering, and it isn’t even remotely realistic, so it’s less of the emotional barrage TCM was.  The kills aren’t exactly fun, but they aren’t a bummer, either.  They are supremely memorable, though.

PIECES is essentially an Italian giallo with gallons more blood.  There is an unseen killer wearing black gloves.  There are lots of red herrings.  One of the red herrings is Paul Smith, the perpetually glaring man-mountain who played Bluto in POPEYE.  Since his character Willard is the grounds keeper who is seen lugging around a chainsaw, he is such an obvious suspect that there is no way it could be him (not to mention that the shrouded killer is clearly not Bluto shaped).  I wish he was the killer, though.  It would have given him more screen time.  Every second he is on camera is amazing.  He looks at every single character with such unconcealed disdain and anger that he seems to be using every ounce of restraint not to murder them right there.  I don’t think he would even need the chainsaw, he would just tear people apart with his bare hands.  There should have been a spin off series just about him going about his normal day, having to deal with people at the bank or the DMV.  It would have been hilarious.  

I’m not going to lie, it’s not the greatest depiction of women in cinema.  Most are there to be victims, and most are naked at some point. There is a moderately good role for Lynda Day George (wife of Christopher) in the form of Tennis Cop.  I love that it’s never addressed how odd of a career change it is going from famous tennis star to undercover cop.  Guess it happens more often than I’m aware.  Anyway, Tennis Cop does play a lot of tennis (including a great crowd shot of people moving their heads left to right and back again, some out of rhythm), but she gets at least one great action scene.  She’s walking the campus at night, hunting for the killer. She turns a corner and comes face to face with… a random kung fu fighter.  He throws down a wave of punches and spin kicks, knocking away her gun and sending her to the ground, only to be taken down by a swift kick to the balls.  As Tennis Cop is recovering, Kendall rides up on a motorcycle and says “Hey, that’s my kung fu professor.”  The professor jumps up and acts like the whole unprovoked attack was just a gag.  Then he runs off never to be seen again.  I guess that makes sense, because… what the fuck?

Aside from that dramatic interlude, the cops are pretty much worthless.  They ignore the literally gallons of forensic evidence and spend almost the entire movie aimlessly wandering around just looking for a guy with a chainsaw.  They even fail at that. Several killings are done in broad daylight, the killer makes a huge amount of noise, and a chainsaw is one of the more awkward murder weapons to conceal.  The murderer does manage to successfully hide it behind his back when getting into a tiny elevator with a victim, however, so it’s not just the cops who are oblivious.  Christopher George does yell at a lot of people, I guess that helps?

The killer’s traumatic backstory is pretty fantastic.  It’s not as much of a wild overreaction as the spurned Valentine giver in X-RAY.  From the mother’s behavior, it’s clear this wasn’t the boy’s first experience with her full-on man-hating crazy bomb.  It wasn’t a healthy environment to grow up in.  Things were probably leading up to this for a while.  His reaction is a bit extreme, but understandable.  What I don’t understand is why he waited 40 years before going ape shit psycho again.  After his initial mommy murder, he clearly went on to lead a successful, non-dismembering life.  He rose to a respected position at Unnamed College.  He’s well established in the community.  People like him.  And then for no apparent reason he decides to embark on a very messy quest to make a mix-and-match replacement mommy.  There is one strange scene about a student skateboarder going through a huge mirror that two movers are carrying Three Stooges style, but the actual impact was only implied and there was no mention about what became of her.  This is after the killer brings out his bloodstained nudie puzzle, so even if he had witnessed the (presumably) sliced up student, he was already on the Dr. Frankenstein route.  Was it just really, really far down on his to-do list?  “Well, finally got those gutters cleaned out, might as well get to that chainsaw massacre I’ve been putting off.”

Of course, the what-the-fuckiest moment is the last scene in the movie.  SPOILER for those who like having their minds boggled.  The killer has been shot and things are wrapping up when the spunky but useless Kendall discovers the sewn together composite corpse the killer was building.  It falls on him in slow motion, totally freaking him out.  Nice little payoff for what was only alluded to throughout the movie.  The real surprise happens after he’s recovered from that shock.  Everyone is leaving and he turns back to grab his jacket.  Suddenly, the corpse reaches up, grabs Kendall by the crotch, and crushes his balls.  The End.  This isn’t a CARRIE style dream, nobody wakes up.  There’s no indication why the completely non-supernatural movie now has a reanimated corpse.   It’s just a squish and roll credits, leaving you to puzzle it out.  As far as surprise castration endings go, that was a good one.  Maybe it wasn’t exactly what you thought it was after all.

C Chaka