Welcome to this year's reviewz. Enjoy the list and keep watching movies!
THIS YEAR'S FAVORITES...
HEREDITARY (2018) recommended! Dir: Ari Aster (MIDSOMMAR) Unrelenting return to traditional horror in this truly frightening and ghoulish supernatural tale that is exquisitely directed. One of the really scariest horror films to come along in a while. Although the story arc and content is nothing terribly new to the horror aficionado, it is the films' execution that is its power and what keeps it so unnervingly tense throughout. Unlike many contemporary outings that run out of gas in the third act and don't have a big finish, this is not one of those films! Immediately reminiscent in visual style and tone to Stanley Kubrick's masterful THE SHINING(1980), as well as Lars Von Trier's ANTICHRIST(2009) (see review); HEREDITARY follows in the great tradition of ROSEMARY'S BABY(1968) and THE EXORCIST(1973) for its story content. The acting is superb with Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne (also in the role of co-producers), the cinematography and use of space are fantastic and the score is almost unbearable in its perfect dissonant tension (again, think THE SHINING).
Similar also to Jaume Balaguero's masterful THE NAMELESS(1999) (see review) and DARKNESS(2004) (see review); as well as THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER(1973) (see below).
Full review coming soon!
THE INVITATION (2015) recommended! Dir: Karyn Kusama (JENNIFER'S BODY, AEON FLUX, GIRLFIGHT) Fantastic and truly haunting psychological thriller. I have not liked the work of Karyn Kusama until now and have panned her previous efforts JENNIFER'S BODY(2009) (see review) and AEON FLUX(2005) (see review), but this film is just exquisite. Terrific directing, casting and acting performances weave a mature and unsettling psycho-drama with lots to say.
An invitation to a dinner party reunites an estranged group of friends after a two-year gap. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard) have divorced and each have new partners and they will all meet for the first time since separating. Thus begins an evening of every-awkward-moment-you-have-ever-feared-at-a-dinner-party. Before long tensions overflow between Will and Eden and so the big elephant in the room is addressed: the death of their child, which led to their divorce. Eden and her new love David (Michiel Huisman) have been away in Mexico for two years where they met at a grief retreat. Yes they joined a cult they admit with chuckles, but are eager to share their experience. Eden, having successfully dealt with her grief, wants to offer the same tools to Will. In spite of their divorce, there is still deep love and understanding, so why is David locking all the doors in the house? So the theme of the get-together is healing and letting go of pain and it makes sense that Eden and David are reaching out to their closest friends. "Oh no, are you gonna sell us Amway!?" someone jokes. The couple then share a video from their retreat showing the peaceful death of a young cancer sufferer. "Why would you show us something so disturbing!?" one of the friends exclaims before abruptly leaving. "I just wanted you to see how beautiful it can be" answers Eden.
Will, still clearly suffering from the loss of his son is suspicious of Eden's "recovery" and of the nights' get-together itself. As his paranoia spills over, he faces more and more the fact that he hasn't dealt with his issues and is a very broken person. Putting his foot in his mouth, he has to make amends several times. Still, why are there bars on all the windows of the house? I won't spoil the story except to say that in the third act, all hell breaks loose!
The climax of the film is as devastating in its thematic relevance as it is in its twisting plot. We are left with a multitude of deep issues to contemplate: fear of death, loss, purpose in life, togetherness, cult think, spiritual resolve. Although part of the surface narrative, the impact of these themes are more revealed by the essence of the story than they are presented as up-front content (aka: good writing!) As with many well-drawn horror dramas, all the characters have the best of intentions and all are relatable in varying degrees. Not for the sensitive or grieving mind you, this film is harsh! Very similar in tone to the works of Michael Tolkien, director of THE RAPTURE(1991), THE NEW AGE (1994) and screenwriter of THE PLAYER(1992) and DEEP IMPACT(1998), and similar in structure to COHERENCE(2013) (see below).
THE WITCH (2015) recommended! Dir: Robert Eggers Very compelling and exquisitely produced with cryptic, understated messages. Nonetheless- seriously creepy! The movie is subtitled "A New England Folk Tale" and at the end there was text that read: "Based on written accounts from the era." I'm not sure if the film is a dramatization of actual folk-tales assembled into a single narrative, or if the statement was just meant to set the mood. At the surface, what I got from from the story is that religion tears things apart. Sort of the film M. Night Shayamalan's THE VILLAGE(2004) (see review) should've been, and much like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a puritan settler family is too religious for their own good and destroy themselves due to their own dogmatic paranoia. Either that, or it was a witch that lives in the nearby woods. Is she real or imagined? We're never quite sure what is what. Then the innocent girl, the lone survivor of the family, becomes a witch for reasons unclear, then seems to rapturously transcend her reality (literally levitating up in to the sky.) The end. Hmm...
The atmosphere and the production design of this film were stellar as were the acting performances. There was a certain maturity and efficiency of storytelling in the narrative, helmed by first-time feature director Eggers. The score was also appropriately creepy and subtle. I appreciated the story aspect of a puritan family who left England because it wasn't religious enough, then leave their settlement because it isn't religious enough and then turn against one another for not being religious enough. Profound statement about the folks who settled our good 'ole U. S. of A.
Young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) on the eve of her first menstrual cycle, seems to invite everyone's Calvinist fears of human frailty, chastity and "righteousness" simply by being a girl. In the end, she gives herself over to the only power she seems to have on offer- the power of the fear itself. Seriously Punk-Rock! At this, the girl joins a coven of witches dancing entranced around a fire as they all hover up through the trees. The girl seems to experience a euphoric release, smiling and laughing in joy for the first time in the film. There are some real bonafide scares in this one too, like when the young son meets the witch in the woods near her lair. Especially notable is a scene near the climax when the demonic voice of a goat speaks to the young girl out loud. This moment immediately reminded me of Lars Von Trier's ANTICHRIST(2009) (see review.)
The moral of the story is not unlike the masterful FORBIDDEN PLANET(1965), where the monster turns out to be ourselves from within. There is a wonderful motif in the film where a rabbit serves as a stand-in for the witch. Either there really is a witch who turns herself into a rabbit, or the family is projecting their over-active imaginations onto anything with a pulse. When we look for patterns, we are likely to find them. Is the rabbit a symbol for witchcraft? or the dark paranoia manifest from our dogmas? Is there a difference?? Brings to mind Yoda's line from STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK(1980). Luke asks what is in the haunted tree, Yoda replies: "only what you take with you..." or the advice uttered from the medium in Toby Hooper's POLTERGEIST(1982), "mind your thoughts- it knows what scares you..." Don't go in the woods!
COHERENCE (2013) recommended! Dir: James Ward Byrkit
Fantastically tense indy flick that is basically a cast of characters in a room struggling with alternating timelines of reality. Current scientific theories on "quantum non-locality" serve as a high-concept basis for a Pandora's Box of which real is the really real? Smartly done and properly understated with nothing but actors in a single location.
A dinner party of old friends is held the same night a comet passes by the Earth. There is a brief power outage, but the lights come right back on. Looking out the window the dinner guests see that their house is the only light in the neighborhood, all else is in darkness. Discovering a faint light in the distance, two of the men decide to go on a fact finding mission. When they return they are in rough shape and are hesitant to tell what they saw. Turns out, the light was coming from a similar house to theirs, in fact- the exact same house, with the same exact people inside, including themselves!
One of the men reveals that his astrophysicist brother told him, "if anything weird happened that night, to stay put and not move." Turns out the brother wrote a book on "Quantum Non-Coherence" which is the idea that a time/space anomaly could allow multiple possible existences to all exist at once (similar to the creepy, temporal purgatory in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2(2013) (see review) or the tunnel in ABSENTIA(2011) see below.) Of course the gang does not stay put, instead they roam around finding multiple versions of the same house and of themselves until things are so mixed up, no one knows how to get back to their "original" reality. Could it be that the only way for the characters to cling to existence before the anomaly is over, is to replace their alternate selves in one of the parallel realities? Very heady stuff and rife with mystery and anticipation! Similar quantum time/space motif as THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX(2018) (see below).
US (2019) recommended! Dir: Jordan Peele (GET OUT) Writer/Director Jordan Peele's follow up to his Academy Award winning GET OUT(2017). I'm going to be very critical of this film because I am such a fan of Peele's work; and also because there is a tremendous amount of substance in the film that I am fond of. This being said, I'm not sure if anything worked. I really want to like this film but need to explore it a bit more...
Given the allegorical subject matter of GET OUT, it is impossible not to be looking for racial messages in US. As an African-American filmmaker and actor/comedian, expectations of racial subject material sort of precedes Peele, a stereotype that perhaps plagues him as much as it might serve him. Ironically enough, US is all about issues of identity, somewhat mirroring the real-life context of Peele the director. Rather than skirt these complexities, Peele marches straight into the maelstrom, which I find especially admirable. As if the subject matter of race and identity weren't challenging enough, the expectations placed on Peele probably feel like a constant hall-of-mirrors where art-imitates-life-imitating-art, etc. This is a mentally challenging road for any modern filmmaker.
Given my above description, it is wonderfully ironic and poignant that US begins with a young black girl lost in a fun house "hall of mirrors!" Right from the start I felt I was on the page with Peele's vision, or at least its' starting point. The narrative that unfolded seemed problematic in pacing at times, however, simultaneously the pace was refreshing compared to the hyper-edited fly-by's of today's horror standards. This is the first paradox I ran into watching the film.
Not surprisingly, Peele offers some terrific moments of comic relief that offer breaks in the narrative tension and suspension of disbelief. These breaks work two fold: (1) they step us back from the absurdist plot devices just as they might get too narrowly close to genre cliche (Is it even possible to fully suspend our disbelief in yet-another-zombie-type-film these days?) and (2) is refreshingly original for the genre. Peele seems to wink at us and never take the material too seriously, as if the plot isn't what matters (it isn't) versus the subtext beneath; and that he knows we know this. Whereas similar contemporary films just get exhausting, Peele seems to gives us breathing room. Does this violate true narrative and pander to sensationalist genre play? I don't know, but I went into the film charged up for the subtext and the metaphors and that is what the film seemed to care about most, regardless of the surface story.
Within the story, both the above-ground "original" people and their underground "evil clones" are ignorant of each other and the state that creates them. The films' ending hints that perhaps an inner willingness of individual character is the spark that can lead one out of the maze and into some sort of clarity of humanity. How this maps onto a wider social statement I am unsure. The nature of the situation for both classes is that one must perish, or live in bondage for the other to live free. The origin of this duplicity seems, at the story level, to be experiments by the government to control society. By making copies of surface people in an underground lab, the "linked" or "paired" clones can thus control the behavior of the versions of themselves on the surface. The opening title card speaks of "...vast and unknown underground tunnels throughout the USA..." which clearly infers vast subtext socially. It is a nice touch that rabbits are used as a motif in the lost underground labs, as if these dark, unseen corridors are the "parallel reality" or "down the rabbit hole" where magicians' rabbits come from when pulled out of a hat and then are made to disappear again. One is immediately reminded of abstract notions of social class and how we compartmentalize them in the recesses of the mind. Peele's absurdist manifestation plays this out in a literal, material reality.
Do you come before your shadow? or are you a reflection of your shadow?
Behind and underneath the carnival fun house is an escalator down to the subterranean world, yet unexplored. This is the demon world of the shadow-self where Mom must ultimately descend to face the beast. The beast in this case being a part of herself constructed by society. Without defeating this demon, she knows she can never truly be "free." It is no coincidence that an early shot from the film shows a VHS copy of the film C.H.U.D.(1984) next to a TV (another horror film dealing with an underneath world of humanity.) In a contemporary light, I cannot help be see parallels between the under-people's "Hands Across America" satirical protest and the recent Black Lives Matter and various Occupy protests (people arm in arm blocking road ways and public spaces.) Without leaning too much on personal politics, I wonder if Peele is saying that these protests are stillborn and naive because they merely counter one problem with yet another equal and opposite problem. We simply pit the inner parts of ourselves against each other, rather than resolving them. If the path towards true liberation lies within the individual, then these mass demonstrations are just another level of disaffection.
In the final shot of US, Mom smiles when realizing she is not the original of herself, but the clone from the underworld who got away. She was able to accomplish this by hijacking her "other" and chaining it to the underworld. Is this just a slave of a different kind? It is true that the version of her growing up underground is purely evil now. Which ever version grows up in the underclass must be destroyed in order to un-tether and disconnect (not unify) the pairing. US tells us that the toxicity that is left to breed underneath corrupts whatever it touches. This toxic residue stems from the desire to control others. Yet, institutionalized classicism and racism is separate from the individuals who suffer within it. US champions the essence of the individual and believes in its potential to transcend its origins and environment.
An African-American Mom (Lupita Nyong'o) fresh from breaking her own chains, descends into hell to defeat her shadow self
At work in US are some of the more classic themes in horror narratives, including: the fracturing of the family allowing demons into the world, the power of family to overcome said evils, identity lost and found or transferred, doppelganger (the evil other or shadow self manifest), supernatural occurrences hinting that things might not be what they seem, gender roles, racial identity, realities within realities (which real is the really-real?) and more. It is a great device the narrative kicks off at a boardwalk amusement park, complete with scary fun house named "Find Your Self" (notice: not "Yourself" but two words: "Your Self.") When a family separates after the mother warns "stay close," the young daughter wanders off to find herself in the fun house. The girl holds a candy apple, classic symbolism of ascent-to or willingness-to knowledge. However, as she approaches the fun house, she drops the apple. I'm not sure the significance here. In the hall of mirrors she is confused which way is out and encounters her own reflection, which turns out to not be a reflection at all, but a copy of herself (clone/twin) that acts on its own.
While being held captive by their evil others, Mom asks them, "what is it you want!?" to which the doppelganger Mom responds, "to take our time seeing you suffer after all the time we have waited..." Dad then asks, "who are you?" to which evil Mom respond, "we're Americans." Aside from the standard Marxist interpretation of a sub-underclass rising up to escape its oppressors, the "Tethered" underworld people in US seem to be truly evil and a proper, morally-bankrupt enemy. The film seems to infer that it isn't the characters that are the problem but the context they are forced into by their society. If Mom is actually one of the underground people swapped with her above ground clone, she is still the hero character. Here the film would have us believe that people are born equally innocent and only their situations pervert them (nurture not nature.) Given the chance to escape at an early age, the girl (Mom) grows up to be perfectly "normal" whilst her "other" from the surface (and the "real" Mom) becomes bent on jealous, murderous evil. When the underclass stages its revolution, we recognize it as both fruitless and childlike. We just end up feeling sad for them even as we know that they must be put down. This is a horrific dynamic Peele creates for us to ponder. Perhaps the ghetto is no fault of its occupants, but ultimately an environment that corrupts its inhabitants to points beyond redemption. So is the reality of the ghetto a reflection of standard society or its evil underbelly? What of the nature of the inhabitants within said ghetto? Are these doppelgangers our inner psychological "ids" or external demons? I think US wants to tell us that the shadow-self nature of everyone having an evil clone intuits the notion that the potential for evil is presupposed within all of us. The nature of the entire game is corrupt.
I am reminded of the redemption themes in ATTACK THE BLOCK(2011) (see below), where the protagonist realizes he must exorcise the part of himself that is part of the problem, in order to defeat and escape the problem. Equally with US, this theme is far more nuanced than any overly simplified oppression story. Peele seems to offer that our oppressors are within us and a part of us and is it up to us to discover these truths and un-tether ourselves on our own accord, rather than rely on some external savior to deliver us.
ANNIHILATION (2018)recommended! Dir: Alex Garland (EX MACHINA) Cosmic horror/sci-fi from the director of the much praised EX MACHINA(2015) (see review). Screenplay by Garland based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. Very much a mix of H.P. Lovecraft's The Color Out of Space (a film version of which is due out soon starring Nicholas Cage)with Gareth Edwards' MONSTERS(2010) (see review) as well as Denis Villeneuve's masterful ARRIVAL(2016) (see review).
When a meteorite hits the Earth, the surrounding area becomes shrouded in a weird "shimmer." Inside the area, bizarre perversions of Nature begin to manifest in both plant and animal kingdoms. The government/military have cordoned off the area and have set up a base of operations. All away-teams that have entered the "shimmer" never return or are heard from again. When Lena's (Natalie Portman) MIA soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) shows up suddenly after being MIA for a full year, Lena is set on a path that will eventually lead her to the very heart of the shimmer.
It turns out Kane's covert unit was one of the teams that went inside the infected zone, never to return. How did he survive? How did he get home? No one has answers, least of all Kane himself, who doesn't seem to remember or really know much of anything at all. One thing is for sure, Kane is dying from the inside out and nobody can figure out the cause.
The government wants answers and Lena joins an all-female away team to go into the shimmer. Once inside, they encounter weird transfigurations of nature growing out-of-sequence. Plants take human form and human skin starts turning plant-like. The women hypothesize that the shimmer acts like a prism, refracting natural processes into separate parts. These parts in their natural evolution blend and confuse, yielding the bizarre anomalous results. Beyond the DNA level, the shimmer has an emotional affect on the team members as well. Each woman reacts a different way to the reality of their "one-way mission." One wants to run, one wants to deny, one wants to give in to the force of the anomaly. Lena has something to live for however: curing her husband and she is determined to fight the phenomenon. Being ex-military and an scientist/teacher, Lena possesses and seeks knowledge, but also possesses the tenacity of a soldier. The lone survivor of the team, Lena makes her way to the center of the shimmer, a lighthouse where the meteorite landed.
Not Man Apart: Humanity as a subset of Nature
Nature's order is chaos- and it doesn't care about you
Caught between two different lives- one as soldier, one as scientist, Lena is already a fractured person. This fracture carries over into her marriage as well, as she carries out an ongoing affair with a scientist colleague. Husband Kane fulfills the soldier side but Lena is an academic now and she vacillates between both parts of her dual nature. Aware of the affair and needing an action, Kane volunteered to enter the shimmer. Learning of Kane's self-destructive motivations, Lena feels bound to pay her own penance in the shimmer, but can this save Kane and their marriage? Can there be any resolve or redemption for Lena? Entering the lighthouse Lena observes a hole in the ground made by the crashing cosmic object. What secrets might it hold? A videotape reveals that Kane, aware that he is being absorbed by the shimmer, took his own life- but a duplicate copy of himself remained!
Climbing down into the hole Lena meets up with her missing team commander Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ventress is in a daze, already morphing into something other than herself, waxing philosophic about the nature of nature, before liquifying completely into some unknown, fractile-like entity. Touching a drop of Lena's blood, the formless shape manifests into a copy of Lena only without any distinguishable characteristics. This dark opposite is just a shadowy, unformed duplicate of Lena (very similar to the alien without its' skin at the end of UNDER THE SKIN(2013) see review.) Racing back up to the lighthouse, Lena does battle with this dark other of herself, which mimics her every movement. How does one battle their own reflection? or in this case, refraction? Can Lena overcome her fractured nature and make things whole? Eventually Lena detonates the life-form with a grenade, which sets a chain reaction fire that destroys all elements of the shimmer. Back in the lab for debriefing Lena is asked, "what was its purpose?" to which she responds, "I don't think it had any." In the end, the surviving Lena and duplicate Kane are all that is left of the shimmer phenomenon. This "Kane" is just the shimmer's facsimile of the original Kane, void of any character or purpose, with only a little of the real Kane essence in him. Lena is herself, but with a little of the shimmer essence still in her. What will each evolve to be if they survive? Together can they comprise a complete "whole"?
Down the rabbit hole...
The film leaves us to contemplate whether the meteorite brought an alien life-form that (whether intentionally or unintentionally) messed with our environment; or if the impact was just a force that sent our own organic evolution in a different direction? If the latter is true, could phenomena like this be responsible for everything in our evolutionary past? The "refracting" principle that seems to underlay the shimmer reminds us that humanity is a part of nature, not separate from it. As with all organic things, there is a chemical process that defines eventual outcomes and ultimately is not set, but forever malleable by environmental pressures. Humanity cannot simultaneously be a part of this nature and transcendent of it at the same time. All our higher-order knowledge and wisdom cannot elevate us out of the reality that we are, like all organic things, so many cells in a Petri dish.
A QUIET PLACE (2018) Dir: John Krasinski (A QUIET PLACE 2, THE HOLLARS) John Krasinski ("Jim" from TV's: The Office) directs this tight and tense thriller about a small family trying to survive an alien invasion. Seems a meteorite landed bringing with it (or otherwise creating) evil creatures with super-sensitive hearing that wipe out humanity. Survivors must learn to make no sudden noises or the swift moving monsters make quick work of them.
Holed up in their rural farmhouse, Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn (real-life wife Emily Blunt) raise their kids the best they can. At night Lee works in his basement shop trying to reach other survivors on his HAM radio, while also obsessively trying to perfect a hearing aid for his deaf daughter. When the family pulls together they are strong, when they fragment they invite peril. Still overcoming the loss of their youngest member to the creatures, the family struggles with guilt and grief. However, it is Dad's persistence that heels the divide and delivers them from the evil forces in their midst. Turns out a feedback frequency emitted by one of the Lee's customized hearing aids neutralizes the alien monsters. There is finally a weakness in the creatures that can be exploited. A showdown with the invaders makes a very tense third act, where the wife goes into labor while the aliens invade the house and the kids almost drown in a silo full of grain- all while no one can make any sounds! Lee, finally reconnecting with his angstful daughter, sacrifices himself to save his kids- but the family is now free of their demons for good.
The composition and physical blocking in A QUIET PLACE are really fantastic. Not much on subtext but rich in horror and suspense, this one is certainly a worthy thriller. By dealing the characters a handicap- in this case not being able to talk or make noise- the story ties one hand behind everyone's back. Ironically, it is the daughters' deafness that has pre-prepared Lee and family to be up to the challenge of life without sound. Loyal to the thematic trope of strength in family unity, the film feels like Hitchcock meets John Carpenter, with a bit of Shayamalan's SIGNS(2002) thrown on top. Definitely a great thrill ride with smart and refreshingly sparing effects and creature design. A sequel is in the works already.
PASSENGERS (2016) Dir: Morten Tyldum (THE IMITATION GAME, HEADHUNTERS, FALLEN ANGELS) Big-budget Sci-Fi entry that seems standard fair, but is actually full of beefy subtext. Great production design, visual effects, solid score, smart writing and solid acting performances weave an existential confrontation with what it means to be human. Reminiscent of MOON(2009) (see review), SILENT RUNNING(1972), DARK CITY(1998) and certainly 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY(1968) among others. In spite of suspecting a Philip K. Dick reality-within-a-reality twist, the story stays straight (no they don't turn out to be robots, no it isn't all a dream.) Tepid enough for the whole family, yet heady enough for the intellectual in you. Tons of references to myths and fables from Genesis to Sleeping Beauty round out this solid telling of our individual struggles to make life worth living. A bit of a Hollywood ending doesn't deter the thrust of the films' message, although the final pop-music track over the end credits is unforgivable!
AIR (2015) Dir: Christian Cantamessa
Two workmen (Norman Reedus and Djimon Hounsou) are stuck in a control room with limited air as the machines that keep them alive begin to falter. Monitoring a cryogenically frozen sampling of human society, the men are part of a series of stations that are re-conditioning a post-apocalyptic Earth until it is fit to sustain life again. Big plot twists test the resolves of the men as the clock keeps ticking. Strong acting performances and great production design lay the groundwork for a tense moral play.
BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010) Dir: Panos Cosmatos (MANDY) Get your Shrooms, Acid and DMT ready. Part art-film, part science fiction, and all strange and trippy- BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is certainly as bizarre as it was advertised in the list of "Top Sci-Fi flicks you've probably never seen" I discovered it in. Exquisitely designed, shot and structured and certainly following the aesthetics of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY(1968) and also THX-1138(1971). Looks amazing, has some interesting concepts and a maturity in its understated storytelling, but all in all, I'm not sure there's much of a there there. I think it wanted to be Kubrick meets Bergman and maybe it is, but it felt like SILENT RUNNING(1972) meets Ken Russell's ALTERED STATES(1980). The soundtrack, quiet ambience, use of color, editing, surgical composition and visual sense of this hyper-stylized narrative are all stellar.
A scientist who seems to have discovered some dietary and consciousness-shifting biological secrets ends up forming a cult society and after it has had its day, his futuristic campus exists on. The current young director of the quiet and desolate lab facility is a charismatic and stoic man who interrogates and sort of fatherly obsesses over a young, mute girl patient who is basically a prisoner. In his spare time this man dons a leather suit and kills people off campus out in the rest of the world. We're sort of led to believe the director is an alien in human form- or perhaps is experiencing some human transcendence or further step in evolution(?) Is this how we channel extra terrestrials into our midst? Nothing is very clear. Meanwhile there are these alien baby looking things in space suits and some cyborg looking clone guards that keep the girl from escaping.
The girl "Elena" ("patient 8311" an homage to THX-1138) seems to have some psychic episodes that mess with the control structure of the facility, which also seems linked to all the characters within it. By the third act, we discover that the original scientist who started all this is still alive and living in the facility. This withering old man recalls his research experiments back in the day and their glory and mumbles about ends justifying the means. Clearly on the edge of death from his own self-imposed isolation and lifestyle, the scientist can't even sit up by himself and must be assisted by the director, who seems apathetic and far removed from all this now. The girl escapes and the director pursues her in killer-mode and the film sort of becomes a slasher at this point as he stalks her outside the lab and kills some innocent bystanders along the way. The he dies. The end. That's pretty much it.
Visual aesthetics in BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW: Production Design by Bob Bottier, Cinematography by Norm Li
In one way the film seems like a cautionary treatise on cult logic and scientific hubris. The old scientist in his singleness of vision doesn't see the failings of his crusade, even at the bitter end. The director seems to be a byproduct of some endless and probably useless experiment that only led to his psychopathy. A whole lot of staring at the sun and you see whatever you want to see. At the same time, there are the weird alien-like beings in the lab and this underlying supernatural element and it's never clear if these are further products of a/some/the delusion or actual otherworldly elements(?) Nothing gets explained. The film is abstract enough that any analysis of subtext is lost in the ether as the narrative seems at once literal and figurative. Perhaps the film is just a thin excuse for some great production design and camera work.
The "transcendental" concept matter is similar to Russell's ALTERED STATES as well as all things David Cronenberg (SCANNERS(1981) and THE BROOD(1979) spring to mind.) Similar structural feel as IDAHO TRANSFER(1973) (see review) and UPSTREAM COLOR(2013) (see review) and very much in line with the abstractness of Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN(2013) (see review).
SECOND STRING PICKS...
ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011) Dir: Joe Cornish Terrific tongue-in-cheek sci-fi actioner for kids. Stars John Boyega as the leader of a young gang of tuffs in South London who both invite, then have to protect their neighborhood from evil alien monsters! Making statements about youth culture, this film has a good heart and is not short on laughs, smart action and fun gore effects.Almost feels as if it was by the SHAUN OF THE DEAD(2004) (see review) guys (but isn't.)
In order to thwart the alien invasion from space, the kids must act independently from the adults. Street-wise and well accustomed to the threats they regularly face from local gang activity, the youth suffer the same old challenges from parents and police in order to get things done. However, it is not until they come to terms with the fact that they are in fact part of the problem in their neighborhood, that the kids glimpse a solution to the invasion. In one very poignant visual reference, the central character (Boyega) straps one of the dead, ape-like aliens to his back (literally a "monkey on his back") and runs right through the invading army, risking his life in order to get them to follow him out of the projects. The message is clear- until the sins of the community members are owned and redeemed, there can be no collective peace.
ABSENTIA (2011) Dir: Mike Flanagan (OCULUS, HUSH, BEFORE I WAKE)
Interesting thriller about a pedestrian tunnel at the end of a city street that somehow passes through varying alternate dimensions. When a young woman in the midst of some personal recovery stays with her sister, she starts noticing people disappearing. The tunnel seems to hold the clues and it isn't until the girl decides to confront the anomaly first hand that any answers can be gained. Interesting sub-plot about how it is to perceived and believed by one's peers, especially after a breakdown. Ending reveal is not unlike this year's US (see review above.)
FRACTURED (2016) Dir: Jamie Patterson (THE KINDRED, CAUGHT)
Well made indy about a couple on a rural, weekend getaway that turns into a nightmare. The film is an interesting experiment as the story is shown twice- once from the victim's point-of-view and once from the villain's. Of course, what we thought was the story turns out to be something else entirely and the shifting POV reveals all. The performances are good and the first part is very slasher-esque, much like the French home-invasion thriller THEM(2007) (see review). Could've fallen into over used tropes but was a mature telling throughout. The ending kind of just runs-out and seemed like it needed a stronger finish.
RAVAGERS (1979) Dir: Richard Compton
Dystopian saga as one man tries to survive in a wasteland Earth full of violent roving gangs. Richard Harris stars in this cross between THE OMEGA MAN(1971) and THE ROAD WARRIOR(1981) with a bit of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD(2009) (see review) sewn in. Ernest Borgnine, Art Carney and Ann Turkel co-star.
Terrific cinematography and locations provide a rusted landscape where humanity tries to re-organize itself. When the only order that brings any quality of life demands cult-like tribalism, how could/should civilization go on? Action but not an action film, strong ensemble cast and weighty dramatic questions make for a tense adventure that points the mirror back at us. Interesting that no explanation is ever given for the fall of civilization- it is sort of just a "given" which in itself is a strong statement. I almost feel this film sort of picks up where the end of LOGAN'S RUN(1976) leaves off. It's as if the survivors of the dome society went out into the world to make a go of it and it became like THE ROAD WARRIOR and then eventually the dark reality of THE ROAD. Solid production that takes its' time in spite of its' sensational premise. Another entry in the 1970's post-apocalyptic genre that seems to have slipped through the cracks.
Z.P.G. (1972) Dir: Michael Campus (THE MACK, THE PASSOVER PLOT, SURVIVAL)
In line with other 70's post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi the likes of LOGAN'S RUN(1976) and SOYLENT GREEN(1973). In a near future Earth where the environment has fallen apart, the government must establish a no child policy for a period of decades in order to control world population. During this period, couples yearning for children are given a plastic doll (creepy!) as a pretend surrogate for an actual child. Society conforms itself around this game of pretend. Due to availability, some couples even have to share a "child" together. One couple dares to go off their enforced sterility meds and actually get pregnant- the ultimate capital offense. Raising their baby in a secret cavern underground, things hold together until the couple they "share" with find out. Now it is a race against time to figure a way to avoid the authorities and the angry, jealous neighborhood mobs and escape the city before the young new family are publicly euthanized! Cheezy effects actually held some quaint charm in this stylish British production. Oliver Reed does his William-Shatner-school-of-acting best as the husband to Geraldine Chaplin. Not sure why I never heard of this one back in the day, glad I found it.
AUTÓMATA (2014) Dir: Gabe Ibáñez (HIERRO, MAQUINA (short), TV's: THE MINISTRY OF TIME) Antonio Banderas stars in this tale of Artificial Intelligence colliding with technology that will make it the next step in evolution. Incredible production design, effects and cinematography with a washed-out visual look that matches the mostly arid wasteland the Earth has become. Suffering somewhat from the-actor-is-also-the-producer-itis, Banderas begins to wear thin although the story stays strong. A nuclear powered cell provides the energy needed for A.I. robots to live past their programmed lifespan. The one robot with this magic battery may actually live for generations, all with the knowledge of how to make more like itself. In a world where humanity seems to be shrinking away, might this new robot era become the only message-in-a-bottle that remains of humanity?
*See my reviews of A.I Cinema at my ENTERTAINMENT REVIEWZ page (HERE.)
Contemplating the divide
Technology as Evolution
Crossing over: leaving Humanity behind in order to save it...
THE MACHINE (2013) Dir: Caradog James (DON'T KNOCK TWICE) A top-secret cybernetics lab is the setting for a confrontation between Artificial Intelligence and the human Scientists that created it. A super-soldier (Caity Lotz) becomes self-aware and resists attempts to be shut down. An all out military battle ensues! However, are the free actions of the cyborg part of her intended programming or has she truly "gone off the reservation?" Has she independently developed free-will or was this anticipated/designed? Is this all a test? Is someone externally gaming the system for political gain? Underneath the action are some interesting A.I. Cinema concepts about the nature of sentience and free-will. Terrific physical performance by Caity Lotz is reminiscent of Milla Jovovitch in THE FIFTH ELEMENT(1997) or Summer Glau in SERENITY(2005).
*See my reviews of A.I Cinema at my ENTERTAINMENT REVIEWZ page (HERE.)
NECROMANCY (1972) Dir: Bert I. Gordon (EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, FOOD OF THE GODS, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, KING DINOSAUR) With the look and feel of a "drive-in flick" through and through, this bizarre rarity didn't disappoint. In the top-10 of many "must see!" lists out there, I was able to find a restored version (there are many versions) which is important due to the scratchy grind-house nature of existing prints. Yes- it really is Orson Welles! A bit of a cross between ROSEMARY'S BABY(1968) and THE STEPFORD WIVES(1975), a young couple investigate a seemingly perfect little rural town only to be caught up in a secret devil cult!
THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER (1973 TV) Dir: Jeannot Szwarc (BUG, JAWS 2, SOMEWHERE IN TIME, SUPERGIRL, WEEKEND OF TERROR, TV's "NIGHT GALLERY")
Well made movie-of-the-week starring a very adept Shelley Winters about a young woman who gets kidnapped into a Satanic cult. When Diane's (Belinda Montgomery) mother dies, a supposed "old family friend" (Winters) comes calling with warm offers of family and fellowship. Soon details begin to not add up and Diane's quest for answers leads to secrets set in motion before her very birth! Good acting, some nice winking at the camera and a non-Hollywood ending make for an enjoyable thrill ride! Yes it's very much a clone of ROSEMARY'S BABY(1968).
THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961) Dir: Val Guest (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, QUATERMASS 2, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN) Stylish and classy Brit-thriller about the Earth surviving a closing orbit to the Sun. Great performances, camera work, production design and understated special-effects make for a solid drama. Circumstances test the wills of a small group of locals who prepare for the end of the world. What would you do if you had only a few days left? Similar to CRACK IN THE WORLD(1965) (see review) and also THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED(1957) (see review).
PRIMER (2004) Dir: Shane Carruth (UPSTREAM COLOR) This Sci-Fi mind-bending thriller deals with time travel. When a pair of obsessed young engineers work in their garage trying to find a marketable product for their start-up, something amazing is discovered. They produce a machine with an odd side-affect, the ability to create a time-loop. Creating a bigger, person-sized machine the two do what anybody would- visit forward in time one day in order to pick-up stock quotes before returning to the present to make a financial killing! Of course, hubris overtakes any caution of the "Butterfly Effect" and the friends begin time-hopping in order to prevent the murder of a friend who they feel responsible for setting in motion. They enact a scenario where they record future conversations on a pocket tape recorder which gives them a 3 second advantage when "back" in the present. It is the more cautious of the two experimenters who finally reveals that he has smuggled one of the time machines through another time machine with him- and he has actually been ahead of the entire timeline and manipulating events all along! Eventually preventing the murder after dozens of looping episodes, the two friends part ways as one can't stop meddling with causality and the other just wants to live his life in the present. At the end, the obsessed friend is in France overseeing what looks like an airplane-hanger sized construction of yet another time machine.
Very much like the hard-to-follow, overly-abstract plot of Carruth's later UPSTREAM COLOR(2013) (see review), PRIMER tries to be smart by staying a step (or 2 or 3) ahead of us in its narrative telling. To be sure, the storytelling is very efficient and clever, but as with UPSTREAM COLOR, we start to get lost. The intrigue is over taken by obfuscation. I couldn't really follow the third act although I got the thrust of what was happening to the characters. Similar to LOOPER(2012), Christopher Nolan's MEMENTO(200) or INCEPTION(2010), the time-bending aspects of THE TERMINATOR series of films and COHERENCE(2013) see above.
RECENTS THAT DIDN'T LIVE UP...
A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016) Dir: Gore Verbinski (THE LONE RANGER, RANGO, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, THE RING, THE MEXICAN) Brilliant until the last half of the third act, where it falls apart. Sigh... This movie didn't know what it wanted to be and it shows. If it had only starred the late Vincent Price, we would've known what we were in for from the first frame and could've enjoyed style and atmosphere for its own sake. The exquisitely produced mystery story flows along well enough, but the pacing starts to drag. Is this just a big shaggy-dog story? Sadly- yes.
A mountain top spa for the super rich turns out to have (wait for it... wait for it...) a dark and deadly secret. Something in the spring water not only rejuvenates the sick, but makes them want to never leave. Turns out the evil doctor found a technique for longevity in the form of water eels ingested into the human body. With the unsettling biology of a Cronenberg film and the paranoia of any number of "trapped in an asylum" pictures, the direction of the story is never quite clear. The red flags start multiplying as the film begins referencing a dozen other classics until it becomes obvious that's all there is to the story- references to other films. Yay. From CHINATOWN(1974) to ROSEMARY'S BABY(1968) to DRACULA(1931) to ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST(1975), we take a stroll down Cinema-nostalgia lane. The film even tries to cram in both FRANKENSTEIN(1931) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA(1925) at the climax, complete with a ballroom dancing scene as the big mansion goes up in flames. All that was needed was Price and Peter Cushing to make the cliche complete (and better!)
I'm really tired of these exercises in Filmmaking that are really just for the filmmakers themselves. Did they really think homage is enough? Go see any number of gothic Hammer Horror flicks instead of this dud. Any one of them will be more original.
THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) Dir: Julius Onah Another entry in the CLOVERFIELD universe, advances in particle physics may signal the dawning of a new and inexhaustible energy source for Earth. There is a price however, in that this new technology may also rip a hole in the fabric of space-time. A satellite lab orbiting the Earth is the stage for our drama as the scientific crew struggle to get the machine online. Once they do, weird shifts in reality start to manifest, confirming the fears of all who opposed the program from the start. Eventually, the crew find themselves in a completely alternate reality and the only possible way back may leave a permanent tear in the universe. Just as the crew think they have defied the odds and made it safely back home, a final shot reveals a giant monster (a la the other films in the series: CLOVERFIELD(2008) (see review) and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE(2016) see above) which lets us know that the reality of Earth has in fact shifted and changed into a Lovecraftean nightmare-scape forever!
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) Dir: Dan Trachtenberg A sort-of, but not really sequel to the 2008 hit CLOVERFIELD by producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves. This film is actually a separate entry in the CLOVERFIELD universe or "mythos." Commenting on the release of the first film, Reeves spoke about the reality of today's social-media culture and how every cell phone video taken of an event could be its' own movie story. It seems Reeve's idea has become the motivation for an entire series of parallel films.
John Goodman stars as a freaky, conspiracy-theory addled survivalist named Howard, who resides alone in his super advanced, underground bunker. Experiencing a brutal car crash, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) survives, only to wake up imprisoned in the bunker by her savior Howard, who now holds her hostage. Howard fills Michelle's head with stories about the end of the world and a great plague outside, insisting they must stay underground forever. Finally escaping her cell, Michelle encounters Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) a young man who also resides in the bunker. Emmett is less a prisoner but also not allowed to leave. The two young people are forced to endure tense dinners with Howard who plays house and seems happy to have two fellows in his isolated world, as long as they "obey the rules." After some protracted tension between the three, Emmett is murdered when Howard learns of his plot to attempt escape. Rushing to the surface Michelle encounters a woman desperately trying to get into the bunker from outside. The woman is wracked with a devastating plague- Howard's tales were all true! Finally overcoming Howard with some clever cat-and-mouse strategy, Michelle makes it to the outside only to encounter bizarre creatures and an alien space craft that destroys the neighboring house. The end of the world is indeed underway- by alien invasion! Surviving the aliens and hopping in a vehicle Michelle finally escapes Howard's property, only to turn and drive straight toward the besieged local city in order to join the human resistance against the invaders.
Seeming like an expansion of the entire farmhouse sequence from H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE riffs on a variety of horror/sci-fi classics for its' premise. A tightly claustrophobic drama, most of the movie takes place in the bunker and is essentially a three-person actor's lab of strong performances (see also AIR(2015) review above.) Goodman is fantastic as the mystifying Howard who is often sensible, a wild card and sympathetic all at once. John Gallagher's ill-fated "Emmett" is particularly memorable as well. The production design, directing and FX are good and all, but the story plays out more like a TV episodic with a cheap twist than anything particularly epic. The heroic "join the resistance" angle is downright cheezy.
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is much in line with the characters trapped in a safe space tradition as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD(1968), THE THING(1982), THE MIST(2007) (see review), CUBE(1997) or FIVE(1951) (see review), or the Terence Fisher British films ISLAND OF TERROR(1966) (see review), ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED(1967) (see above) and THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING(1964) (see review).
GLASS (2019) Dir: M. Night Shyamalan (THE VISIT, SPLIT, UNBREAKABLE, THE HAPPENING, LADY IN THE WATER, THE VILLAGE, SIGNS, THE SIXTH SENSE) Follow up to SPLIT(2017) (see review) and the third and final in Shyamalan's "super-hero" series.Pretty anti-climactic and felt rushed just for the sake of closure. Not much to say except that the film features less of the acting prowess of James McAvoy than the prequels.
THE INHABITANTS (2015) Dir: Michael & Shawn Rasmussen (DARK FEED) Straight-to-streaming video-film with ok ambience and basically well done but a giant so-what?
Felt like a beginner filmmakers outing and as such was solid I guess but nothing new. Score was quite good. A young couple in New England purchase one of the oldest houses in America. Turns out to be haunted by a witch who killed children or something like that and was executed for it. The wife becomes possessed by the dead spirit of the old witch and nurses dead fetuses with her breast milk. Then she kills the husband. The end. Just a lot of spooky atmosphere and that's it.A final shot of the murderous wife looking straight into the camera was unforgivable. Skip this one and watch THE WITCH(2015) (see above) instead.
WORTHY OF NOTE...
BATTLE ROYALE (2000) Dir: Kinji Fukasaku (CREST OF BETRAYAL, FALL GUY, DAY OF RESURRECTION, MESSAGE FROM SPACE) Long before THE HUNGER GAMES(2012), this harsh and ugly statement on humanity, society and all things generation-gap, could only come from Japan! Blending cutesy, Asian, "Hello Kitty" kitsch with all-out bloody murder, this well made and influential feature is not without heart and genuine sadness, in spite of its brutal nature.A rough ride that has become a cult classic.
THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1964) Dir: Michael Carreras (THE LOST CONTINENT, PREHISTORIC WOMEN)
Hammer Films delivers a classy spin-off in the "Mummy" milieu that is neither the Terence Fisher directed, Hammer Films THE MUMMY(1959) nor Universal Pictures original THE MUMMY(1932) starring Lon Chaney. I found this outing fairly compelling and certainly more scary than the original. Fantastic color and cinemascope photography take us through foreign intrigue as a resurrected mummy carries out a deathbed curse and seeks to resurrect his bride queen.
THE GORGON (1964) Dir: Terence Fisher (THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, BRIDES OF DRACULA, THE MUMMY, THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, ISLAND OF TERROR, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT)
Hammer Films and director Terence what-hasn't-he-directed Fisher bring us a period-piece frightener starring- you guessed it- Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The ancient myth of the Gorgon creature "Medusa" is brought to modern times when a woman in an ancient mansion turns men to stone when they look at her. Turns out the Gorgon mythos is true and this monstrous species has survived through the ages. Lee and Cushing must team forces to discover the mystery and take down the creature. Cheesy special effects but good acting keep this ultra-color, cinemascope entry classy!
ISLAND CLAWS (1980) Dir: Hernan Cardenas 1970's era cheezer that I just couldn't hate. Not unlike a Bert I. Gordon feature (THE FOOD OF THE GODS(1976) (see review), or EMPIRE OF THE ANTS(1977) (see review) ) only sans any green-screen FX. Nuclear spill causes crabs on an island to attack humans! Also, there is a giant mutant crab the size of a house that goes on a rampage. Warning: cheezy practical effects! Most of the film revolves around the character drama of a small fishing village of Irish folk living on a Caribbean Island. A local science lab experiments with accelerating crab growth as a means to fight world hunger. However, it is the evil corporate power plant that leaks tainted water into the sea that causes the havoc. Oddly enough, I enjoyed the slice-of-life drama more than the "horror" part. After eons of time in soap opera mode (more like, an episode of TV's "THE LOVE BOAT") we jump back to the crabs and I was like: "Nooo- skip the horror premise and just be a movie-of-the-week." Particularly good performance from veteran actors Robert Lansing, along with Nita Talbot and Barry Nelson. TV recognizables Jo McDonnell and Steve Hanks play the eye-candy leads. Made me want to rush to the buffet for all-you-can-eat crab and seafood. Goofy lounge-core musical score is a hoot!
ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED (1967) (aka: NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT) Dir: Terence Fisher (THE GORGON, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, BRIDES OF DRACULA, THE MUMMY, THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, ISLAND OF TERROR, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT)
Another Terence Fisher Brit-horror about an island with a mysterious and deadly creature and scandalous love triangles. Using a similar hotel interior set as THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE(1961)(see above)and also about a remote group of people surviving a heat wave. This time it's radio-wave hopping, energy feeding alien blobs that crank up the temperature in a small town to condition it as ground zero for an Earth invasion. Ah but we have Science! Grumpy, visiting professor with crazy theories Christopher Lee teams up with local doctor Peter Cushing to learn about the invaders and how to destroy them. Nice ensemble cast of decent actors portraying a-group-of-characters-in-a-confined-space motif standard to Fisher's films.
THE CREEPING FLESH (1973) Dir: Freddie Francis (THE GHOUL, LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, SON OF DRACULA, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE DEADLY BEES)
You guessed it- once again Peter Cushing AND Christopher Lee...!
Review coming soon!
Count Dooku and Grand Moff Tarkin, at it again in THE CREEPING FLESH
WHAT WAITS BELOW (1984) Dir: Don Sharp (CURSE OF THE FLY)
Your basic Doctor Who episode from the 1980's or a lamer episode of Star Trek. Under direction of the military, a science team led by some adventure guides plum the depths of an ancient cave in search of seismic knowledge. The military of course wants info for weapons and science wants to save the environment. Soon into the quest people start disappearing and glimpses of figures can be seen lurking in the dark. Turns out there's an ancient race of cave dwelling humans who, like some aboriginal tribe cut off from civilization, have survived the eons. At first the cave people seem like the enemy, but once a truce is established, its the evil corrupt military leader who becomes the bad guy. Silly but ok made-for-TV fill. I liked the locations and the set design of the cave.
JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (1962) Dir: Sidney W. Pink (REPTILICUS) In what amounts to a long-form Star Trek: The Next Generation type episode- Earth astronauts land on a foriegn planet that seems to all be a simulation dressed for their eyes. Soon each crew member is visited by what seems to be his perfect female companion, beckoning him toward destruction. Venturing beyond the false-wall of the projected landscape, the crew discover the real source behind everything- a malevolent blob creature in a cave that is projecting these false visions. Soon the false reality starts to close in leaving no room for living things. Can the crew destroy the creature in time to escape!?
ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (1958) Dir: Nathan Juran (JACK THE GIANT KILLER, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, THE DEADLY MANTIS, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS) Any film that makes me reference Ed Wood is worth your time! Cheesy as I always expected it to be but with a surprising amount of charm. Directed by Nathan all-things-giant-in-size Juran. Ghastly bad special effects, unless you take it as comedy, in which it is masterful! An alien "satellite" (UFO) lands near a desert town and comes into contact with a tortured woman, thus causing her to grow into a giant. The giant alien man in the pod (an aging bald headed actor with no expression) is dressed in some Camelot-esque, left-over wardrobe from some other movie, straight out of the Ed Wood play-book. So low-budget that you wish they hadn't even tried, the effects are thankfully kept to a minimum (save for a poorly green-screened shot they repeat over and over at completely different scales and perspectives toward the end) and some basic miniatures. The performances of the stereotype characters are fairly decent, especially by lead actress Allison Hayes.
Our protagonist is Nancy Archer (Hayes), a rich woman under-the-influence who knows she's being used by her swindler husband but can't break free of her need for him. Knowing he is having an affair, the woman puts up with her husbands' behavior, trading her better judgment for false security. When she is magically turned gigantic in size, it's as if her inner faults are only magnified. Hunting down her husband and his lover in town, she tears apart the local tavern, killing the floozy and capturing her beau. All Nancy wants is to be with her husband and happy, but her effort to take him and go away results in the death of them both. The final line of dialogue is, "she finally has him all to herself."
The weird message the film offers is that not only is the woman a victim/prisoner of her own making, perhaps even by nature, but when she becomes empowered she only self destructs. An interesting dialogue in the 2nd act between two doctors references how in this "super-sonic age..women can sometimes be over-worked by Mother Nature to the point of irrationalism." Odd how a B-movie about a woman growing enormous is still treating women as pathetic. All the while, Nancy seems achingly sympathetic and probably the only character in the story who is truly morally tenable. Ultimately the story is a tragedy, but if it is meant as a cautionary tale, then who knows what it is saying- don't be born female, rich and desiring of love I guess.
THE MANSTER (1959) Dir: George Breakston & Kenneth G. Crane Set in Japan, Western journalist and emotionally stifled in a stalled marriage Larry (Peter Dyneley) becomes the guinea pig for a mad scientist fooling with modes of evolution. After being injected with a test serum, Larry starts splitting into a sort of Jeckyl and Hyde duality which eventually manifests in him growing a second head! One personality is himself and the other is a murderous cad bent on sexual revenge. Wife and best friend must work with the police to uncover the truth and track down this Manster (lol) before his evil side takes full control.
Barely socio-political, the narrative seems to dwell on the idea of man's primal, sexual nature versus his civilized, higher-order self. Taking cues from the FRANKENSTEIN legacy, the evil Doctor Suzuki's technological power comes from primal forces of nature, this time a volcano his lab is built upon. Discarding ethics in order to promote his obsessions, Suzuki mercilessly uses colleagues, family and friends justifying his actions for the sake of greater knowledge. Later we learn that the crazy doctor's bitterness comes from the personal losses he's created in his past and he abruptly changes his tune and seeks to destroy his evil creations. Ultimately Suzuki succumbs to the evil potential he has unleashed and dies as he tries to correct his mistakes. Finally splitting in two, literally, Larry becomes separated from his evil other and manages to shove the fully formed monster into the volcano. Annoying wifey and loyal best friend finally get Larry back, but is this freedom and rescue for Larry? or is he simply going back into his civilized cage?
Cheesy but well produced, although all the supporting Asian actors are like 2/3rds Caucasian! Kind of a low-ball precursor to Ken Russell's later ALTERED STATES(1980).
CALTIKI: THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959) Dir: Robert Freda (LUST OF THE VAMPIRE, THE WITCHES CURSE, THE GHOST) Spanish production co-directed with Mario Bava (uncredited). An apocalyptic Mayan myth about an evil goddess "Caltiki" turns out to be a simple-celled evolutionary anomaly in the bottom of a flooded, volcanic cavern south-of-the-border. Seems human sacrifices took place there and/or the dead were thrown into the plunging pool waters and there's lots of gold treasures to be had!
After seismic shifting opens the sealed cavern, curious archaeologists encounter a flesh-eating blob and it follows them back to the surface. Craving radiation to grow and divide, the blob feeds off a flood of radiation from a passing comet (the same phenomenon that plagued the Mayans 1,300 years ago!) The race is on to destroy the exponentially replicating beasts before they take over the world. Annoying wife-who-doesn't-like-bras (Didi Sullivan) of our protagonist Prof. John Fielding (John Merivale) whines about not having hubby at home whilst the good professor tries to learn the biological nature of the deadly beasts. Max, the Professors' back-stabbing partner macks on the wife before losing his arm to the blob (Gruesome old-school make-up FX as his arm is half rotted away). Infectious toxins reaching his brain, Max goes on a homicidal rampage in a quite unnecessary sub-plot that attempts to add cheap tension. There is some moral-play about Max's well intending "half-breed" Latina wife who can't leave him no matter how much of a jerk he is (similar to ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN see above.) Wife and baby daughter hold up in their mansion home under attack from the blobs as hero-hubby leads the military to the rescue with flame throwers.
Decent camera work and some matte paintings make for some interesting noir-lit environments. The practical creature effects and miniatures are laudible in their limitations. (Attack of the killer gym sock!) Characters and acting are flimsy, although the wonderfully restored copy I watched was dubbed into English (pretty sure it was originally produced that way) which severly impacts the performances.
CALTIKI was a lot like the plots of ISLAND OF TERROR(1966) (see review) and X: THE UNKNOWN(1956) (see review). and very much a precursor to the 2008 frightener THE RUINS (see review) which was also about a flesh-invading, evolutionary anomoly in the ruins of an ancient Mayan tomb.
THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) Dir: Arnold Laven (ROUGH NIGHT IN JERICHO, THE GLORY GUYS, GERONIMO, SAM WHISKY, ANNA LUCASTA, THE RACK, WITHOUT WARNING!) A naval base at California's Salton Sea is the setting for this monster-from-the-depths-of-the-Earth tale. Earthquakes open a cavern at the bottom of the lake, exposing prehistoric eggs to water, bringing them to life. Giant worm/caterpillar mollusk creatures begin sucking living things dry as they populate and spread from the lake. Finding their way through underground channels into municipal canals that lead to the ocean, these hideous creatures may soon threaten the entire world! Crabby and almost dashing Commander Twillinger (Tim Holt) and second-rate, wanna-be pin-up, secretary-in-glasses Gail (Audrey Dalton) hold vigil at the base while the government and military attempt to track and eradicate the creatures. All things Ra-Ra-Military! and Go-Science! are on parade here as pretty much everything is phoned in and leans on standard B-movie motifs. Lots of walking around and speaking in stern protocol stuff. Somehow the girl never trips, although her dumb kid meddles in the lab and lets one of the creatures free. The creature design actually wasn't too bad, it was simply its motion (or lack there of) that ruined it. Was also nice to see the Salton Sea when it actually had water, unlike the dry, toxic playa it is now.
THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE (1999) Dir: Rand Ravich Sort of compelling until the stupid CGI ending. Astronauts working on a satellite in space experience a bizarre black out for 2 minutes. The only one who survives (Johnny Depp) slowly starts becoming a royal jerk and gaslights his wife. When wifey (Charlize Theron) becomes pregnant, she begins suspecting her husband is no longer human and wants to abort the baby. All hell breaks loose as the fetus and alien-dad have some psychic connection that starts controlling the wife (ala John Cassavetes to Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY'S BABY(1968) ). Charlize Theron is awesome as always in yet another film that is beneath her talents. The astronaut intrigue was an interesting mystery angle for a while, then it just became a tired so what until the big anti-climax. Can't really recommend this one.
THE COMING (2009) Dir: Chad Costen
Taken as a feature film, this straight-to-video video is paltry, but as an indy project-out-of-the-garage it's rather impressive. One-man-band Chad Costen writes and directs (and does effects, and everything else...) this low-budget alien invasion drama. Basically an episode of TV's: THE X-FILES, the story revolves around a young man haunted by the abduction of his sister. The pacing of the film is awful. A good 45min needed to be cut out to make this story move at a perceptible speed. Sometimes the performances are awful (did they use friends and neighbors as actors? I think yes) sometimes solid, there are some decent contours to the narrative and some genuine scares. Reminded me of Spielberg's 2002 made-for-cable series TAKEN. Plot also riffs on the aliens-as-angels motif and the biblical "end-times" as with KNOWING(2009). In flashback scenes we see alien creatures outside the window at dinner and lurking in the basement! Really makes you wish the pacing were better. I appreciated that most of the special effects had to do with background settings and overall ambience. The clunky green-screen effects were very limited, but properly inspired. A+ for effort to Costen and to the success of his accomplishment here, but not a contender.
MONSTER ISLAND (2019) Dir: Mark Atkins Um, yeah so I actually watched this. Perhaps watching bad movies helps us appreciate good ones, maybe that's was I was telling myself. Maybe I just couldn't sleep, I dunno. A production of THE ASYLUM which says it all (AVOID) and directed by the director/cinematographer of such recent classics as: SAND SHARKS(2012), JURASSIC SCHOOL(2017) and KNIGHT OF THE DEAD(2013). Pay no attention to the poster because it has nothing to do with the actual movie. Honestly, this was the best effort I've seen from Asylum and Eric Roberts was actually in it. The CGI effects are one notch above what you can do on your iPhone apps and the sound design amateur and the story dumb and the actors 4th rate, etc, etc. Straight to video nonsense prompting the singular question: why?
INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (1973) Dir: Denis Sanders Almost a parody of B-movies but still very much one itself, this flick tries to wink at the camera and still be an effective drive-in flick at the same time. Well, the motifs are still the same! Anitra Ford (MESSIAH OF EVIL(1973) (see review) ) stars as a mysterious woman who sexually manipulates a group of scientists into inadvertently assisting in the birth of a new race of man-hating women! Fused with the DNA of bumble bees, this new female militia wants to take over the world- or at least have quasi-lesbian sex in a weird trip sequence with copious amounts of nudity and bad FX. To be sure, that bugs-eye-view kaleidoscope lens effect is used to great detail. The ending barely holds together in this farcical excuse for a film that is not so much the AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON(1987) style spoof its title suggests, but more of a straight-up Radly Metzger titty flick. In other words, 5 STARS! DON'T MISS IT!
SCHIZO (1975) Dir: Pete Walker (THE CONFESSIONAL, FRIGHTMARE, THE HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW) Shaggy-dog Euro-shocker (British) that wants to be an Italian Giallo thriller posturing as a horror flick- but is just a rambling whodunit. Walker's standard sex/violence motifs of blood letting, rape, nudity and even a haunted house lead to a foreseeable ending twist that proves the ride was all for naught. Skip this and watch Dario Argento's: THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE(1970) (see review) instead.
One thing I can't stand about films like this and many Giallo thrillers in general is the way the story structure purposely is misleading. Rather than have a natural story arc that reveals itself and may have a twisting plot, the film sets up false premises just so there can be a cheap twist later. This is not clever structure, it is bad writing. It's kinda like giving someone a present they already know they are getting, so in order to try and make it a surprise you lie and say you couldn't get it for them after all, then hand it to them anyway, "Surprise!" Lame! Many of the tag-along, horror-clones of the American 1980's did this cheap angle in order to turn out another grindhouse schlocker for VHS.
DEMENTED (1980) Dir: Arthur Jeffreys Real made-for-TV-ish feature about a woman who survives an assault and goes through a protracted recovery phase. During this time she is manipulated by her husband and her paranoid phobias come true as she is even gang raped at home! Shock/surprise, in the end, she is so traumatized SHE becomes the murderous villain. Yawn...
DOCTOR DEATH, SEEKER OF SOULS (1973) Dir: Eddie Saetia Schlocker with pretty bad acting that feels made-for-TV. A man obsessed with his wife's death encounters a magician who promises he can reincarnate lost souls. Turns out the guy drains people of their blood to keep himself alive and is hundreds of years old. There's a cult aspect and an investigation and it's all rather tiresome.
DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE! (1980) Dir: Robert Hammer The very meaning of no-budget, grindhouse schlock. This film is nothing if not mean spirited, mysogenistic, pathological, adolescent and pathetic. Other than that, it's great! Seriously bizarre and certainly committed acting performance by Nicholas Worth as "Kirk Smith," a psycho-killer, woman hating, mental health case Vietnam vet (ouch) who prank calls, intimidates, stalks, rapes and strangles his way through Los Angeles. Somehow this guy has subverted his marching orders into acting out his resentment for "not measuring up." Don't look for answers why however, the film offers none. This movie really wants to be a snuff film.