Saturday, April 30, 2016

#2,084. All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

Directed By: Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson

Starring: Sidney Allison, Charon R. Arnold, Shay Astar

Tag line: "You can't kill their spirit"

Trivia: One of the locations used for this film was Cathedral High School, which, in 1925, was built on top of a cemetery

I can’t say I’m proud of it, but as I was purchasing my copy of All Cheerleaders Die a few months ago, some preconceptions immediately leapt to mind. Actually, “preconceptions” is the wrong word; “stereotypes” is more accurate. I’m sure that, somewhere, in the vast history of the motion picture industry, someone made a deep, meaningful film about the sport of cheerleading, but more often than not, cheerleaders are depicted on-screen as gorgeous, overly-enthusiastic girls in short skirts whose I.Q’s are smaller than their waistlines. So, naturally, going into this 2013 horror movie, I figured that, in all probability, I’d be meeting some characters who match this description.

Well, I was partly right: the young women whose exploits we follow in All Cheerleaders Die are, indeed, beautiful, but they’re also the only ones in the movie that are worth a damn.

As the film opens, Shy-girl Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is shooting an end-of-school year video for her good friend Lexi (Felisha Cooper), a popular cheerleader. At practice that day, Lexi hams it up for the camera, but when Maddy seems unimpressed with her cheerleading moves, Lexi ups the ante and has two guys toss her high into the air. Instead of falling into their arms, however, Lexi crashes to the ground head-first, breaking her neck. She dies almost instantly.

Several months later, when school is about to resume, Maddy, who never showed any interest in cheerleading before, decides to try out for the squad, and so impresses team captain Tracy (Brooke Butler) that she’s chosen to fill the spot left by Lexi’s untimely death. But Maddy couldn’t care less about school spirit; instead, she’s looking to take revenge on Tracy, who began dating Lexi’s boyfriend, football star Terry (Tom Williamson), before Lexi was even buried. As she gets to know Tracy, though, Maddy has second thoughts about her plan, and instead focuses her anger on Terry. Convincing Tracy that Terry cheated on her over the summer, Maddy manages to break the two of them up, and even succeeds in luring Tracy into bed with her. This doesn’t sit well Terry, and Maddy’s former girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), a practicing witch, is none too happy about it, either.

Things come to a head at an outdoor party one night when Terry shows up half-drunk and throws a punch at Tracy. Threatening to tell the school about what he’s done (which will almost certainly get him kicked off the team), Maddy and Tracy climb into a car with fellow cheerleader Martha (Reanin Johannink) and Martha’s little sister Hanna (Amanda Grace Cooper) and speed away. Terry, in a fit of rage, gives chase and runs the girls’ car off the road, sending it plummeting into the river, where all four presumably drown. Leena, distraught over Maddy’s death, pulls their bodies from the water and, using her enchanted crystals, casts a spell on them all, bringing Maddy, Tracy and the others back from the dead. One small catch, though: none of the four are actually alive, and require a steady diet of human blood to keep them going. But, hey, these gals aren’t going to let a little thing like being zombies keep them from getting their revenge, are they?

No… of course they’re not!

All Cheerleaders Die appears, at first, to be a typical cheerleader movie (the girls on the squad call each other “bitches”, and are obsessed with their looks). Then, at a pool party one night, Maddy talks to Tracy, who says she can’t shake the feeling that she’s a bad person because she hooked up with Terry so soon after Lexi’s death, revealing a level of insecurity that Maddy wasn’t expecting. Others also break stereotype, including Martha, a deeply religious young woman who is saving herself for marriage, much to the disappointment of her boyfriend Manny (Leigh Parker) (there’s even an interesting love triangle in that little sister Hanna is also in love with Manny). In short, these ladies are the most appealing characters in All Cheerleaders Die, and we get to know them well, which puts us squarely on their side as they take the fight to the guys.

A mash-up of the zombie and witch sub-genres, All Cheerleaders Die does, unfortunately, fall short as a revenge film (the scenes in which the newly-resurrected girls face off against Terry and his pals are, with one exception, surprisingly bloodless, and st least one kill even occurs off-screen). But with its female-centric story, combined with well-realized make-up effects (overseen by Robert Kurtzman) and respectable performances (especially Caitlin Stasey as the clever yet slightly vindictive Maddy; and newcomer Tom Williamson, who knocks it out of the park as the villainous Terry), All Cheerleaders Die is a horror film for the ladies that, more than likely, will have them standing up and doing a cheer of their own.

Friday, April 29, 2016

#2,083. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

Directed By: Jean Rollin

Starring: Marina Pierro, Françoise Blanchard, Mike Marshall

Alternate Title: In Japan this film was released as Zombie Queen

Trivia: Actress Françoise Blanchard found the shooting of this film to be physically exhausting, and one day she even collapsed on the set

Director Jean Rollin was no stranger to violence; movies like Fascination and The Demoniacs certainly had their share of bloodshed. But with 1982’s The Living Dead Girl, he achieved a whole new level of brutality, and in the process made what I consider to be one of the most effective horror flicks in his filmography.

Looking for an out-of-the-way place to dump a few barrels of toxic waste, three men (played by Alain Petit, Jean Cherlian, and Jean-Pierre Bouyxou) eventually agree that the best place to store it is the burial chamber situated under the Valmont family estate. Once there, the trio decides to do a little grave robbing as well, and break open a casket housing the remains of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard), a gorgeous young woman who passed away several years earlier. Just as they do so, an earthquake strikes, spilling some of the toxic sludge onto the ground. And as the men will soon learn, this was no ordinary waste; seconds after it’s exposed to the air, Catherine Valmont suddenly springs to life and dispatches the three intruders in grisly fashion. 

Alive yet still unaware of her surroundings, Catherine makes her way back to the Valmont family estate, where, a short time later, she meets up with her life-long friend Hélène (Marina Pierro). Thrilled to have Catherine back, Hélène does what she can to make her comfortable, but soon realizes the only thing the recently-reanimated Catherine needs to survive is human blood. With Hélène’s help, Catherine feeds on a steady stream of unsuspecting victims. The question is, though: how long will they be able to get away with murder?

Like many of his previous films, Rollin shot The Living Dead Girl on-location (for the duration of the shoot, the entire cast and crew lived in the mansion that served as the Valmont estate), and even managed to put his own unique spin on the zombie subgenre (over time, Christine learns to talk again, and becomes more self-aware with each passing scene). But it’s the film’s high level of gore that sets it apart. Created by Benoît Lestang, who at age 17 was working on his first movie, some of the film’s gore effects look surprisingly good (unlike most walking dead, who use their teeth to tear open a victim’s throat, Catherine relies on her sharp fingernails to get the job done), culminating in a climactic scene that’s sure to disturb you (arguably the most violent finale Rollin ever turned out).

As beautiful as it is bloody (the picturesque country setting is utilized to great effect), The Living Dead Girl is a truly intense motion picture experience.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

#2,082. Burke & Hare (1972)

Directed By: Vernon Sewell

Starring: Derren Nesbitt, Harry Andrews, Glynn Edwards

Tag line: "The pimps and the prostitutes and the body-snatchers. The brothels and dens of iniquity"

Trivia: This was the last film Vernon Sewell ever directed

1972’s Burke & Hare, directed by Vernon Sewell, centers on the infamous Edinburgh-based duo who killed well over a dozen people in Victorian-era Scotland, then sold their bodies to a local surgeon. With a subject such as this, it’s logical to expect that the film itself is going to be a dark, brooding tale of terror. Then the theme song kicks in, an upbeat, catchy tune performed by The Scaffolds, with lyrics like:

Burke and Hare, beware of ‘em 
 Burke and Hare, The pair of ‘em
Out to snatch
Your body from you

All at once, I started to wonder what to expect from the movie: was this going to be a straight-up horror film (like IMDb claims), or a bawdy sex comedy (one of the earliest scenes is set in a brothel that caters to a high-end clientele with… unusual desires)?

Burke & Hare is, in fact, a little bit of both.

It’s the early 19th century. Irish immigrants William Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and William Hare (Glynn Edwards) run a boarding house, renting out their already crowded back room to a steady stream of elderly men. When MacTavish, one of their tenants, drops dead, Hare, claiming the man owed him two pounds back rent, convinces Burke that the best way to collect what’s owed them is to sell the man’s remains to medical science. Burke is reluctant at first, but soon changes his mind when he learns that Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews), a surgeon who also teaches anatomy at the Medical College, is willing to pay as high as 10 pounds for each body delivered to his door. Sure enough, the pair walks away from the transaction with over 7 pounds in their collective pockets, and when another tenant, who seemed to be near death, suddenly recovers, Burke and Hare decide not to wait for nature to run its course, and finish the poor old guy off themselves.

When the duo’s wives, Helen (Dee Shenderey) and Margaret (Yootha Joyce), catch wind of what’s going on, they aren’t shocked or appalled in the least, and even recommend a few different ways to “euthanize” future victims. Before long, Burke, Hare, and their significant others are living the high life, murdering vagabonds and people nobody is going to miss, and raking in the profits.

In addition to its lead characters and their macabre business practices, Burke & Hare also focuses on a brothel operated by Madame Thompson (Joan Carol), which is visited by some of the most influential men in Edinburgh. Arbuthnot (Alan Tucker), a student of Dr, Knox’s at the college, stops by Madame Thompson’s establishment on a regular basis, having fallen in love with new arrival Marie (Françoise Pascal). The two youngsters spend a great deal of time together, but when a fire destroys the brothel, Marie and her friend Janet (Yutte Stensgaard) find themselves homeless. Fortunately, a well-to-do local, who happens to be William Burke, offers them a place to stay, leading to a series of events that threaten to shake Edinburgh to its very core.

It isn’t long after the opening credits (which feature the above-mentioned theme song) that Burke & Hare introduces us to its title characters. Edwards is effective as the hard-nosed Hare, easily the most ruthless of the two, but it’s Derren Nesbitt who shines brightest, playing Burke as a temporarily conflicted partner whose doubts and inhibitions melt away the moment Dr. Knox or one of his associates pays them for the corpses they bring. The scene in which Hare first tells Burke about the body-selling business is played for comedy (when Hare sits on the pine crate holding MacTavish’s remains, Burke tells him to show some respect and “move your arse off the coffin”), as are many of the sequences in Madame Thompson’s house (looking through peep holes, Madame Thompson witnesses everything from S&M sessions to a topless girl riding a man as if he were a horse). But Burke & Hare isn’t just a laugh-riot; it’s listed as a horror film as well, and on occasion we’re shown why. In one particularly troubling scene, Burke and Hare lure a young vagrant known in the area as “Daft Jamie” (David Pugh) into their abode, filling him up with liquor to make it easier to kill him when the time comes. At this moment, all comedy slips away, and the resulting melee (Daft Jamie is stronger than they expected) is, indeed, difficult to watch.

the shifts between serious and silly are quite jarring (as seen in the film’s final sequence: a drunken Halloween party that erupts into violence), and the romantic subplot involving Arbuthnot and Marie never materializes into much. But there’s plenty of dark humor, interrupted at times by some genuinely tense scenes, and while this combo doesn’t make for a perfect film, there’s enough going on throughout Burke & Hare to ensure you’re always entertained, and appropriately horrified, by what’s playing out on the screen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

#2,081. Monty Python Live at Aspen (1998)

Directed By: Paul Miller

Starring: Robert Klein, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam

Line from the film: "The great thing about being around Graham was that he adored bad taste"

Trivia: Among the audience members who were on-hand to watch this live show were George Wendt, Ted Danson,and other members of the cast of Cheers

It had been 18 years since they last appeared together. John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle. Even Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, was there (his ashes, anyway, encased in a tastefully decorated urn). They’ve all had their successes separately; Michael Palin hosted some amazing travel documentaries for the BBC, and Terry Gilliam has become a world-class director, creating such fantasy classics as Time Bandits and Brazil. Together, though, these six men will always be known as Monty Python, and Monty Python Live at Aspen is as much a tribute to their incredible accomplishments as it is a refreshing walk down memory lane.

Hosted by Robert Klein, Live at Aspen was recorded in front of a studio audience at the 1998 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. All five living Pythons (as well as the lone dead one) were in attendance, reminiscing about the early days of Monty Python's Flying Circus, their BBC-produced television show (including how the initial audience didn’t “get” their humor), and the freedom they experienced while writing and performing their sketches, many of which should be enshrined in the Comedy Hall of Fame (if there is such a thing). Along with the behind-the-scenes stories, we’re treated to clips from their various skits, such as the wildly popular “Dead Parrot” routine (Michale Palin recalls that it was his mechanic at the time who inspired this particular sketch; whenever his car would give him trouble, this mechanic would tell him that everything was fine).

When the TV show ended, the Pythons turned their attention to the big screen, and in the process churned out comedy gold: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and The Meaning of Life. Again, some clips are shown, like the Black Knight scene in Holy Grail and the always disgusting Mr. Creosole segment from The Meaning of Life (alas, there were no snippets from Life of Brian, due, apparently, to some legal issue they were experiencing with that movie at the time). There are even scenes from their live performance at the Hollywood Bowl (the “Sit on my Face” barbershop quartet is hilarious), and a brief discussion of the shows they did for German TV (including a bizarre tale of how they were met at the airport by the German producers, then immediately shuttled off to Dachau for a tour of the infamous camp. To this day, they have no idea why).

As a fan, I loved seeing them all together again, and the Pythons showed that, after all these years, they could still make people smile; Eddie Izzard pops up at the beginning (posing as part of the group), though, ironically, it was Graham Chapman’s ashes that got the biggest laugh of the night. There were even some celebrities in the crowd (I noticed just about every cast member from the hit TV series Cheers). If you love Python like I do, Live at Aspen will serve as a reminder of how great they once were, and reassure you that, after all these years, they haven’t lost their touch.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

#2,080. Female (1933)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle, William A. Wellman

Starring: Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Lois Wilson

Line from the film: "I know for some women, men are a household necessity; myself, I'd rather have a canary"

Trivia: Barbara Stanwyck was originally offered the role of Alison Drake while on tour with her husband, Frank Fay. Before Stanwyck returned to Los Angeles, Ruth Chatterton had been assigned the role

Directed by Michael Curtiz (with an assist from both William Dieterle and William Wellman), Female, a 1933 comedy / romance, was undoubtedly scandalous in its day, but modern audiences may have a tougher time digesting the film’s finale than they will any of the “questionable” material that came before it.

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the CEO of Drake Motors, an automobile manufacturer. She took over the company years earlier when her father died, and her tenacity, coupled with a sharp business sense, has made her one of the most powerful women in town. When old college friend Harriet Brown (Lois Wilson) pays her a visit, Alison tells her that she’s too busy for a relationship, and that’s she’d rather have a “canary” than a man in her life. But the truth is, Alison likes the company of men, and has enjoyed many one-night-stands with her more handsome employees. Thus far, her so-called “loose morals” haven’t hurt her reputation at the office. Far from it, in fact; her personal assistant, the elderly Mr. Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk), worships the ground she walks on, and her chauffeur Puggy (Huey White) will punch out anyone who questions her character.

Then Jim Thorne (George Brent) enters Alison’s life. An engineer who developed a new automatic clutch, Thorne is offered a multi-year contract to leave his current job and work for Drake Motors. He accepts, but when Alison puts the moves on him, Thorne turns her down flat, saying he was hired as an engineer, not a “gigolo”. But Alison isn’t looking for Thorne to be one of her many conquests. To her amazement, she’s actually developing feelings for him, and for the first time in a long time, Alison Drake is wondering if being a successful businesswoman is all there is to life.

From the get-go, Female sets itself apart from most movies of this time period by taking us into the board room, where a woman (Alison) is talking down to a bunch of men, criticizing them for a poor sales year. Hard-nosed and confident, Alison is a woman who clearly knows what she’s doing, and no matter how many phone calls she takes, or questions she answers, she never once wavers or hesitates. This attitude extends to her personal life as well. After the board meeting, she invites new employee George Cooper (Johnny Mack Brown) to dinner at her mansion, where they can discuss some of his new sales ideas. But instead of talking business, Alison sets about seducing Cooper (with the press of a button, her butler, played by Robert Grieg, enters with a carafe of Vodka, a drink that, we learn, was used by Catherine the Great to break down a man’s resistance), and he seems more than ready to take their boss / employee relationship to a much more intimate level.

Of course, once back in the office, Alison is all business; when Cooper sends her flowers the next morning, she chastises him for mixing business with pleasure. It’s a blow for Cooper, who thought Alison had genuine feelings for him. But he isn’t the first man who’s felt this way, as we discover when Alison’s assistant, Briggs (Gavin Gordon), blurts out that he loves her during a meeting. His reward? A reprimand, followed by a transfer to the company’s Montreal office! In the second half of Female, however, Alison has clearly met her match in Jim Thorne, who isn’t impressed by her power or authority. And she has no idea how to handle the situation, especially when she finds that she’s falling in love with him.

It’s at this point that Female veers off in a new direction, and without spoiling it, I’ll just say that while the ending probably made audiences of the 1930s stand up and cheer, modern viewers are more likely to roll their eyes when Alison makes her big “decision” at the end of the film.

I’m not trying to steer you away from Female. On the contrary, it’s a well-paced movie with sharp, witty dialogue and features an absolutely magnificent performance by Ruth Chatterton. It’s a pre-code picture that’s well worth seeing. Just keep in mind that, even though it was ahead of its time, Female is still a 1930s film, and as progressive as it seemed back them, its sensibilities were nonetheless steered by the era in which it was made.

Odds are you’ll enjoy Female, but you may not like every single minute of it.

Monday, April 25, 2016

#2,079. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

Directed By: Ishirô Honda

Starring: Akira Takarada, Yuriko Hoshi, Hiroshi Koizumi

Tag line: "WHAT IS IT... How much terror can you stand?"

Trivia: The scene where Godzilla destroys the castle in Nagoya actually had to be filmed several times, and the castle had to be built twice

The 4th movie in the Godzilla franchise (after Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, and King Kong vs. Godzilla) and the second to feature Mothra (released three years after the original), Mothra vs. Godzilla started a trend, matching two of Toho’s Kaijus against one another in the same picture. And as you’d expect, when these giant monsters meet on the battlefield, the result is one hell of an epic fight.

While in a small coastal village reporting on the damage caused by a recent typhoon, newsman Ichiro Sakai (Akira Takarada) and his photographer Junko Nakanishi (Yuriko Hoshi), witness what proves to be an amazing find: a giant, brightly-colored egg floating in the middle of the ocean. The egg is promptly retrieved by some local fishermen, but when scientist Shunsuke Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) attempts to examine it, he’s informed that the egg was just purchased by a businessman named Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima), who, teaming up with millionaire tycoon Torahata (Kenji Sahara), announces his intentions to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. Soon after these plans are announced, the tiny twins from Mothra Island (played by Emi and Yumi Ito) show up, and, after explaining that the egg, which belongs to Mothra, was swept away in the typhoon, ask that it be immediately returned. When Kumayama and Torahata refuse to part with it, the twins have no alternative but to go home empty-handed.

But the egg wasn’t the only thing caught in the storm; while taking pictures of the landscape, Junko notices that the ground is moving, and within moments, Godzilla, who had been buried under the sand, stands up, and begins wreaking havoc across the countryside. When military weapons fail to take Godzilla down, Sakai, Junco, and the scientist Miura head to Mothra Island, where they ask Mothra (through the twins) to help them drive Godzilla away. Will Mothra agree to assist those who refused to turn over her egg, or will Japan instead be decimated by the mighty Godzilla?

Though it features a handful of cool scenes (the one where Godzilla rises out of the ground is positively awesome), it’s the battle between the two giant monsters that makes Mothra vs. Godzilla so much fun. At first glance, you’d think Mothra would be at a severe disadvantage (along with Godzilla’s incredible strength, he has fire breath that’s powerful enough to melt stone), but as it turns out, the humongous flying insect has a few moves that catch her opponent (and the audience) off-guard (when Godzilla threatens the egg, Mothra grabs him by the tail and drags him hundreds of feet in the opposite direction). Yet as good a job as Mothra does, it’s two creatures appearing late in the film that give Godzilla a real run for his money.

As with some of the earlier entries in the series, Mothra vs. Godzilla has plenty to say about nuclear testing; when Sakai, Junco, and Miura first arrive on Mothra’s Island, they’re shocked to find that was once a lush, green paradise has (thanks to a string of tests conducted in the area) been reduced to a grey wasteland. But along with its anti-nukes stance, the film also takes some effective jabs at commercialism (aside from purchasing the egg, Kumayama and Torahata are so amazed by the miniscule twins from Mothra Island that they attempt to buy them as well). Though not subtle, these messages definitely hit their mark, and, combined with the exciting action scenes and well-realized special effects (for the early ‘60s, anyway), help make Mothra vs. Godzilla one of Toho’s most entertaining outings.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

#2,078. The Family Jewels (1965)

Directed By: Jerry Lewis

Starring: Jerry Lewis, Sebastian Cabot, Donna Butterworth

Tag line: "Jerry is seven times nuttier in seven gems of character portrayal!"

Trivia: Gary Lewis & The Playboys have a cameo, singing their song "Little Miss Go-Go"; their hit song "This Diamond Ring" is also featured

Truth be told, I’m not the biggest Jerry Lewis fan. I thought 1980’s Hardly Working (which marked his return to the big screen after an 8-year hiatus) was dreadful, and Cracking Up, released in 1983, was only sporadically funny. Yes, he was excellent in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, but when it came to his own “unique” brand of humor, I admit I never understood the appeal. The one exception is 1965’s The Family Jewels, a comedy in which Lewis portrays seven different characters, all vying for the attentions of a wealthy little girl named Donna. Unlike most Jerry Lewis movies, The Family Jewels actually makes me laugh.

Per the terms of her late father’s will, young Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth) must decide which of dear old dad’s brothers will be her new guardian. Accompanied by her chauffeur / best friend Willard (Lewis), Donna travels far and wide to spend some quality time with her five uncles (all played by Lewis): Ferryboat captain James Petyon; circus clown Everett Peyton; professional photographer Julius Peyton; Airline Pilot Eddie Peyton; and private detective Skylark Peyton, who, with the assistance of Dr. Matson (Sebastain Cabot), always gets his man. A sixth uncle, gangster Bugsy Peyton, was reportedly murdered years ago by one of his underworld associates, though his body has never been found. Her back against the wall, Donna must choose one of these men to be her new Father, but in her heart, she knows the right man for the job isn’t even a relative!

Not all of the jokes in The Family Jewels work. The opening scene, a slapstick bit in which Willard inadvertently prevents a gang of thieves from robbing an armored car, is far too broad; and the sequence featuring Uncle Julius the photographer, whose mannerisms were inspired by Lewis’ Nutty Professor character, seemed to drag on forever (along with shooting a breakfast cereal ad, Julius has two models posing under hot lights, and his scatterbrained approach keeps him from finishing either job in a timely manner).

Even with these few hiccups, The Family Jewels is a very funny film. A scene in which Willard temporarily runs a gas station owned by a friend of his definitely has its moments, as does the later sequence where we meet Skylark Peyton and Dr. Matson for the first time (when Donna arrives, the two are knee-deep in their latest “case”). The film’s best scene, however, involves Uncle Eddie the pilot, whose plane is the aeronautical equivalent of a jalopy. Hired to take a group of women to Chicago, Eddie proves that he may not be the most talented navigator out there, but he’s certainly the most entertaining. In addition to Lewis, Donna Butterworth does a fine job as the young heir, and is one of the better child actors I’ve come across in a while.

It’s quite possible that I haven’t given Jerry Lewis a fair shake; I remember very little about The Nutty Professor, and I’ve not seen either The Bellboy or The Geisha Boy, both of which are supposedly good. But even if these other movies fall short of the mark, I’ll always have this one to fall back on. The Family Jewels, is, indeed, a treasure.