Wednesday, April 16, 2014

#1,339. We Are What We Are (2013)

Directed By: Jim Mickle

Starring: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner

Tag line: "Blood is the strongest bond"

Trivia: This film screened in the Directors' Fortnight section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

Being a fan of both Mulberry St. and Stake Land, I couldn’t wait to see what writer/director Jim Mickle was going to come up with next. As it turns out, his third feature, We Are What We Are, is a remake of a 2010 Mexican film by Jorge Michael Grau. Yet, despite the fact Mickle’s version shares thematic elements with Grau’s movie, 2013’s We Are What We Are takes the story in a very different (and altogether fascinating) direction.

At first glance, Frank Parker (Bill Sage) and his family may seem perfectly normal, but the truth is they’re hiding a terrible secret, one that centers on a religious ceremony passed down from generation to generation for well over 200 years. Days before this ritual is to be performed, Emma (Kassie DePaiva), Frank’s wife and the mother of his 3 children: Rose (Julia Garner); Iris (Ambyr Childers); and Rory (Jack Gore), unexpectedly dies, leaving Rose and Iris to assume her responsibilities in the upcoming ceremony. But when a torrential rainstorm threatens to reveal their secret, Frank must take drastic measures to protect both his family and their chosen way of life.

Director Mickle approaches We Are What We Are much differently than he did either Mulberry St. or Stake Land in that he doesn’t provide any background information on his characters or their story, choosing instead to drop his audience smack dab in the middle of things, and then challenge them to keep up. Aside from a few subtle hints early on that all is not right with the Parkers (from how they communicate with one another to the subservient nature of the two daughters, which stems more from a fear of their father than it does parental respect), Mickle takes his time revealing what it is that makes the family so unique. This adds a level of mystery, but it also shows Jim Mickle’s confidence as a filmmaker, building his story in such a way that, even if we’re not sure what’s going on, we want to know more, and are willing to wait patiently as he pulls back the curtain, ever so slowly, to expose the truth.

Featuring marvelous cinematography, some top-notch performances (especially Garner and Childers, who are near perfect as the daughters forced to participate in something they’re not ready for), and a shocking finale that will leave you speechless, We Are What We Are is a rarity in modern horror: a remake that looks and feels like a completely original film.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

#1,338. Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East (1999)

Directed By: Conrad Brooks

Starring: Conrad Brooks, Rock Savage, Gary Schroeder

Tag line: "Jan-Gel, The Monster, is More Horrifying Than Frankenstein!"

Line from the film: "This is some mystery"

Conrad Brooks is probably best known to B-movie fans as the actor who appeared in several Ed Wood pictures, including Glen or Glenda (where he portrayed a Banker, a Reporter, and a “Pick-up Artist”), Bride of the Monster (in the pivotal role of “Suspect Outside Office”), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (“Policeman”). In fact, the opening moments of 1999’s Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East, a film Brooks wrote and directed, offers the following:

This movie is dedicated to Tor Johnson, the Swedish angel, and Edward D. Wood, Jr.

This made me smile. A picture dedicated to Ed Wood that, at the same time, calls Tor Johnson a “Swedish Angel”? What’s not to love about that?

Little did I know this was going to be the highlight of Jan-Gel. It’s all downhill from there.

The “creature” of the title is an ancient caveman king named Jan-Gel (Dale Clukey), who, after being discovered frozen in the ice, was on his way to America when the boat carrying him sank in the Atlantic. But not to worry... a little thing like dropping to the bottom of the ocean isn’t going to stop Jan-Gel! Now completely thawed out, the royal Neanderthal makes his way to West Virginia (don’t ask how… it’s never explained), where he commits a series of murders. With no idea who’s behind these vicious killings, local authorities turn to the only man who can possibly solve this mystery: Conrad Brooks (playing himself, though not well)!

Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East is nearly unwatchable. Shot with what appears to be someone’s home video camera, the movie, at times, looks dreadful, and Brooks’ uninspired direction doesn’t help matters much. As for Jan-Gel, how this lumbering ox manages to murder anyone is probably the biggest mystery of them all; his first victims are a married couple (Glen Hendrickson and Beverly Kane), wading in their backyard swimming pool. Seeing as they were smack dab in the middle of said pool, I can’t figure out how Jan-Gel even got hold of them. Was he that good of a swimmer? Couldn’t the couple simply paddle to the other side and run away (later on, a guy walking down a motel hallway side-steps Jan-Gel, escaping with almost no effort at all)? I ask these questions because Brooks doesn’t show us what happens. He simply cuts to the next scene right after the couple spots Jan-Gel and screams. In fact, we see very few of the killings. Hell, the picture quality is so bad that, occasionally, we see very little of anything. And I hesitate to bring up the ‘acting’, because that might lead you to believe there were actors present. From the looks of it, Brooks pulled innocent people off the street and asked them to be in his movie. Criticize the actors? I feel sorry for them.

As it is with Ed Wood’s movies, you’ll find plenty to laugh about if you decide to watch Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East, though I’m not recommending you do so (like I said, the film is awful). In all honesty, I can’t even draw a comparison to one of Ed Wood’s pictures; next to Jan-Gel, Glen or Glenda looks like Lawrence of Arabia. It’s that bad.

But dedicating it to Wood and Tor Johnson? Yeah, that was a nice touch.

Monday, April 14, 2014

#1,337. The Land Unknown (1957)

Directed By: Virgil W. Vogel

Starring: Jock Mahoney, Shirley Patterson, William Reynolds

Tag line: " Lost and Terrorized in Prehistoric Time"

Trivia: This story was allegedly inspired by the discovery, in 1947, of an area of inexplicably warm water in Antarctica

The Land Unknown, a 1957 “Lost World”-style fantasy / adventure, was originally going to be a big-budget extravaganza. With Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula) set to direct, the plan was to shoot the movie in color with an all-star cast. Unfortunately, the dinosaurs (one of which was mechanical) cost so much money that Universal had to cut the budget in other places; color was replaced with black and white, and B-list actors were cast in the key roles. Because of these changes, Jack Arnold stepped aside, clearing the way for Virgil Vogel to take the reins.

A U.S. Navy Expedition is sent to Antarctica to investigate a patch of warm water, which, according to reports, exists in the otherwise icy region. While patrolling the area in a helicopter, Commander Harold Roberts (Jock Mahoney); Lt. Jack Carmen (William Reynolds); mechanic Steve Miller (Phil Harvey); and reporter Margaret Hathaway (Shirley Patterson) are forced to fly through a storm. As a result, their helicopter is damaged in mid-flight, causing it to crash land in a tropical valley, situated hundreds of feet below sea level. To the group’s amazement, this valley is populated by a variety of dinosaurs, long thought to be extinct, and one human: Dr. Carl Hunter (Henry Brandon), sole survivor of a plane crash that occurred during Admiral Byrd’s 1947 Antarctic expedition. Hunter believes he has the equipment needed to repair the group’s damaged helicopter, but will only help if they agree to leave Margaret behind with him!

While it does have its flaws, The Land Unknown, even without all the bells and whistles, is a mildly successful film. The cast does a fine job, and there are moments that really stand out (the scene where the main characters inadvertently discover the “Lost World” is handled wonderfully). I also liked how the film incorporated stock footage of Byrd’s ‘47 expedition, which added a sense of realism. The problem is the dinosaurs. Ranging from a guy in a suit (the T-Rex) to a mechanical sea monster (I’m guessing this is the one that cost so much money), these creatures, even by 1950s standards, are pretty poor (sadly, the expensive sea monster is the worst of the bunch, moving, at all times, in a way that makes it look 100% motorized).

As I said, The Land Unknown is far from a terrible movie, yet I can’t help but feel a little depressed when I think of what it could have been.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

#1,336. Son of Kong (1933)

Directed By: Ernest B. Schoedsack

Starring: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher

Tag line: "Laughs! Thrills! Pathos!"

Trivia: Recordings of Fay Wray's screams from King Kong were used in this movie

Following the runaway success of King Kong in 1933, RKO approached Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack about making a sequel. Naturally, the studio wanted to rush it into theaters as quickly as possible, thus giving the two men only a limited amount of time to put something together. The resulting film, Son of Kong, was released nine months after its predecessor, and while it’s definitely a step below King Kong, the fact that it’s a decent movie, considering how quickly it was produced, is itself a minor miracle.

We pick up one month after King Kong tore New York City apart. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the man responsible for bringing “The Eighth Wonder of the World” to America, is facing numerous lawsuits, and has just learned the Grand Jury is going to investigate the disaster, which could result in jail time. Looking for a way out of this situation, Denham hooks up with Englehorn (Frank Reicher), the ship’s captain who helped him bring Kong back, and agrees to accompany him to the Far East. While attempting to take on cargo in the Dutch port of Dakang, Denham befriends a young lady named Hilda (Helen Mack), whose father was murdered by Nils Helstrom (John Marston), the Norwegian Captain who originally gave Denham the map of Kong Island. Looking for a way out, Helstrom tells Denham and Capt, Englehorn there’s still treasure on Kong Island, leading the two men to quickly change course. But Helstrom is working an angle of his own, one that might just maroon his new “partners” on the island where their troubles first began.

As a sequel to what is arguably the greatest monster film ever produced, Son of Kong is something of a letdown, they key problem being the majority of the movie is spent away from Kong island, following Denham as he attempts to put his life back together. It’s not that these scenes are bad; on the contrary, Robert Armstrong takes advantage of the added screen time to flesh out his character more thoroughly (in the end, he even gets the girl). But, alas, very few people go into Son of Kong wanting to know more about Carl Denham. They want an exciting, action-packed movie that rivals the original, and Son of Kong isn’t it. Once the group finally arrives on the Island, the special effects take over (one of the film’s more thrilling moments comes when a Triceratops chases several characters through the jungle), but this entire sequence, while effective, is also abbreviated. And as an unrelated aside, if “Little Kong” is King Kong’s son, what happened to Mama Kong?

I have to admit that, even with its weaknesses, I enjoy Son of Kong. Robert Armstrong does a decent job carrying the action forward in the early scenes, and the special effects (once again provided by Willis O’Brien) are, at times, on par with the original. Taken for what it is, Son of Kong is an entertaining diversion. But if its action and thrills you’re after, re-watch the classic original.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

#1,335. This Island Earth (1955)

Directed By: Joseph M. Newman

Starring: Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason

Tag line: "2 1/2 Years in the making!"

Trivia: a planned sequel to this film, undertaken in 1956, was scrapped by the studio because it was going to be too expensive to make

For their 1996 feature film debut, the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000 took aim at a ‘50s sci-fi movie titled This Island Earth, and, on the whole, did an outstanding job lampooning it. But unlike many of the flicks that Mike and the ‘bots have ridiculed over the years, This Island Earth is actually a decent motion picture.

After constructing a strange communication device sent by persons unknown, Nuclear Physicist Cal Meachem (Rex Reason) is contacted by a mysterious man know only as Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Without offering an explanation, Exeter asks Cal to join him at an undisclosed location, an invitation the curious scientist quickly accepts. Once there, Cal finds himself in the company of some of the world’s most brilliant minds, including his old colleague, Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue). Teaming up with fellow researcher Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson), Cal and Ruth try to figure out who Exeter is, and why he’s gathered them together.

This Island Earth gets off to a good start, building a perplexing mystery that Cal is anxious to solve. Aided by his assistant, Joe (Robert Nichols), Cal passes Exeter’s “test” by successfully building an interocetor (the above mentioned communication device), gaining him acceptance in Exeter’s scientific fraternity. With their large, protruding foreheads and bright white hair, its obvious Exeter and his accomplice, Brack (Lance Fuller), aren’t from around these parts, but the question remains: who are they, and what are they after? This Island Earth does eventually answer these questions, at which point it becomes a thrilling sci-fi adventure, featuring vibrantly colored set pieces, impressive costumes, and some pretty nifty special effects.

While I definitely recommend Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, I suggest you first watch This Island Earth in its original form. An imaginative, well-made film, This Island Earth is a rarity in that it’s every bit as good without the MST3K commentary as it is with it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

#1,334. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

Directed By: Danny Steinmann

Starring: Melanie Kinnaman, John Shepherd, Shavar Ross

Tag line: "A New Beginning to the first step in terror"

Trivia: Corey Feldman's scenes were shot in the backyard of his house

It’s been a while since I last wrote about a Friday the 13th movie (over 3 years, to be precise), and Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning is the reason why. From the start, I promised myself that, if I addressed an entire series, I’d do so in chronological order, so, after writing up Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in Feb. of 2011, A New Beginning was next on the list.

And I hate this damn movie! Hate it!

That’s not a word I’ve used often here, mostly because I take no joy whatsoever in despising a movie. I’m sure there are some out there who relish the chance to really lay into a film, cutting it to shreds with a scathing review, but I’m not one of them. When I love a movie (or at least really like it), the words come easy. If everything about a film rubs me the wrong way, my energy level drops to the point I want to steer clear of it. But seeing as there are later entries in the Friday the 13th series I feel are worth addressing, I knew, sooner or later, I’d have to tackle this stinker.

So here goes…

Haunted by the memory of his encounter with Jason Voorhees, Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd) has spent years drifting in and out of mental hospitals, none of which have been able to help him. His latest stop is the Pinehurst Halfway House, a facility situated in the middle of the woods that’s owned and operated by Dr. Matt Letter (Richard Young). While a bit of an outcast at first, Tommy soon befriends Pam Roberts (Melanie Kinnamen), Dr. Letter’s assistant; as well as a young boy named Reggie (Shavar Ross), whose grandfather (Vernon Washington) works in the facility’s kitchen. But when one of Tommy’s fellow patients, a mentally slow teen named Joey (Dominick Brascia), is brutally murdered, it leads to a series of killings that suggest Jason Voorhees has returned from the grave.

Nearly everything about A New Beginning gets on my nerves, starting with its cartoonish characters, the most annoying of which are Ethel (Carol Locatell) and her son, Junior (Ron Sloan), the facility’s ornery neighbors who show up from time to time, acting as if they were the wife and son of Yosemite Sam. I cringed whenever these two popped on-screen, and while they were definitely awful, a few of Tommy’s peers at the Halfway House are almost as annoying (Joey, whose murder gets the story underway, is ridiculously over-the-top). Along with the characters, A New Beginning has scenes that left me scratching my head, like when Anita (Jeré Fields) serenades her boyfriend Demon (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.) while he’s in an outhouse, taking a dump. Of course, the absolute worst aspect of A New Beginning is something I can’t really discuss here: the final reveal. Even if the first 90% of the movie doesn’t bother you, the last few minutes will undoubtedly have you seeing red.

I suppose it’s not all bad; the opening scene, a dream sequence featuring a cameo by Corey Feldman, was effective, as were a few of the kills (Tina and Eddie, played by Debi Sue Voorhees and John Robert Dixon, break a cardinal rules by having sex, and pay dearly for their indiscretion). But in the final tally, the weaknesses far outweigh the positives, making A New Beginning the worst entry in the Friday the 13th series, and a strong contender for my least favorite movie of all-time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

#1,333. Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007)

Directed By:Jeffrey Schwarz

Starring:Forrest J Ackerman, John Badham, Diane Baker

Tag line:"He was just another movie director...until he found himself a gimmick"

Trivia:This movie won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2007 AFI Fest

If any filmmaker deserves to be the subject of a documentary, it’s William Castle. As much a showman as he was a storyteller, Castle produced and directed low-budget horror movies, then devised “gimmicks” to get people into the theaters to see them. Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, a 2007 documentary produced, in part, by Castle’s daughter Terry, covers a few of his incredibly imaginative “campaigns”, while at the same time painting the picture of a man who longed for more respect than he usually received.

An orphan by the age of eleven and a high-school dropout, William Castle’s life forever changed when, as a young man, he attended a stage production of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. From there, he learned not only how to tell a good story, but sell one as well. After several years working as a hired hand, assisting George Stevens on Penny Serenade and buddying up to Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn, Castle set out on his own, making films such as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler (both with Vincent Price), and 13 Ghosts, and taking an active part in the promotion of each and every one.

And what promotions they were! For House on Haunted Hill, Castle arranged for a glow-in-the-dark skeleton to emerge from the back of the darkened theater and, at a key moment in the film, fly over the audience’s heads. For The Tingler, he went a step further, installing an electric buzzer in the seats and giving viewers an “electric shock” as they watched the movie. He was even bold enough to offer those too frightened to sit through 1961’s Homicidal their money back (seeing as they had to go to an area called “Coward’s Corner” to receive that refund, I’m guessing very few people took him up on it). Then, in 1968, Castle finally hit the big time, producing the meg-hit Rosemary’s Baby. But with the notoriety came a little heartbreak; Castle received hate mail, not to mention the occasional death threat, from Christian groups upset he’d made a picture about the devil.

Spine Tingler! is, in many ways, a standard documentary, with archival footage and plenty of interviews featuring those who knew Castle, and the filmmakers he influenced (director John Waters is a particularly vociferous fan). Yet, despite the usual trappings, Spine Tingler! is a fun motion picture, which I’m sure has something to do with its subject matter.

Decades after his death, William Castle can still sell a movie!