Saturday, October 3, 2015

#1,874. Frankenstein's Army (2013)

Directed By: Richard Raaphorst

Starring: Robert Gwilym, Hon Ping Tang, Alexander Mercury

Line from this film: "My father said, men will be more efficient if they have hammers and screwdrivers instead of fingers"

Trivia: Most of the monster designs come from the creators' previous project, a film named "Worst Case Scenario" that started preproduction in the early 2000s as one of the first attempts to use the Internet to gather support from genre fans

Frankenstein’s Army, a sci-fi / horror film directed by Richard Raaphorst, is a wildly imaginative, blood-spattered monster movie. Set during the final days of World War II, this 2013 shockfest follows a small squad of Russian soldiers, under the command of Sgt. Novikov (Robert Gwilym), as they make their final push into Germany. Tagging along is Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a filmmaker and loyal Party member who plans to turn the squad’s adventures into a propaganda movie. Soon after crossing into enemy territory, they receive a distress call from another Russian unit that claims to be pinned down by enemy fire. Hoping to offer assistance, Sgt. Novikov leads his men to the coordinates specified in the message, but instead of a war zone, they find themselves trapped in a house of horrors concocted by a German scientist named Frankenstein (Karel Roden), who, as a result of his experiments on human subjects, has fashioned an army of monsters that obey his every command.

Frankenstein’s Army gets off to a strong, if somewhat grisly start; along with its clever opening credits sequence, which is designed to resemble a Soviet propaganda flick, there are the gruesome discoveries the squad makes as they close in on their destination (including a pile of dead nuns whose bodies have been partially-burned). As for the film’s cast, it does a fine job (especially Andrei Zayats as the out-of-control Vassilli, a soldier who has no qualms about torturing his prisoners), yet the movie’s real strength lies in its creature designs. After wandering into Frankenstein’s lair (which is hidden in the bowels of a church), the soldiers encounter some of the good doctor’s handiwork: half-man / half-machine abominations equipped with a variety of weapons, all of which have been fused to their bodies. From the names alone, you get a sense of what each one’s specialty is; there’s Propellerhead (Tomas Tomas), Razor Teeth (played by both Martin David and Martin Basta), and my personal favorite, Mosquito Man (Klemens Ratijn), who walks around on stilts and has a large, serrated drill attached to his face.

Admittedly, there were times I wished Frankenstein’s Army hadn’t gone the found-footage route (there wasn’t a single moment in the film where I felt I was watching something that actually happened). But what I found particularly frustrating was the movie’s over reliance on the “shaky-cam”, which, along with being done to death, occasionally prevents us from getting a good look at the monsters. These issues aside, Frankenstein’s Army is an inspired Creature Feature with plenty of gore (one poor character’s intestinal tract ends up strewn all over the ground), and I had a great time watching its brutal insanity play out.

Friday, October 2, 2015

#1,873. Jack the Ripper (1959)

Directed By: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman

Starring: Lee Patterson, Eddie Byrne, Betty McDowall

Tag line: "Why Were His Victims Always Ladies of the Night?"

Trivia: For the US trailer, voice specialist Paul Frees looped the voice of Jack the Ripper. For the film itself, Frees did the opening narration over the Paramount logo

One of history’s most notorious serial killers, Jack the Ripper murdered five prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel district in the latter half of 1888 (between the months of Aug. and Nov., to be precise). In each instance, the victim’s throats were slashed, yet some of their other wounds (the uteruses of a few had been cut out) suggested that the Ripper was a man of medicine, with at least a working knowledge of human anatomy. It proved a difficult case for the police to crack, and they never did find the killer. Over the years, there have been several movies based on the Ripper killings, some of which presented theories of their own as to who committed these murders (one of the better entries being the Hughes Brothers’ underrated 2001 crime / thriller From Hell). 1959’s Jack the Ripper, a British film directed by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, offers its own unique spin on the story, and while it’s certainly not the definitive version of this ghastly tale, it’s isn’t a bad little movie, either.

It’s 1888, and someone is killing the women of Whitechapel. Police inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne), aided by his old friend, American detective Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson), searches frantically for the murderer, with the only clue being that he may be a doctor (the stab wounds on each victim have been precise enough to suggest they were inflicted by a physician). Meanwhile, Lowry strikes up a romance with Anne Ford (Betty McDowall), the ward of respected surgeon Dr. Trantor (John Le Mesurier), who works at a nearby hospital. A stern man, Dr. Trantor tells Anne that he doesn’t approve of her dating a policeman. But is he truly concerned for Anne’s well-being, or is he hiding something?

Like 1944’s The Lodger, which was also loosely based on the Whitechapel murders, Jack the Ripper doesn’t bother with the facts of the case (this Ripper kills any woman who crosses his path, whether she’s a lady of the evening or not). In addition, because it was produced in the late 1950’s, the movie is devoid of blood and gore (on occasion, we see flashes of a knife, yet never witness it hitting its mark). Where it excels, though, is in its depiction of the murders, all of which occur in the fog-filled, darkened streets of Whitechapel. Again, the violence isn’t graphic, but the filmmakers do manage to slip a little brutality in; the second victim, Helen Morris (Anne Sharp), is cornered by the Ripper, who asks her, in a sinister voice, if she’s Mary Clarke (in this film, the Ripper isn’t a random killer, but a man on a mission). Even after learning that she’s not Miss Clarke, he strangles her, and then, when she’s down on the ground, the camera pans to the Ripper’s shadow, where, in silhouette, we see him plunge a knife several times into her abdomen. It’s an effectively disturbing scene that also sets the stage for each of the remaining murders.

Inspiring everything from books and stage plays to television documentaries, the tale of Jack the Ripper has fascinated people for well over a hundred years. The key question, of course, is why? Is it the ruthless nature of each killing that captures our attention, or the long list of potential suspects that, by all appearances, is still growing to this day (among those mentioned as possible “Rippers” are writer Lewis Carroll and a few members of Britain’s royal family)? In the end, I think what truly stirs people’s imagination is the fact that the perpetrator wasn’t caught, that he committed such heinous crimes, yet never paid the penalty for doing so. He is a faceless monster, a savage killer who will forever remain in the shadows. Unlike Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer, Jack the Ripper actually got away with murder.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

#1,872. The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Directed By: Wes Craven

Starring: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie

Tag line: "In every neighborhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid"

Trivia: Scenes from this movie are shown on the Twister Ride at Universal Studios, Orlando

After the recent passing of Wes Craven, I decided it was high time I check out some of the writer/director’s “other” films (i.e. - those that aren’t connected in any way, shape, or form to Scream or A Nightmare on Elm Street), paying special attention to the ones I’ve never seen before. For years, I was under the impression that 1991’s The People Under the Stairs had somehow slipped through the cracks, but as I sat watching it the other day, I found myself remembering bits and pieces of it (including the film’s outrageous finale). Still, I’m glad I chose this movie to kick off my “Craven Retrospective”, because even though I’ve seen this horror / comedy before, I’d forgotten how much fun it is.

Upon learning that his family is about to be evicted from their skid-row apartment, young Poindexter Williams (played by 12-year-old Brandon Adams), known as “Fool” to his family and friends, agrees to help Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) break into the spacious mansion belonging to their landlords, the Robesons (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie). Hoping to find Mr. Robeson’s rare coin collection, the trio is instead drawn into what appears to be a house of horrors, complete with a savage Rottweiler and a group of near-crazed, cannibalistic children who, for years, have been held prisoner in the basement. To top it off, the Robesons themselves are insane, not to mention heavily armed. Aided by the couple’s daughter Alice (A.J. Langer), as well as “Roach” (Sean Whalen), one of the basement dwellers who is now living in the walls of the house, Fool searches desperately for a way out, but will he find one in time, or will Mr. Robeson and his trusty shotgun find him instead?

The kids trapped in the Robeson’s basement (The so-called “People under the Stairs”) are pretty darn creepy, what with their pale skin and voracious appetite for human flesh (which they get to devour on more than one occasion). But when it comes to crazy, nobody can touch the house’s owners. Played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (who, at the time, were also appearing in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), the Robesons are completely off their rockers, making them much more frightening than any of the house’s other residents. While searching for Fool and Roach, who are hiding somewhere in the walls, Mr. Robeson, decked out in what looks like a leather S&M outfit, angrily fires his shotgun in all directions, hoping that one of the blasts will eventually hit its mark. Yet it’s Mrs. Robeson who’ll send a shiver up your spine. A cross between Piper Laurie’s psychotically religious mother in Carrie and Bette Davis’ delusion Baby Jane in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mrs. Robeson is an egotistical tyrant, tormenting poor Alice every chance she gets (after discovering that she’s been helping Fool, Mrs. Robeson tosses Alice into a steaming hot bath, vigorously scrubbing the girls’ skin as she screams in agony). Both deliver performances that are over-the-top, but while McGill’s character is occasionally a source of comedy (he’s constantly hitting his head or falling down), Robie is downright spooky, and even though she isn’t the one with the rifle, we know that her Mrs. Robeson is, at all times, the more dangerous of the two.

The house itself, with its automatic locks, unbreakable windows, and collapsible stairs (which, with the push of a button, transform into a slippery ramp), is definitely cool, and the perfect setting for what proves to be a wild film. But along with the horror and comedy, The People Under the Stairs also has plenty to say about society in general, throwing a spotlight on poverty and the trials faced by those who struggle to make ends meet (Despite the fact they’re committing a crime, we find ourselves rooting for Fool and the others, mostly because we realize stealing is the only option they have left). As George Romero did with his Living Dead series, Craven blends this social commentary neatly into a kick-ass horror movie that, along with effectively delivering its message, is a guaranteed good time.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

#1,871. My Brilliant Career (1979)

Directed By: Gillian Armstrong

Starring: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes

Tag line: "Sometimes it is the things that bind us, that truly set us free"

Trivia: This film's director, producers, scriptwriter, first billed actor, production designer, costume designer, production supervisor, bookkeeper and accountant were all women

Director Gillian Anderson’s 1979 drama / romance My Brilliant Career has quite a bit going for it. Based on a 1901 novel of the same name by Miles Franklin, it’s a beautifully-realized period piece with gorgeous cinematography and a top-notch supporting cast. But forget all that, because what makes the film so damn appealing is the career-defining performance delivered by its star Judy Davis, who, in every scene, conjures up an energy that practically leaps off the screen into your lap. It’s the kind of work that usually nets an actress gobs of year-end awards, much like Charlize Theron’s turn in 2003’s Monster (winner of 17 awards, including an Oscar and Golden Globe) or Helen Mirren in 2005’s The Queen (aside from walking off with the “Big 5”, i.e. Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild, Dame Mirren took home 24 other awards given to her by film festivals and critic circles the world over). While I wouldn’t go so far as to compare Miss Davis’ work in My Brilliant Career with that of either Theron’s or Mirren’s, she was strong enough in this movie to at least warrant a mention alongside them.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Judy Davis did not receive similar accolades for her portrayal of a headstrong Australian girl at the turn of the 20th century, struggling to find her place in the world. In fact, she won only two awards for My Brilliant Career (both were BAFTAs, for Best lead Actress and Most Outstanding Newcomer. Yes, it was her first starring role in a motion picture, which makes her performance that much more impressive). Most amazing of all, though, is that she was even snubbed in her own country! My Brilliant Career was the recipient of six Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography, but the top actress nod went to someone else (specifically, Michele Fawdon for Cathy’s Child). It’s not uncommon for some year-end awards to miss the mark, but for everyone except the British to overlook Davis’ incredible contribution to this film is almost impossible to believe.

Precocious teenager Sybylla Melvyn (Davis) knows that her hometown, the little backwater village of Possum Gully, will never afford her the opportunity to become a famous writer, artist, or musician. So, after refusing to accept a servant’s position secured for her by her mother (Julia Blake), Sybylla is shipped off to stay with her high-society Grandmother, Miss Bossier (Aileen Britton), who lives in the prestigious town of Caddagat with Sybylla’s Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) and Uncle Julius (Peter Whitford). Though her grandmother and aunt keep trying to marry her off to the boorish Frank Hawden (Robert Grubb), Sybylla is content in Caddagat, and is prepared to begin what she refers to as her “Brilliant Career”, whatever it may be. But a chance meeting with Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a wealthy young entrepreneur who lives with his Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy), throws a wrinkle into the fabric of Sybylla’s life, one she was ill-prepared to deal with: Love. Can Sybylla suppress these new feelings and continue her “career”, or will romance win out in the end?

It’s quite possible that Davis’ award chances were undermined by her character’s plain, even homely, appearance (unlike the actress playing her, Sybylla is considered an “ugly duckling” by those closest to her). In addition, the role itself (an independent woman who vows never to marry, then meets and falls in love with a handsome man) is certainly nothing new. Yet thanks to her charisma and vitality, which is on display throughout the entire movie, Judy Davis makes us forget that we’ve seen this all a thousand times before, and like Harry Beecham, we become absolutely smitten with her. Even in those sequences where her character is down in the dumps (at the evening ball, she sulks because Harry is spending all his time talking to another woman), we’re still drawn to her energy, and can’t take our eyes off of her. As for the story, hopeless romantics may have an issue with some of its twists and turns, but that won’t prevent them (or anyone else) from admiring the hell out of this picture.

To be honest, I’ve never seen Cathy’s Child, so I’m in no position to judge who was the better Australian actress in 1979. What I will say, though, is that Miss Fawdon must have been Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Meryl Streep all rolled into one, because it would take a performance of that magnitude to convince me Judy Davis wasn’t robbed.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#1,870. The Devil's Playground (1976)

Directed By: Fred Schepisi

Starring: Charles McCallum, John Frawley, Arthur Dignam

Tag line: "Young men torn between physical desire and religious discipline"

Trivia: Seminary scenes were filmed at Werribee Park Mansion, which had served as a seminary (Corpus Christi Catholic College) for 50 years

Fred Schepisi’s directorial debut, 1976’s The Devil’s Playground, is a semi-autobiographical account of life in a 1950’s Catholic seminary. Starring young Simon Burke, it tells the story of a 13-year-old seminarian whose devotion to God and the church is in direct conflict with his budding sexuality.

Tom Allan (Burke) is one of many boys at the seminary, all of whom are trying to come to terms with their libidos. Though picked on by some of his fellow students (because he’s a bed-wetter), Tom maintains a close friendship with Fitz (John Diedrich), who, despite being several years older, shares Tom’s doubts and fears as to whether he’s fit to become a man of the cloth. For guidance, Tom turns to his instructors, only to discover most of them are as confused as he is!

Though only a teenager at the time (around 14 or 15 when the film was shot), Simon Burke’s portrayal of Tom is nothing short of remarkable. Playing such a demanding role with the confidence of a seasoned professional, Burke ensures that we are always in tune with what his character is feeling, and understand exactly what he’s going through. In one humorous (if uncomfortable) scene, Tom is in the confessional, where he admits to the acerbic Brother Hanrahan (Gerry Duggan) that he masturbates frequently (2-3 times a day). Following a brief tirade, Brother Hanrahan absolves Tom of his sins, gives him his penance, and sends him on his way. To Tom’s horror, his classmates, many of whom were praying just outside the confessional, overheard the boisterous brother, and they begin to snicker amongst themselves. Though played primarily for laughs (Tom’s chronic masturbation is already well-known throughout the seminary), we can’t help but feel sorry for the poor boy in this scene, and Burke’s gentle, heartfelt performance is the reason why.

In addition to Simon Burke, I was impressed with how The Devil’s Playground handled its adult characters. Far from demonizing the seminary’s Brothers, Schepisi shows that they’re every bit as human, and prone to temptation, as Tom and his friends. During a weekend getaway, Brother Victor (Nick Tate) and Brother James (Peter Cox) take in a rugby match, then head to a nearby pub for a few beers. While there, Brother Victor spots a couple of pretty women sitting by themselves, and approaches them, causing a shocked (and somewhat nervous) Brother James to run for the door. Not to be outdone, the senior Brother, Sebastian (Charles McCallum), believes masturbation is perfectly normal, and wonders aloud if there’s actually a God in heaven. Even the stern disciplinarian, Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam), has his weaknesses; after catching a ride into town with Brothers Victor and James, Brother Francine says he’s going to visit a local museum but instead hangs out at a public pool, gawking at women in various stages of undress. By spending as much time with its adult characters as it does the students, The Devil’s Playground is one of those rare coming-of-age films that isn’t a “kids only” affair.

Winner of 6 Australian Film Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Lead Actor (shared by both Simon Burke and Nick Tate), The Devil’s Playground is as auspicious a directorial debut as they come, and the work of its entire cast, coupled with Schepisi’s documentary-style approach to the material, ensures that the movie is as relevant today as it was in 1976.

Monday, September 28, 2015

#1,869. Don's Party (1976)

Directed By: Bruce Beresford

Starring: John Hargreaves, Pat Bishop, Graham Kennedy

Tag line: "What a helluva night!"

Trivia: First major acting role in a feature film for Australian Television personality Graham Kennedy

October, 1969. A general election is being held in Australia, and, anticipating a victory for the underdog Labour Party, school teacher Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his wife Kath (Jeanie Dryan) decide to throw a party. Among the attendees are John’s outspoken friend Mal (Ray Barrett) and his oft-depressed significant other, Jenny (Pat Bishop); Simon (Graeme Blundell), a meek accountant, and his pretty but naïve wife Jody (Veronica Lang); Mack (Graham Kennedy), a wannabe photographer whose wife has just left him; Cooley (Harold Hopkins), a womanizing lawyer, and his curvaceous 19-year-old date du jour, Susan (Claire Binney); and Kerry (Candy Raymond), a sultry artist whose dentist husband, Evan (Kit Taylor), is most definitely the jealous type. As the alcohol flows and the election results come in, gentle ribbing turns into all-out insults, innocent flirtations lead to adultery, and before the party is over, more than one marriage will be teetering on the brink of collapse.

Based on a 1971 play by David Williamson, Don’s Party is a very funny movie (after throwing back a few beers, Cooley confesses to Mack that he once slept with his now-estranged wife. Not missing a beat, a nonplussed Mack, in turn, admits that he knew all about the tryst because he was in the bedroom closet shooting photos of it, which he now sells for a profit). Of course, seeing as it deals so openly with relationships, the film also has its fair share of drama; on more than one occasion, a couple will “air their dirty laundry”, often doing so quite loudly. Toss in a moment or two of frontal nudity (both male and female) and plenty of sexual innuendo, and you have a smart satire that takes aim at politics, marriage, art, and the middle class; as well as a bawdy sex comedy that’s as titillating as it is thought-provoking.

As with any movie based on a play, Don’s Party does, at times, feel a bit too talky for its own good. What saves the film, however (apart from its clever screenplay, which Williamson himself penned), is the cast that director Beresford assembled, all of whom deliver strong performances (Graham Kennedy is especially good as the party’s lone single attendee, as is Pat Bishop, who, though stuck in the background for most of the movie, has one very poignant scene late in the film). Thanks to them, what could have been a stage-bound, dialogue heavy snooze fest is instead fascinating and alive.

Whether it’s sophistication or sex you’re after, Don’s Party has what you’re looking for.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

#1,868. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

Directed By: Stephan Elliott

Starring: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp

Tag line: "She's back... Looking as gorgeous and outrageous as ever in a brand new frock"

Trivia: According to director Stephan Elliott, he took the three leads out in drag prior to the beginning of filming. None of them were recognized

On the surface, 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert looks like a movie about drag queens. Its three main characters are entertainers who dress as women and lip-sync to songs like "I Love the Nightlife" and "Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man"; the outfits are flamboyant (The movie won a well-deserved Academy Award for its Costume Design); and the stage performances are flashy and extravagant. But to reduce The Adventures of Priscilla to a glorified drag act would be short-changing it. This is a lively, hilarious motion picture with well-developed characters and some extremely clever sequences, and, in all likelihood, these are the aspects you’ll remember when you think back on this movie.

Tick (Hugo Weaving), a drag performer whose stage name is Mitzi, receives a call from his estranged wife, who operates a hotel / casino in the small desert town of Alice Springs. As it turns out, she’s in the market for a new stage show, so Tick agrees to help her out and, along with his two friends, fellow drag queen Adam / Felicia (Guy Pearce) and transsexual Bernadette (Terence Stamp), hops aboard a bus that Adam’s mother bought and sets off on what proves to be an eventful journey through the Australian outback.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert boasts a good number of entertaining scenes. So many, in fact, that I had a hard time keeping up with them all. Some of the film’s best moments occur when the three leads don their dresses and start up the music; along with their rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive", which they perform for a group of aborigines in the middle of the Outback, is a scene where they walk into what appears to be a bar filled with ruffians, only to find the most intimidating person there is a portly, middle-aged woman (June Marie Bennett). While most of the movie is lighthearted in nature, there are times where things get a bit more serious (after spending the night in a small town, the three awaken to find a homophobic threat spray-painted on the side of the bus), but even these solemn scenes have their moments of frivolity (a flashback sequence, in which Adam recalls an encounter with his pedophile uncle, starts out pretty damn creepy, yet ends on a very funny note).

While the adventures themselves are a blast to watch, the movie’s real strength lies in its characters, all of whom are as colorful and rich in detail as the film’s elaborate costumes. Terence Stamp delivers an understated performance as Bernadette, a transsexual whose best years are behind her, whereas Guy Pearce is as over-the-top as you can get in his portrayal of Adam, an effeminate troublemaker who refuses to take life seriously. Naturally, these very opposing personalities sometimes clash, which is where Hugo Weaving’s Mitzi comes in. Often forced into the role of peacemaker, Mitzi is, at times, as boisterous as Adam (especially when on-stage), yet also level-headed like Bernadette, not to mention a little nervous to be on his way to visit a wife he hasn’t seen in years. All three actors do a remarkable job, and never once allow their characters to devolve into caricatures. Also good in a supporting role is Bill Hunter (Newsfront) as Bob, a mechanic who, after being dumped by his stripper wife (Julia Cortez), hitches a ride on the bus, falling in love with Bernadette as they go.

I don’t usually condone sequels, but in the case of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, I’d love to see another movie featuring these characters. The 100+ minutes I spent in their company simply wasn’t enough.