Friday, April 27, 2018

#2,499. Witchery (1988)

Directed By: Fabrizio Laurenti

Starring: David Hasselhoff, Linda Blair, Catherine Hickland

Line from the film: "They've got a lot of legends about this island. Witches and rainbows and shit"

Trivia: Producer Joe D'Amato originally hired Luigi Cozzi as the movie's director who at first was involved in pre-production, but ultimately left after realizing that he wasn't allowed to make any script changes

I was a little hesitant to sit down and watch director Fabrizio Laurenti’s Witchery, mostly because it’s listed as a sequel to 1988’s Ghosthouse, a movie I have yet to see. It’s never a good idea to watch a series out of order, but it’s been my experience with Italian-produced horror of the ‘70s and ‘80s that many so-called “sequels” were labeled as such solely to cash in on the success of an earlier movie, and share few (if any) similarities with the characters or storyline of the “original” (Case in point: Fulci’s 1979 Zombie was released in his native Italy as a follow-up to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and the only thing those two classics have in common is their title creatures). 

With that in mind, I figured I’d give this 1988 film a whirl. 

Besides, Witchery stars Linda Blair (as an expectant mother) as well as a pre-Baywatch David Hasselhoff, each locked in a life-or-death struggle against the forces of evil. Would you pass up a chance to see a showdown like that

Paranormal researcher Leslie (Leslie Cumming) has traveled to a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts, where, centuries earlier, a pregnant woman accused of being a witch met a grisly end. Aided by her photographer boyfriend Gary (Hasselhoff), Leslie spends several days exploring a dilapidated hotel (the very building in which the alleged sorceress died), all the while hoping to uncover the secret of what really happened all those years ago. 

Leslie’s investigation is temporarily put on hold, however, when the Brooks family: Freddy (Robert Champagne) and his second wife Rose (Annie Ross); Freddy’s pregnant daughter Jane (Blair); and the couple’s young son Tommy (Michael Manchester), travel to the island to inspect the hotel, which they’ve just purchased from the previous owner. Rose wants to transform the old place into a modern-day Inn, and has brought interior designer Linda Sullivan (Catherine Hickland) along to get an idea of how much the renovations will cost. 

This simple outing takes an unexpected turn when the boat that carried the Brooks family to the island abruptly disappears. With no way to contact the mainland, the group must spend the night in the hotel. 

But they aren’t alone: a mysterious Lady in Black (Hildegard Knef) has been living in the old building for quite some time, and plans to use her new “guests” to summon a demon from hell, in the hopes it will help her correct the errors of the past. 

Also released as Evil Encounters, Witchcraft, and, in Italy, La Casa 4 (The House 4), this 1988 film has a few noteworthy scenes (the opening sequence, a flashback to the alleged witch’s death, gets Witchery off to a strong start) and a decent amount of gore (one unsuspecting victim has their lips sewn shut, and another is nailed to a cross). In addition, the abandoned hotel (according to IMDb, the movie was shot on-location at an actual building in the coastal community of Scituate, MA) proves the perfect setting for this particular tale, beautiful enough to put you at ease yet at the same time creepy enough to serve as “ground zero” for a battle between good and evil. 

Alas, Witchery is a hit-and-miss affair: aside from Hasselhoff, Blair, and Knef (eerie as the Lady in Black), the performances are pretty dismal; and the story takes some confusing turns along the way (a subplot about closing – or maybe it’s opening – the three doors of hell didn’t make much sense, and there’s a demonic rape scene that’s as bizarre as it is befuddling). And I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Linda Blair: 15 years after The Exorcist, and the poor girl was forced to endure yet another possession sequence! 

Still, even with its less-than-stellar elements, fans of ‘80s Italian horror will get a kick out of Witchery, which offers just enough chaos and gore to be entertaining. Everyone else may want to tread lightly.

Monday, April 23, 2018

#2,498. Domino (2005)

Directed By: Tony Scott

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mickey Rourke, Edgar Ramírez

Tag line: "I Am a Bounty Hunter"

Trivia:  The first words heard in the film, "Heads, you live. Tails, you die.", are spoken by the real life Domino Harvey

We’ll call this “In Defense of Tony Scott’s Domino”. 

Upon its release in 2005, Domino was savaged by critics. The Washington Post compared its hyperkinetic style to “a ferret on crystal meth”, while The Boston Globe attacked director Scott himself, saying his “pornographic lust for bloodletting, gunplay, and out-of-control camerawork far exceeds his abilities to tell a story”. The most brutal thrashing may have come from The Detroit News, which called Dominoone of the most awesomely awful films ever made”. 

To put it as succinctly as possible, I disagree. 

Fast-paced and frenzied, Domino has the look and feel of a modern exploitation flick. It is a highly-stylized action film posing as a biopic, and I loved every insane minute of it! 

Domino was inspired by the real-life story of Domino Harvey - daughter of actor Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate, Darling) - who tossed aside her posh Beverly Hills existence to become a professional bounty hunter. 

Despite her good looks and slender frame, Domino (Kiera Knightley) is tenacious enough to impress Ed Moseby (Mickey Rourke), one of L.A.’s most prominent Bounty Hunters. Ed makes her part of his team, which includes his second-in-command Cholo (Edgar Ramirez) - who quickly develops a crush on Domino - and their Afghanistani driver Alf (Riz Abbasi). 

Together, the group manages to round up a plethora of criminals, and it isn’t long before Ed, Choco and Alf see Domino as “one of the guys”. 

Ed and his crew report directly to bail bondsman Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo). It’s a relationship that works well for both parties, but when Claremont’s significant other, Lateesha Rodriguez (Mo’Nique), tricks the bounty hunters into helping her steal over a quarter of a million dollars, Ed, Choco, and Domino find themselves in hot water with a shifty Las Vegas casino owner (Dabney Coleman) and a ruthless Mafioso (Stanley Kamel), both of whom want their money back, and are ready to do whatever is necessary to recover it. 

Kiera Knightley is strong as the title character, a former fashion model who turns her back on the 90210 lifestyle forced on her by her mother (Jacqueline Bisset). Instead, Domino joins the “macho” profession of bounty hunting. Though slight in stature, Knightley proves throughout Domino that she can play it tough, and kick ass with the best of them. I also loved seeing Mickey Rourke in a major supporting role (a few years before his breakout performance in The Wrestler); and the sexual chemistry between Domino and Ramirez’s Choco is tangible, to say the least. 

The rest of the cast is also impressive, especially Delroy Lindo and Christopher Walken (who appears briefly as a network executive producing a TV reality show). Yet it’s Mo’Nique who steals every scene she’s in (at one point her character even turns up on The Jerry Springer Show). And keep an eye out for former Beverly Hills 90210 stars Ian Zierling and Brian Austin Green, playing themselves in some of the film’s most outlandish sequences. 

To support these colorful characters, Tony Scott employs plenty of slo-mo, oodles of jump cuts, a camera that rarely sits still, and a spirited narration track (provided by Knightley). Scott’s vast array of stylish bells and whistles never lets up for a second, and infuses Domino with an energy that, at times, is quite mesmerizing. 

But it’s the individual “WTF” scenes - so gloriously bizarre you can barely believe what you’re seeing - that make this 2005 film such an unforgettable motion picture experience. Domino giving a lap dance to a gang leader (in exchange for information) is intense enough, but even this bit of awesomeness pales in comparison to what follows. 

There’s a crazy-as-shit burst of graphic violence (set aboard a Winnebago) that involves the removal of a limb; a tense stand-off between Ed’s bounty hunters and Edna Fender (Dale Dickey) that practically tears a mobile home to shreds; and, strangest of all, a drug-infused encounter with a wandering preacher (Tom Waits) in the middle of the desert. 

Like the best exploitation movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Domino continually surprises you with its surreal twists and turns, and I, for one, never tired of how marvelously it shocked me into submission. 

A word of warning: Domino is not an honest account of its title character’s life, nor does it provide any insight into what makes a bounty hunter tick. In addition, the film features a large number of supporting players (more than mentioned above) and story enough for two full length movies, so it does get a tad confusing at times. There’s also a good chance director Scott’s hyperactive approach to the material will wear some viewers out. 

But as straight-up entertainment with a healthy dose of social commentary (Scott and screenwriter Richard Kelly slip an examination of class values and the crippling effects of poverty into the mix), Domino is an absolute winner.

Friday, April 6, 2018

#2,497. Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Directed By: Bill Morrison

Starring: Kathy Jones-Gates, Michael Gates, Sam Kula

Tag line: "Film Was Born of an Explosive"

Trivia: The film contains rare footage of the 1919 World Series - known for the "Black Sox" betting scandal

It is estimated that 75% of all silent films, most printed on highly flammable nitrate stock, have been lost. 

We learn this little factoid early on in writer / director Bill Morrison’s 2016 documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, which makes everything that follows it all the more incredible. 

Founded in 1897, Dawson City - a tiny metropolis situated in Canada’s Yukon Territory - saw its population explode during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century (at its height, 40,000 people called Dawson City their home). As a result, the town grew very quickly, with saloons, gambling houses, brothels and even a few theaters popping up. 

In the first decades of the 20th century, moving pictures were all the rage, and several venues in Dawson City exhibited them on a regular basis. Because the town was so far north, it sometimes took two or three years for Hollywood’s newest releases to reach it. In many cases, the residents of this Yukon community were the last to receive the prints, and since they were, by that point, considered “outdated”, the studios and distributors didn’t want to pay for their return. 

So once they finished their run, the film reels were crated up and stored in the basement of a burned-out library. 

Within 10 years or so, this basement was filled to capacity, and a bank manager (whose facility was hired by the distributors to ensure the movies didn’t play past their rental period) again asked the powers-that-be in Hollywood if they wanted their films back. 

They didn’t. 

But instead of destroying the reels (as the studios instructed him to do), the banker donated the crates to a local hockey team, which used them as landfill for the construction of a new ice rink. 

The building that surrounded the rink eventually burned to the ground, and the crates stayed buried under the ice until 1970, when an excavation crew finally uncovered them. 

It proved to be quite a find: over 500 reels of nitrate films dating as far back as the mid 1910’s. These reels were shipped off to a historical society, which cataloged each one. Some of the movies they found were believed lost forever. 

The telling of this story is - in and of itself - enough to make Dawson City: Frozen Time a worthwhile documentary, but it’s how director Morrison approaches the material that lifts this remarkable film to a whole new level. 

Instead of relying on narration and talking heads, Morrison lets the recovered movies speak for themselves, relating the history of Dawson City itself (recounted in great detail via newsreels and appropriate excerpts from dramatic films) as well as other historic events, like the 1914 Colorado miner’s strike; the end of World War I;, and the infamous 1919 World Series (see John Sayles’ Eight Men Out for more on this).  

Footage for all of this, and more besides, was rescued from the Dawson City site. 

By dedicating so much time to the movies themselves, Dawson City: Frozen Time does more than relate the tale of an extraordinary cinematic discovery; it demonstrates what we gained, and what might have been lost had the reels remained buried forever. 

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary movie buffs and historians alike will applaud. The cache in Dawson City was a truly amazing find, and its story made for an equally amazing motion picture.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

#2,496. The Magic Sword (1962)

Directed By: Bert I. Gordon

Starring: Basil Rathbone, Estelle Winwood, Gary Lockwood

Tag line: "Feats beyond description! Spectacle beyond imagination!"

Trivia: In addition to her credited role as "The Hag", Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira) also played the sorceress who kidnaps Princess Helene

I wish I'd seen The Magic Sword when I was a kid. With its tale of knights, dragons, sorcerers, and ogres, this 1962 fantasy is the kind of movie I would have loved back then! 

Though he has never met her, George (Gary Lockwood) is deeply in love with the Princess Helene (Anne Helm). When she is abducted by the evil sorcerer Lodac (Basil Rathbone), George vows to do whatever is necessary to ensure the Princess’s safe return. Armed with magical weapons (one of which is the titular sword) that he stole from his adoptive mother, the sorceress Sybil (Estelle Winwood); and with the help of six brave knights he rescued from captivity, George sets off for Lodac’s castle, intent on saving the Princess and making her his bride. 

But the journey will be a perilous one. For starters, George and his men must join forces with the treacherous Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), who also plans to marry the Princess. Even more dangerous are the seven curses of Lodac, which George and the others have to overcome if they’re to have any chance of rescuing the Princess. Should they fail to reach her in time, the Princess will likely be fed to Lodac’s pet dragon! 

Bert I. Gordon keeps the story moving, and fills The Magic Sword with one cool bit of fantasy after another. The battle with a giant Ogre (Jack Kosslyn), one of Lodac’s curses, is exciting; and some of what the lead and his knights encounter during their travels is kinda frightening (there’s a hideous old hag played by Vampira herself, Maila Nurmi; and a magical spell of Lodac’s burns the flesh off two of George’s knights). There’s even comic relief, with Estelle Winwood’s somewhat forgetful sorceress doing what she can to help George, but more often than not making a mess of things (Winwood, so funny as one of Max Bialystock’s “customers” in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, plays the part of Sybil wonderfully). 

Even by today’s standards, the effects look pretty darn convincing (Lodac’s dragon is especially impressive), and the story of good versus evil will surely appeal to viewers of all ages. Whether you’re young or young at heart, The Magic Sword will be well worth your time.

#2,495. Final Destination 5 (2011)

Directed By: Steven Quale

Starring: Nicholas D'Agosto, Emma Bell, Arlen Escarpeta

Tag line: "Death has never been closer"

Trivia: Many of the main characters are named after famous horror directors

Like the previous entry in the Final Destination series (i.e. 2009’s The Final Destination), director Steven Quale’s Final Destination 5 was shot in 3-D, and as a result, a plethora of sharp objects and mutilated body parts come flying off the screen. 

Well, as it was with The Final Destination, I didn’t get a chance to see this 2011 film in 3-D, but I’m happy to report that Part 5 features plenty of surprises - and more than enough gore and carnage - to ensure that the 2-D crowd is just as entertained as their three-dimensional counterparts. 

While he and a busload of his co-workers are on their way to a company retreat, Sam Lawton (Nicholas D’Agosto) experiences a vision in which the bridge they’re crossing collapses, killing most of them (only Sam’s girlfriend Molly, played by Emma Bell, survives the ordeal). When it looks as if his premonition is about to come true, Sam and several others, including his friend Peter (Miles Fisher); Peter's girlfriend Candice (Ellen Wroe); their boss Dennis (David Koecher); and co-workers Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), Nathan (Arlan Escarpata) and Isaac (P.J. Byrne), hop off the bus and rush to safety. 

But instead of a new lease on life, the group realizes, with the help of local coroner Bludworth (Tony Todd), that they’ve only managed to temporarily cheat death, and it won’t be long before the grim reaper comes back for each and every one of them. 

Anyone familiar with 2000’s Final Destination and its sequels knows exactly what to expect from this 2011 entry: a blockbuster-sized opening catastrophe followed by smaller, yet equally as intense kill scenes. Hell, thanks to movies 1 - 4, we even know the order in which the “survivors” will meet their demise. With the exception of The Final Destination, it’s been a solid formula thus far, and I was amazed how, after four films, the creative minds behind Final Destination 5 still found new and imaginative ways to skewer and pulverize the human body, starting with the impressively-realized suspension bridge disaster (which looked authentic enough to give me goosebumps) straight through to the individual scenes where death catches up with the characters one by one. And like the other Final Destination flicks, you may have a hard time picking your favorite Part 5 kill (mine comes early on, and involves a college gymnastics practice). Throw in a twist at the end that made me positively giddy, and you have a movie that satisfies on every possible level.

Like most modern horror films, the blood and gore in Final Destination 5 is computer generated, but even this doesn’t spoil the fun. And Final Destination 5 is fun with a capital “F”!

#2,494. Rage (1972)

Directed By: George C. Scott

Starring: George C. Scott, Richard Basehart, Martin Sheen

Tag line: "They called it an accident. He called it murder. It was their conspiracy. It was his son"

Trivia: First theatrical film directed by George C. Scott

George C. Scott was a hell of an actor; along with his bravura performance as the title character in 1970’s Patton, he was terrific as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1984’s A Christmas Carol, my favorite film version of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale. In 1972’s Rage, Scott not only played the lead, but also tried his hand at directing, and thanks to a solid cast and some nerve-racking sequences, this drama / thriller proved he was just as successful behind the camera as in front of it. 

While out camping one evening, sheep rancher Dan Logan (Scott) and his son Chris (Nicolas Beauvy) are exposed to an experimental nerve gas, which had been released accidentally by a military helicopter. The next morning, Chris is non-responsive, and is rushed to the emergency room where Dr. Holliford (Martin Sheen) looks after him. Telling a concerned Dan he has no idea what caused Chris’s illness, Dr. Holliford recommends that, as a precaution, the elder Logan also check himself into the hospital, so that they can run a few tests on him and make sure all is well. 

Unbeknownst to Logan, Dr. Holliford is also an Army officer, and involved in the military’s attempt to conceal the accident. Several days pass, during which time Logan (still in the hospital) receives no updates whatsoever on his son’s condition. Frustrated and angry, he sneaks out of his room and searches for answers. What he finds instead is the truth about the cover-up, at which point Dan Logan decides to take matters into his own hands. 

Scott delivers a searing performance as Dan Logan, especially in the film’s last 20 or so minutes, when his character is in full revenge mode (Logan is downright cold-blooded in these sequences, a few of which are shockingly violent). 

But there are also large chunks of Rage in which Scott is not featured at all, when the movie instead focuses on the cover-up, and it’s in these scenes that the fine supporting cast takes center stage. A young Martin Sheen is convincing as Dr. Holliford, the army surgeon who is a master of deception; and Bernhard Hughes is equally as good playing Dr. Spencer, a member of the public health service (which has aligned itself with the military). In addition, Richard Basehart is excellent as Dr. Caldwell, Logan’s personal physician and longtime friend who eventually realizes there’s more going on than he’s been led to believe (at one point, Dr. Caldwell tries to tell Logan the truth, but is prevented from doing so). 

Rage does have some pacing issues (a late scene where Logan breaks into a laboratory drags on longer than it should), and Scott utilizes slow-motion a little too freely (he even employs it when his character spits while chewing tobacco). In addition, the entire opening sequence - before Logan and his son are infected - is undermined by the film’s score (it overpowers the entire segment). 

Fortunately, the movie’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and the superb cast plus a very intense storyline do their part to make Rage an effective enough thriller.

#2,493. Free Fire (2016)

Directed By: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer

Tag line: "All guns. No control"

Trivia: Olivia Wilde was cast in the lead role, but dropped out

Certain things grab my attention, and in the case of Free Fire it was the little snippet on the Blu-Ray cover that one of its executive producers was Martin Scorsese. For me, Scorsese is the consummate cinephile, and the fact that this 2016 film bears his name was enough to convince me it was worth checking out.

The setting is 1970s Boston. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are trying to secure weapons for the Irish Republican Army. With the help of Justine (Brie Larson) they’ve arranged a meeting with Vernon (Sharito Copley), a wealthy South African arms dealer who has agreed to sell them a shipment of M-16 assault rifles. Both parties meet late one evening in an abandoned warehouse to make the exchange. 

To help move the rifles, Chris and Frank have brought along Stevo (Sam Riley), Frank’s drug-addicted brother-in-law; and Stevo’s friend Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). As for Vernon, he’s joined by his partner Martin (Babou Ceasay), a couple of hired guns (Jack Raynor and Noah Taylor), and the smooth-talking Ord (Armie Hammer), who will act as mediator. 

Tensions flare up temporarily when Chris and Frank discover Vernon has changed the deal on them (he’s brought AK-47s instead of M-16s), but just when it looks as if things are calming down, the negotiations take an unexpected turn. Minutes later, guns are blazing, and with hundreds of bullets flying in such a confined space, odds are that very few of the combatants will make it out of this unfortunate predicament alive. 

The creative team behind Free Fire did an outstanding job capturing the look and feel of the 1970s, from the polyester-rich clothes right down to the musical soundtrack (I’ll never hear John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” again without thinking of this movie). As for the cast, it’s tempting to try and select one or two "standout" performances; Sharito Copley is hilarious as the megalomaniacal Vernon, as is Gillian Murphy as the hard-nosed Irishman who - in every situation - refuses to back down. Armie Hammer is also good as the wise-cracking Ord, and Brie Larson holds her own surrounded by what is otherwise an all-male cast. But the fact of the matter is that Free Fire is a true ensemble piece. Every performer shines, and whether you like their character or hate them (Sam Riley’s Stevo is a slimeball), not a one is boring. 

Though it takes place in a single setting, Free Fire manages to maintain a consistent level of intensity throughout, and the smart, witty screenplay co-written by Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley is a key reason why (along with the action, the film is damn funny, and features plenty of dialogue that will have you laughing out loud). 

Loaded with humor and excitement, Free Fire is the kind of movie Martin Scorsese himself turns out on a regular basis. 

And that is no faint praise.

#2,492. Erik the Conqueror (1961)

Directed By: Mario Bava

Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Alice Kessler, Ellen Kessler

Tag line: "He Lived Only for the Flech and the Sword"

Trivia: Prior to its U.S. release, 17 minutes were cut form this film

While his contributions to horror earned him the honorary title Maestro of the Macabre, Mario Bava also tackled a few other genres over the course of his career, including Sword and Sandal epics (The Giant of Marathon), Westerns (like 1964’s The Road to Fort Alamo), spy thrillers (Danger: Diabolik) and even sci-fi (Planet of the Vampires). 

With Erik the Conqueror, Bava took a stab at an historical action movie, and like each and every one of his pictures, it’s the imagery that makes this 1961 film so memorable. 

It is the 8th century A.D., and the Viking king Harald (Polco Luill) has established a small outpost on the shores of Britain. Unlike other chieftains, Harald’s intentions are peaceful, but that doesn’t stop the British Lord Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi) from launching an all-out attack against him. Ignoring the orders of his master, King Lotar (Franco Ressel). who wanted only to negotiate with Harald, Rutford slaughters the Viking chieftain and many of his followers. Only Harald’s young sons, Erik and Eron, survive the ordeal. Eron is taken back to the Viking homeland, while Erik remains in Britain, where he’s adopted by Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe), the wife of Lotar. 

Twenty years later, Erik (George Ardisson), now an honored member of the British Court, is granted the title Duke of Helford, while his brother Eron (Cameron Mitchell) becomes the new king of the Vikings. With the help of the deceitful Sir Rutford, Eron, eager to avenge the death of his family (Eron believes Erik died in the raid), sneaks his army into Britain and captures Queen Alice, who is whisked away to the Viking homeland. Hoping to rescue her, Erik sails north, where he is aided by by the lovely Rama (Alice Kesslan), the twin sister of Eron’s new bride Daja (Ellen Kessler)! 

With Sir Rutford pulling the strings, Eron and Erik prepare to square off against one another. Will they discover their familial bond in time to prevent this war, or are the two brothers destined to destroy each other without ever knowing the truth? 

The story isn’t original; the basic premise of Erik the Conqueror was lifted from Richard Fleischer’s 1958 movie The Vikings. But Bava’s keen eye for visuals carries this entire production to another level. Even the simplest of scenes, like an early moment along the shoreline (where Queen Alice first sets eyes on a young Erik), is strikingly vibrant. In addition to its imagery, there is a Viking dance sequence that is well-staged, and the various action scenes are exciting (the storming of a castle late in the film is particularly thrilling) and occasionally quite violent (a woman and her infant are both speared during the opening battle). 

As with his horror movies (Black Sunday, Black Sabbath), Bava’s prowess as a visual artist is on full display in Erik the Conqueror, taking what otherwise might have been an average action/ adventure and transforming it into something much more substantial.