Wednesday, November 13, 2019

#2,508. Fatherland (2011)

Directed By: Nicolas Prividera

Starring: Felix Bruzzone, José Celestino Campusano, Lucía Cedrón

Tagline: "Argentina through the words of those who lay buried in Buenos Aires' famed La Recoleta Cemetery"

Trivia: Made its premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival

Written and directed by Nicolas Prividera, 2011’s Fatherland is a very unique documentary. Set primarily within the confines of the famed La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the film gives the dead one more chance to speak their piece while also casting a light on the politics and philosophies that divide individuals in life, only to fade away with the passage of time. 

Throughout Fatherland, Prividera invites a variety of people to read aloud from selected letters and writings of those who are now buried in La Recoleta (in most cases, these readings are carried out while the person is standing next to, or outside of, the author’s final resting place). The cemetery is quite old; it was founded by the Recoleta monks in 1822, and a large number of dignitaries, former Argentinian Presidents, military generals and even some revolutionaries have been buried there over the years. Evita Peron, wife of President Juan Peron and a well-respected humanitarian whose exploits were popularized on both stage and screen (Alan Parker’s 1996 musical Evita, starring Madonna in the title role, was based on Peron), is laid to rest in La Recoleta. Hers is obviously the most visited gravesite in the entire cemetery; over the course of Fatherland, a class touring Le Recoleta pauses there for a quick history lesson, and a group of elderly citizens sing a song praising the former first lady. Also buried in La Recoleta is Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, general and president who overthrew Evita’s husband in 1955 and forced him into exile (one of Fatherland’s most poignant moments comes late in the film, when an anonymous letter, written by a member of the group that kidnapped and executed Aramburu in 1970, is read aloud at the former leader’s graveside). 

Of course, the above examples are just scratching the surface; many letters and essays are read during Fatherland’s 100 minute runtime, some dating back to the middle of the 18th century, when Argentina was in the throes of revolution and civil war. We hear from both sides of these events, and it’s interesting to note that some of these former adversaries in life are now interred only a few hundred yards from each other. 

Even La Recoleta itself isn’t immune to the effects of time; in one of the film’s more noteworthy sequences, Prividera shows us several laborers repairing the cemetery (portions of La Recoleta are in terrible shape. There are walls with missing crypt covers, exposing the coffins within them to the elements, and some monuments have been broken or nearly obliterated). He then punctuates these images with a shot of the final resting place of David Allena, who was himself the caretaker of La Recoleta from 1881 to 1910. 

Along with being quite beautiful (Prividera often focuses his camera on the picturesque statues and mausoleums that adorn the cemetery), Fatherland is also thought-provoking. Many of the country’s leaders and finest thinkers were at one point willing to fight and kill for a cause or an ideology. Now, decades or even a century later, the concepts and philosophies that separated them have faded into obscurity, and are all but forgotten. 

But there’s more to Fatherland than a commentary on the futility of social and political conflict; the movie also gives voice to the dead. So often, a cemetery is seen as nothing more than a collection of headstones, a place where the dead lay silent. Fatherland reminds us that the deceased were once very much alive, and were as passionate about their beliefs as anyone living today. 

Unfortunately, Fatherland does run a bit too long; Prividera could have gotten these points across in half the time. Also, the readers who recite the various texts are often flat, doing so with little emotion, which occasionally made me lose interest in what they were saying. But even with its flaws, I found Fatherland to be one of the most intriguing documentaries I’ve seen in quite some time.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

#2,507. Next of Kin (1982) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Tony Williams

Starring: Jacki Kerin, John Jarratt, Alex Scott

Tag line: "There is something evil in this house"

Trivia: This film was one of many featured in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood where it was praised by Quentin Tarantino

A film that Quentin Tarantino once called “A horror movie unlike any other”, director Tony Williams’ 1982 Ozploitation horror/mystery Next of Kin is, indeed, an exceptionally unique motion picture. 

After the death of her mother, a distraught Linda (Jackie Kerin) begrudgingly returns home to become the manager of Monteclare, a retirement community that has been owned and operated by her family for years. 

After settling in, Linda reconnects with her old boyfriend Barney (John Jarratt) while also befriending Lance, an elderly resident played by Charles McCallum. But before long, her apprehension at taking over the family business will turn into an all-out paranoia! 

It all begins when one of the home’s occupants is found dead in a bathtub. While trying to figure out what happened to this poor soul, Linda starts digging into Monteclare’s rather shady past, and because of this finds herself being tormented by an unknown person (or persons). 

Linda is convinced that the local Doctor (played by Alex Scott) and the home’s longtime assistant manager Connie (Gerda Nicholson) are conspiring against her, attempting to drive her mad. But are they the true culprits, or is the turmoil at Monteclare being caused by someone else entirely? 

First and foremost, Next of Kin is a beautifully shot motion picture. Director Williams set out to style the movie like a European film, drawing particular inspiration from Bernardo Bertolucci (a key sequence was clearly influenced by a late moment from Last Tango in Paris). 
In addition, the movie’s cinematographer, Gary Hanson, borrowed several techniques made popular decades earlier by Alfred Hitchcock and a handful of others (a dream sequence features an effect much like one found in 1958’s Vertigo). 

Overhead tracking shots, Steadicams, and dolly shots pop up throughout Next of Kin, and often when you least expect them, adding to the overall experience. 

Performance-wise, the cast is strong, especially a young-looking John Jarratt (Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek) and Jackie Kerin herself, who is not only likable as Linda but also plays her as an incredibly strong-willed heroine. 
Director Williams said one of the reasons he made Next of Kin was because he had no interest in copying the American slashers that were popular at the time, in which female characters served mostly as victims. In this film, Williams not only gives us a female lead but one who proves time and again to be the movie's toughest character. Even during those moments when Linda thinks she’s losing her mind, she remains resolute (one night, the lights inexplicably go out at Monteclare. To ensure the residents are ok, Linda searches the rooms, and while doing so encounters things that make the audience leap out of their seat. Yet she takes each new discovery perfectly in stride). 

Linda does eventually lose her cool (when she is pushed to the brink of insanity), but even then proves that she’s not someone to be trifled with. 

As for its story, Next of Kin starts off as a mystery: what exactly is happening at Monteclare and how does it tie into the past? We find ourselves caught up in Linda’s search for answers, and because of the film’s energetic style I was fully invested in these early sequences. The opening half is undoubtedly a slow burn; there are creepy scenes scattered throughout, but at this point the horror hasn’t yet kicked into high gear. 

Our patience is rewarded, however, in the film's second half - particularly the last 30 minutes - when Next of Kin crosses into full-blown Ozploitation territory, and in a big, big way! The scares come fast and furious here, and things get absolutely crazy before the story reaches its climax. 

I would love to talk more about what happens in these late scenes, but I don’t dare; Next of Kin earns its surprises, and I have no intention of spoiling a single one of them. 

While I really enjoyed the opening mystery, I absolutely loved the end! I have a soft spot for movies that shock the hell out of me, and Next of Kin did so several times. It is a film I wholeheartedly recommend.

Friday, October 4, 2019

#2,506. The Final Terror (1983)

Directed By: Andrew Davis

Starring: John Friedrich, Adrian Zmed, Ernest Harden Jr.

Tagline: "If you go down to the woods today you're sure of... "

Trivia: The prologue with the couple on the motorcycle was filmed after principal shooting on the movie had wrapped

A cross between Deliverance and Just Before Dawn, The Final Terror is a down-and-dirty, often unnerving horror flick that features a cast any filmmaker would kill for. 

A team of forest rangers: Zorich (John Friedrich), Marco (Adrien Zmed), Nathaniel (Ernest Harden Jr.) and Boone (Lewis Smith), heads deep into the woods on a work detail scheduled to last a few days. Hoping to combine business with pleasure, the ranger in charge of the crew, Mike (Mark Metcalf), brings his girlfriend Melanie (Cindy Harrell) along, and she in turn invites her friends Wendy (Daryl Hannah), Vanessa (Akosua Busia), and Margaret (Rachel Ward) to join them. 

Fellow ranger Egger (Joe Pantoliano), who acts as their driver, reminds Mike that a couple was murdered in that same section of forest just a few weeks earlier, making it too dangerous a spot to set up camp. Mike and the others laugh at Egger, who, in a fit of rage, packs up and leaves. 

It isn’t long, however, before the remaining campers realize there is, indeed, someone lurking in the woods, a dangerous killer who, if the evidence is to be believed, may just be ‘ole Egger himself! 

Shot in 1981 but not released until 1983, The Final Terror marked very early screen appearances for such future stars as Daryl Hannah (Blade Runner, Reckless), Rachel Ward (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Against All Odds) and Joe Pantoliano (The Goonies, The Matrix). From top to bottom, every member of the cast turns in a solid performance, but Pantoliano is especially strong as the backwards Egger, the outcast of the bunch who has a knack for pissing everyone off (his first scene, where he attempts to wake up his sleeping compatriots, is especially tense). From the get-go, Pantoliano’s Egger is clearly unhinged, and like the others, we the audience have no problem believing he might be the killer. Also excellent is John Friedrich as Zorich, a gung-ho Vietnam Vet who is only too ready to take the fight to Egger (there are times when Zorich is even more terrifying than Egger). 

In unison with the cast, the forest itself helps set a convincing, ominous tone. Director Andrew Davis (who also handled the cinematography) offers up a handful of effective night scenes, often setting his camera far away from the characters, as if to emphasize the fact they are completely alone in the deep, dark woods. There are even a couple of creepy set pieces (chief among them an isolated cabin filled with horrific trinkets and severed animal limbs), not to mention an ultra-suspenseful raft trip down the river, at which point the rangers and their female companions realize someone is watching them. Someone who is very, very near. 

Save a handful of scenes, The Final Terror is not a bloody film. It is, however, a real nail-biter, and a movie that deserves a much bigger following that it’s ever received.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

#2,505. Blood Hook (1986)

Directed By: Jim Mallon

Starring: Mark Jacobs, Lisa Jane Todd, Patrick Danz

Tag line: "Blood Sports of the Human Kind"

Trivia: Most of the cast has never appeared in another film

It was probably about 15 minutes or so into 1986’s Blood Hook that I started to think this micro-budget slasher film was, in reality, a comedy, a spoof, if you will, of the entire subgenre. 

For starters, Blood Hook was distributed by Troma (The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High), and on top of that its co-writer and director, Jim Mallon, would in later years produce the original episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Hell, in an interview conducted for Vinegar Syndrome (the label that released Blood Hook on Blu-Ray), Mallon even said it was the ‘60s comedy sketch show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In that inspired him to break into show business in the first place! 

So, taking all of this into account, I figured Blood Hook just had to be a comedy, right? 


Seventeen years after witnessing the mysterious death of his grandfather, Peter Van Cleese (Mark Jacobs) inherits the old man’s former home: a cabin situated on a picturesque Wisconsin lake. Accompanied by his girlfriend Ann (Lisa Todd) and friends Rodney (Patrick Danz), Kiersten (Sara Hauser) and Finner (Christopher Whiting), Peter drives out to inspect his new property, which has been cared for all these years by his grandfather’s long-time friend Wayne Duerst (Paul Drake). 

As luck would have it, Peter and his crew turn up on the very weekend that the town is holding its annual Muskie fishing tournament, an event so popular that it attracts thousands of people to the area, all hoping to catch the biggest Muskie in the lake and win the $5,000 grand prize. 

But there’s more than fish and fishermen in these here parts; there’s a killer on the loose as well, and by the look of it he’s set his sights on Peter and the gang. Peter, who is still hauntd by his grandfather’s death, can’t help but wonder if this is the very same psychopath that took out ‘ole granddad all those years ago, a death that has been officially ruled an “unexplained disappearance” (since a body was ever recovered). 

Will Peter learn the identity of the killer in time to save his friends and bring some closure to the past, or is history doomed to repeat itself? 

Blood Hook makes good use of its central location; the entire movie was shot in Hayward, Wisconsin, a lakeside community that is also home to a four-story-tall fiberglass Muskie, a structure so big you can actually walk through it (which Peter and his friends do soon after they arrive). As for the lake, it’s quite beautiful, and reminded me more than a little of the locales used for such early ‘80s slasher films as Friday the 13th and The Burning. In addition, the opening scene, a flashback where we see the demise of Peter’s grandfather (played by Donald Franke), was handled well, and, along with the techno score that played over the credits, was enough to give me a little hope that Blood Hook might just be worth the effort. 

Then, before I knew it, everything had gone to hell in a handcart. For one, the characters - from Peter all the way down to the most insignificant local inhabiting this tiny town - were as exaggerated as they come. I’m not talking exaggerations of real people, or even exaggerations of ‘80s slasher characters (which are themselves already pretty exaggerated). No, this was like an otherworldly exaggeration, as if aliens were trying to mimic human behavior. Nobody in this film acts in a believable manner, nobody utters a believable line. Then, a short time later, it’s revealed that the killer’s weapon of choice is a fishing lure bigger than a human forearm, with large hooks attached to every side of it (which he cast at his victims, hooking them and reeling them in). I mean, this damn lure was so impractical that it was ridiculous. If a fisherman tried to actually use it, the fish would scatter the minute this behemoth hit the water! 

As I sat there - slack-jawed - trying to make sense of what was playing out in front of me, a coping mechanism kicked in, and I spent the rest of the first half of the movie convinced that Blood Hook was a comedy. And on that level, its awfulness became much more tolerable (once the film was over, I looked Blood Hook up on the Internet Movie Database, where it is, indeed, listed as comedy / horror, so I was glad to see I wasn’t totally off-base). 

But then, something unexpected happened. Right around the halfway point of Blood Hook, when the killer’s identity is revealed to both the audience and, a few minutes later, the remaining characters, the movie changed gears. The characters seemed a bit deeper than they had before, and the tension was more substantial. All at once, Blood Hook started to feel like an honest-to-goodness horror movie. 

Now, I don’t want to oversell this: when I say the characters were “deeper”, I equate it to stepping out of the kiddie pool and into the shallow end of the main swimming area. It’s not like they suddenly transformed into actual human beings. As for the tension, it was more substantial only when compared to what came before it in the film. Even at its most gruesome, Blood Hook is not a movie that will give you nightmares, or even cause you to wince a little. 

Yet this subtle shift in quality was enough to win me over, and what had been nothing more than a lackluster comedy was now a horror film I was invested in, genuinely anxious to see how it would end. 

I know I’m setting myself up for a fall here. Like many fans of ‘80s slashers, I’ve been accused of seeing movies like Blood Hook through rose-colored glasses, allowing the nostalgic feelings I harbor for the time period to cloud my judgment. And if those same people who leveled these accusations were to actually sit down and watch Blood Hook, they might just have enough evidence against me to prove their case in the court of public opinion. 

Hell, it’s entirely possible that the fans who worship ‘80s slashers will be scratching their heads over this review, wondering how I found anything positive to say about Blood Hook

So pity me if you can. Judge me if you must. But know that I’m a victim of circumstance. I’m a child of the ‘80s, and that child sometimes just can’t help himself. 

The heart wants what the heart wants. And there’s was a small corner of mine that opened itself up to Blood Hook.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

#2,504. Don't Go In The House (1979)

Directed By: Joseph Ellison

Starring: Dan Grimaldi, Charles Bonet, Bill Ricci

Tag line: "If you do...then don't say we didn't warn you"

Trivia: The house used in this film is now the museum headquarters of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society in New Jersey

There was a lot to love about 2007’s Grindhouse, a rollicking homage to ‘70s exploitation cinema co-directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. One of my favorite aspects of that movie (or should I say double-feature?) were the fake trailers that appeared throughout, written and directed by a handful of filmmakers. The best was Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving”, an ode to the slasher films of the 1980’s (I’m still hoping Roth will eventually turn this idea into a feature film one day, like Rodriguez did with his fake trailer for Machete), but I also enjoyed Edgar Wright’s “Don’t”, a trailer spoofing the “Don’t” movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, films such as Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Look in the Basement, and Don’t Go In the Woods.

Don’t Go in the House, a 1979 horror flick directed by Joseph Ellison, is yet another entry in this very unique class of pictures; I hesitate to call it a subgenre, seeing as many of these “Don’t” movies had plenty in common with the slasher films that were also in style at the time.

Don’t Go in the House begins by introducing us to its main character, Donny, and showing us, in no uncertain terms, the trauma that took hold of him at a very early age. During a childhood flashback (which occurs within the first 10 minutes on the movie), we watch as Donny’s mother (Ruth Dardick) holds her son’s arms over a lit oven burner, torturing the poor boy for some minor infraction.

Though grown up now, a much older Donny (Dan Grimaldi) still lives with his mother, and works at a New Jersey trash incineration plant. While at the plant one evening, Donny sits by and does nothing when co-worker Ben (Charles Bonet) has an accident and is badly burned. Donny’s boss Vito (Bill Ricci)) chastises him for his inaction. Donny’s bad day gets even worse when he arrives home to find his mother has passed away.

Distraught at first, Donny eventually starts listening to the voices in his head, telling him he’s now free of his domineering mother (“We’ll help you”, the voices say. “You can do anything you want to do now”). As a means of enjoying his new-found freedom, Donny burns his mother’s corpse, then dresses her up and sits her in her favorite chair. In these scenes, we pity Donny, whose life is suddenly and unexpectedly spiraling out of control, and both the filmmakers and Dan Grimaldi do a decent job showing us the lead’s mental breakdown and its immediate aftermath.

That pity soon turns to fear, however, when Donny lures the unsuspecting Kathy (Johanna Brushay), a local florist, back to his house. Once there, Donny knocks Kathy unconscious, and the next time we see her, the poor girl is naked and hanging by her arms in what appears to be a fireproof room. Her screams for help become more intense when Donny appears in the doorway wearing a Hazmat suit and carrying a flamethrower! This scene is easily the most grisly in the entire film, and is one of the reasons Don’t Go in the House was categorized as a Section 2 Video Nasty in the UK (Section 2 means the film was never actually prosecuted as a Video Nasty, but major cuts were required before it could be released to the home market).

Unfortunately, Kathy won’t be the last girl to suffer such a fate.

Despite its moments of brutality, Don’t Go In the House ultimately feels more like a psychological horror film than a straight-up stalk-and-slash flick. From its early scenes where Donny’s mind snaps to later on, when he’s “haunted” by his mother’s charred corpse, the filmmakers keep us on our toes, never quite sure from which direction the next scare will come.

I’m not a big fan of the “Don’t” movies. 1981’s Don’t Go in the Woods was particularly inept. And Don’t Go in the House is by no means a perfect horror film. For one, the voices that haunt Donny throughout the picture, telling him to kill, are often indecipherable. Thanks to a combination of soft whispers and a clunky echo effect, there were times when I couldn’t make out a single word these voices were saying. But with a strong final act (which kicks off when Donny accepts an invitation from his co-worker Bobby, played by Robert Carnegie, to go on a double date) coupled with some effectively creepy moments, Don’t Go in the House proved to be one of the era’s better “Don’t” films.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

#2,503. Outcast (2010)

Directed By: Colm McCarthy

Starring: Kate Dickie, Niall Bruton, Hanna Stanbridge

Tagline: "Evil Runs In The Blood"

Trivia: The book Mary gives Fergal for his birthday is "Titus Alone", the concluding volume in the 'Gormenghast' trilogy by Mervyn Peake

Outcast, a 2010 Irish horror film directed by Colm McCarthy, hits the ground running; in the opening scenes, a man arrives at a trailer park and announces he’s ready to take on “the mission”. This man is then led inside, and subjected to what appears to be a very painful tattoo session, covering his entire torso in ancient insignias. 

At the same time, a woman rents a rundown apartment in a Scottish tenement, and during her first night there performs a ceremony where she chants in Gaelic, cuts a gash into her chest, and uses the blood to paint a symbol on the wall. 

We know nothing about either of these two characters at this point, or why they’re subjecting themselves to all this pain. In fact, through a fair portion of Outcast, we’re kept in the dark as to what is actually happening, yet director McCarthy (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Tom) still manages to weave the tale in a manner that is consistently intriguing. 

Eventually, we find out that the man with the new tattoos is Cathal (James Nesbitt), and he has agreed to hunt down and kill a mother and her teenage son. The woman who sliced her own chest is Mary (Kate Dickie), the mother Cathal is now after, and she lives with her son Fergel (Niall Bruton). Mary and Fergel have been on the run for some time, but now that Fergel’s 15th birthday is upon them, mom and son know they’re in danger, and are sitting tight in their new surroundings, waiting for Cathal to bring the fight to them. 

Then one very unexpected complication arises: the shy and withdrawn Fergel catches the eye of pretty next door neighbor Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge), who lives with her alcoholic mother and mentally challenged brother, Tomatsk (Josh Whitelaw). While Mary is busy doing everything she can to protect her son, Fergel and Petronella fall deeply in love with one another. But as Mary warns Petronella, Fergel is no ordinary teenager, and there will be dire consequences should the two youngsters ever decide to consummate their relationship. 

Along with building upon its central mystery (why are Mary and Fergel being hunted?), Outcast repeatedly blurs the line between good and evil in that we’re never quite sure who it is we should be rooting for: Cathal or Mary, both of whom are capable of terrible things (having tracked mother and son to the tenement complex, Cathal tortures a teenager to try and learn their exact whereabouts, while Mary uses her knowledge of ancient Gaelic to send a pesky housing officer, played by Christine Tremarco, off to meet her doom). As events unfold, though, we begin to realize that part of the film’s charm is it avoids creating clear-cut heroes and villains for as long as it does, keeping our curiosity piqued as we watch some pretty intense stuff play out before our eyes. 

Though steeped in Gaelic folklore and customs, Outcast is nonetheless a violent, down-and-dirty horror film, featuring its fair share of bloody gore (some of which the characters inflict upon themselves). As far as the performances are concerned, Bruton’s Fergel and Stanbridge’s Petronella make for a likable couple, and the two are solid in their respective roles. But it’s James Nesbitt and Kate Dickie who command our attention, and the battle of wills between them proves to be the film’s most fascinating aspect. In one memorable scene, Cathal, aided by his guide Liam (Ciarán McMenamin), attempts to locate the apartment where Mary and Fergel are hiding by honing in on Mary’s psychic energy, while Mary, in the comfort of said apartment, uses whatever spells she can to keep Cathal from completing his task. The two never meet face-to-face in this scene, yet we see in their faces (which McCarthy shows by cutting back and forth between the two) just how fierce this mental skirmish has become. 

Shot on location in Scotland and Ireland, Outcast is a very gritty film (the tenement complex is the perfect locale for what proves to be a bloody showdown), and there are even moments when the movie delves into creature feature territory (resulting in a final scene that is as tense as it is exciting). But with its roots firmly entrenched in ancient customs and traditions, Outcast is more than a run-of-the-mill, gore-infused monster flick, and the deliberate manner in which director McCarthy relates his tale of spells and magic adds quite a bit to the film’s overall appeal.

Friday, March 15, 2019

#2,502. Death Ship (1980)

Directed By: Alvin Rakoff

Starring: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso

Tagline: "Those who survive the ghost ship are better off dead!"

Trivia: The setting was the Carribean Sea, but the exterior water filming location was the Gulf of Mexico

Death Ship, a 1980 Canadian-produced horror film, was based on a script written by Jack Hill, the creative mind behind such exploitation classics as Spider Baby, The Swinging Cheerleaders, and Coffy. Though only billed as a story consultant (the final screenplay was penned by John Robins), just seeing Hill’s name in the credits was enough to pique my interest. And while it may lack the exploitative goodness of some of Hill’s directorial efforts, Death Ship is just eerie enough to hold your attention. 

A jam-packed luxury cruise liner, scheduled to return to dock in three days’ time, is rammed and destroyed by a ship that seemingly appeared out of thin air. Those who survived the collision include Captain Ashland (George Kennedy); his second in command Captain Marshall (Richard Crenna); Marshall’s wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes) and their two children (Jennifer McKinney, Danny Higham); Crewman Nick (Nick Mancuso) and his girlfriend Lori (Victoria Burgoyne); an elderly widow named Sylvia (Kate Reid); and ship’s entertainer Jackie (Saul Rubinek). Together, this ragtag group climbs aboard the boat that hit them, which appears to be an abandoned World War II-era German warship. The survivors make the best of the situation, searching for food and a radio to call for help, all the while wondering what happened to the crew of this ominous vessel. 

It isn’t until people start to die, however, that Captain Marshall and the others realize they may not be alone after all, and that whoever (or whatever) is in control of this ship won’t rest until every last one of them is dead. 

Death Ship doesn’t get off to a stellar start. The collision that sinks the cruise ship is underwhelming, to say the least (it’s over far too quickly to generate any real tension), and if I somehow found myself aboard an empty warship in the middle of the ocean, I’d be asking a hell of a lot more questions than the characters in this film (like, if the warship is, indeed, abandoned, who dropped the ladder that let us climb aboard?). 

Fortunately, the fright meter jumps a few notches the moment the survivors start to explore their new vessel. Simply put, the German warship is one creepy-ass boat; each corridor is darker and more treacherous than the last, and the living quarters are covered from top to bottom in dust and cobwebs. Even the usual scare tactics you find in just about every ghost story – strange voices, doors and hatches that swing open by themselves – managed to send a shiver up my spine. In addition to its extraordinarily realized setting, Death Ship features a solid performance by George Kennedy as the no-nonsense Captain Ashland, a by-the-books commander who is more than a little susceptible to the German ship’s supernatural forces. 

Though lacking in blood and gore (save one very messy shower scene), Death Ship is an ‘80s horror film that still packs a punch.

Friday, March 1, 2019

#2,501. Strange Nature (2018)

Directed By: James Ojala

Starring: Stephen Tobolowsky, Bruce Bohne, Lisa Sheridan

Cameo: Troma regular Tiffany Shepis makes a cameo appearance as a photographer

Trivia: This film was inspired by true events that date back to 1995, when deformed frogs began popping up in rural Minnesota ponds

The discovery of deformed frogs in a small Minnesota town - situated on Lake Superior - may very well be tied to a series of birth defects that are rocking the local population. It’s up to former pop star Kim Sweet (Lisa Sheridan), who has returned home to care for her ailing father (Bruce Bohne, aka Andy, the gun store proprietor in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead), to figure out what’s causing these bizarre mutations. But will Kim get to the bottom of it in time, or will nature beat her to the punch, unleashing its full fury on the residents of this backwoods community?

With its seemingly goofy premise and a brief cameo at the outset by former Troma regular Tiffany Shepis (as a doomed photographer), you might assume that Strange Nature is going to be yet another low-budget horror comedy. But writer / director James Ojala (a makeup / effects artist helming his first feature) plays it straight, transforming this 2018 eco-horror film into a deadly serious nature gone wild tale that also boasts a generous helping of impressive creature effects. 

Strange Nature does have its share of flaws: the story tends to meander, with sequences that aren’t set up properly (scenes are occasionally strung together with no rhyme or reason, hurting the overall flow). This, along with a clumsy romantic entanglement (designed solely to introduce an unnecessary plot twist) and a few loose ends that are never tied up (so was the salmon infected or not?), prevents Strange Nature from being a breakout success. 

That said, the movie does have a few things going for it that are sure to impress even the most apprehensive of genre fans. 

First and foremost is actress Lisa Sheridan, who delivers a solid performance as Kim Sweet, the washed-up pop star who, soon after hitting it big on the West Coast a decade or so earlier, gave a series of interviews trashing her home town. Now she is forced to return to that very community to care for her sick father (played extremely well by Bohne). Older and a bit wiser, Sheridan’s Kim is a determined, likable heroine, and we root for her every step of the way. 

There are other decent performances as well, including John Hennigan as the rough-around-the-edges yokel who serves as the movie’s primary mortal villain; and character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (best remembered as Ned, the pesky insurance salesman who hounded Bill Murray in 1993’s Groundhog Day) as the town’s mayor, who, like all authority figures in these sort of horror stories, ignores the facts that are staring him in the face (in one of the film’s few humorous moments, an exasperated Kim even says to Tobolowsky’s character “God, you’re like one of those movie Mayors”). 

But what really lifts this 2018 horror flick to the next level are its makeup and creature designs. Under the watchful eye of director Ojala himself (who had previously assisted with the makeup and effects on such big-budget spectacles as X-Men: The Last Stand and 2011’s Thor as well as the 2008 indie horror film Deadgirl), the effects in Strange Nature range from serviceable to extraordinary (Ojala and his small crew do an especially remarkable job depicting the various birth defects). In addition, the movie’s final act features a handful of grisly moments, including one of the more disturbing throat rips I’ve seen in some time. 

Though it does sometimes struggle with the same issues that plague many low-budget horror films (along with the problems mentioned above, a few of the supporting performances are sub-par), Strange Nature proved a pleasant surprise.