Thursday, December 31, 2020

#2,525. Begotten (1989)


Shot in black and white on 16mm, E. Elias Merhige’s dialogue-free, experimental horror movie Begotten is a shocking, violent look at the myth of creation, which, based on what’s presented here, is every bit as terrifying as death itself.

As the film opens, a masked being, seated in a chair, is slicing its abdomen with a straight razor (the credits list this character, played by Brian Salzburg, as “God Killing Himself”). From its bloodied remains springs Mother Earth (Donna Dempsey), who proceeds to ejaculate the God’s corpse, using its semen to impregnate herself.

Soon after, she gives birth to The Son of Earth (Stephen Charles Barry), and together mother and son wander from place to place, a journey that grows more dangerous with every step they take.

Featuring imagery that is simultaneously hypnotic and disgusting, and influences ranging from ancient mythology to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Merhige crafts an unforgettable motion picture experience, a movie that seems to revel in its own ambiguity while, at the same time, challenging the audience’s perceptions of life and death.

Begotten is not an easy film to watch (it’s both bloody and sexually explicit), but if you have the stomach for it, this unique work of art will leave you with plenty to think about.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, December 24, 2020

#2,524. Byleth: The Demon of Incest (1972)

The following disclaimer appears at the beginning of Severin’s blu-ray release of Byleth: The Demon of Incest, a 1972 Italian horror film:

The following scan of Bylth is taken from the only known negative element of the uncensored German version: Trio Der Lust.

There is discoloration in some scenes due to damage in the element, but hopefully this will not mar your enjoyment of this sensual and perverse filmic experience

And rest assured that Byleth: The Demon of Incest is, indeed, “sensual and perverse”. It’s in the horror department that the film is somewhat lacking.

The setting is 19th century Italy. Duke Lionello (Mark Damon) is thrilled that his beloved sister Barbara (Claudia Gravy), who was traveling abroad the past year, has finally returned home. His happiness is shattered, however, when he learns that, during her absence, Barbara married Giordano (Aldo Bufi Landi), and the two are very much in love. Lionello’s unhealthy “obsession” with his sister soon gets the better of him, and he suffers what appears to be yet another nervous breakdown (the first of which struck him when he was 10 years old). But when several beautiful women turn up dead - with wounds in their neck made by a knife with three blades - the authorities begin to suspect Lionello may have had something to do with the killings. But is Lionello truly guilty, or is something much more sinister to blame?

Byleth: The Demon of Incest lays its cards on the table in the pre-title sequence, clueing us in on exactly what type of movie it’s going to be; in this scene, a prostitute is having sex with one of her clients. When he finally leaves, she’s attacked by someone (or something) bursting into her room, stabbing her in the neck. This opening is soft-core in nature, with plenty of nudity, and throughout the movie we’re treated to several more moments just like this one (including one tryst, seen in flashback, that obviously inspired the film’s title). As for the murder, it’s surprisingly tame, generating zero tension and featuring very little blood. Alas, this also proves to be the case with every subsequent killing, and the film’s demonic elements (hinted at in the 2nd half of the movie) are left painfully underexplored.

Writer / director Leopoldo Savona does manage to sneak a fairly interesting story into the mix, and Damon does a fine job as the tortured Duke, whose frail nature masks a truth about himself that even he is afraid to face. But in the end, Byleth: The Demon of Incest is only partially successful. In short, if it’s nudity and sex you’re after, this movie has plenty to offer. Those seeking thrills of a more horrific nature best look elsewhere.
Rating: 5 out of 10 (watch it, but don’t move it to the top of your queue).

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Capsule Reviews - The 1950s

Three movies from the 1950s

1. The Alligator People (1959)

You hear the title, and it brings to mind a certain kind of film; a low-budget monster flick with bargain-basement make-up and effects. And in a way, The Alligator People is that movie, but it’s not just that movie. While under hypnosis, Joyce (Beverly Garland) recounts her tragic past, and how she searched high and low for her lost husband Paul (Richard Crane), who disappeared on their wedding night. Following the few clues she managed to uncover, Joyce traveled to the swamps of Louisiana, where she met, among others, Dr. Mark Sinclair (George Macready), a well-meaning scientist whose research once saved Paul’s life… but at a terrible price. The first half of The Alligator People, when Joyce is trying to track down Paul, proves an intriguing mystery, and by the time the puzzle of his disappearance is solved, we’re invested in the characters. The cast is exceptional, including Lon Chaney Jr., who plays Manon, a drunken handyman and the film’s eventual heavy. The Alligator People does get a tad goofy towards the end (especially when the “creature” is finally revealed), but for the bulk of its runtime this is a much better movie than its schlocky title would lead you to believe. X Rating: 7 out of 10

2. Oklahoma! (1955)

Set in the waning days of the old west, Oklahoma features a number of cowboys, farmers, and young ladies, all preparing for the big box social later that evening. Curly (Gordon MacRae) is a happy-go-lucky cowboy who has set his sights on Laurey (Shirley Jones, in her big-screen debut), niece of the kindly Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood). But Laurey, tired of waiting for Curly’s invitation, has agreed to let hired hand Jud (Rod Steiger) accompany her to the social. Laurie’s friend, Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame), is also caught in a love triangle: her longtime beau Will Parker (Gene Nelson) has just returned from Kansas City, and is going to ask for Annie’s hand in marriage. But traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert) may have beaten him to the punch! Based on the popular stage musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma is high-spirited and funny, with some great songs (including “Oh What a Beautiful Morning’” and “Kansas City”) and well-choreographed dance routines. That’s not to imply the entire movie is harmless family fare; Steiger’s Jud is a spooky fella, peering into Laurey’s bedroom as she changes clothes and threatening bodily harm on Curly if he tries to take Laurey away from him. In addition, there’s an extended dream sequence that treads into dark territory, and the final showdown between Curly and Jud is as tense as they come. Still, even with its occasional forays into the dramatic, Oklahoma is as feel-good a musical as you’re ever going to find.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

3. Solomon and Sheba (1959)

Fresh on the heels of such biblical epics as King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, director King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba takes the Old Testament story of the wise King Solomon and his heathen lover Queen Sheba and transforms it into a sporadically thrilling but mostly humdrum big-screen extravaganza. On his deathbed, King David (Finlay Currie) names his younger son Solomon (Yul Brynner) as his successor, angering Adonijah (George Sanders), the elder son and Israel’s most able warrior. With God’s grace, Solomon proves a wise leader, choosing peace over war with Egypt. But will the king’s faith be strong enough to resist the feminine guiles of Queen Sheba (Gina Lollabrigida), who was sent by the Pharoah (David Farrar) to seduce Solomon and turn his people against him? There are sequences in Solomon and Sheba that are, indeed, spectacular, including the opening battle and, especially, the final confrontation between Solomon’s troops and the Egyptian army. But there are far too many long-winded scenes, most centering on the title characters’ romance, to maintain the energy of the film’s grander moments. More often than not, you’ll find yourself staring at the clock, wondering how long it will be before something interesting happens.
Rating: 5 out of 10

Thursday, December 10, 2020

#2,523. Snuff (1976)

The title alone is enough to grab your attention, which is exactly what New York-based distributor Allan Shackleton had in mind when he released Snuff in 1976. The brainchild of husband / wife team Michael and Roberta Findley, who shot the movie - originally titled Slaughter - in Argentina in 1971, Shackleton purchased its rights, added a scene at the end (which made it appear as if a woman was actually murdered on-screen), and changed the title to Snuff.

For those who don't know, snuff films are a type of underground movie that the FBI and most local authorities classify as “pornographic”, for depicting actual killings or suicides (though at the time Snuff was released, the FBI insisted there was no hard evidence that these films were anything more than an urban legend). And while Shackleton’s “bonus” scene certainly drummed up its share of  controversy (most of it generated by the distributor himself), it added nothing to the overall movie. In fact, the finale undermined all of the style and energy that the Findleys managed to squeeze out of what was already a tough, unflinching motion picture.

The story centers on actress Terry London (Mirta Massa), who has flown to Argentina with longtime producer (and boyfriend) Max Marsh (Aldo Mayo) to appear in a movie. While there, Terry rekindles her romance with millionaire playboy Horst Frank (Clao Villanueva), whose father (Alfredo Iglesias) sells arms to Arab militants.

Little does Terry know that she has become the focus of a Manson-like cult, led by Satan (pronounced “Seh-Tahn”, and portrayed by Enrique Larratelli). Arming his bevy of female followers, including Angelica (Margarita Amuchástegui), Ana (Ana Carro), and Susanna (Liliana Fernández Blanco), with knives and sending them out to kill in his name, Satan is convinced that Terry’s and Horst’s unborn child will serve as the supreme sacrifice, the one that will finally transform Satan into an all-powerful God.

Made for approximately $30,000, Slaughter (aka Snuff) is a disturbing, violent, misogynistic bit of sleaze. When they’re not killing people, Satan’s disciples serve as his private harem, and there are numerous scenes in which he tells one girl to inflict violence on another (a “cleansing” by pain) , orders that are carried out without hesitation. Even Terry, a famous actress, isn’t above the control of the men around her; while talking to reporters, Max Marsh says that if he tells Terry to “stand on her head” for a role, that’s exactly what she’s going to do. In addition to its theme of women being dominated by men, Snuff is quite often shockingly violent (while we never actually see any knives plunge into their victims, the Findleys provide enough blood in the aftermath to make you squirm a little in your seat).

Still, despite the limitations of its budget and the troubling nature of its story, Slaughter has a style that makes it, at the very least, an occasionally engaging exploitation flick, with well-executed hand-held camerawork (a chase towards the start of the film, where several of Satan’s followers are pursuing one of their own, is fairly exciting) and a few dynamic shots of women on motorcycles (the rock music that accompanies these sequences sounds like the first few chords of Steppenwolf’s "Born to Be Wild", which immediately calls to mind similar moments in Easy Rider).

As for the scene that Shackleton added at the end (made to look as if it was shot on the set of Slaughter), it certainly ups the ante on the movie’s blood and gore, but lacks the energy present in everything that came before it (not to mention the fact that this “real-life killing” features some pretty shoddy, though admittedly graphic, practical effects). Whereas Slaughter was at least watchable, Snuff is a hard one to recommend even to die-hard exploitation fans.
Rating: 5 out of 10 (proceed with caution)

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Best Picture Nominees

Three movies that were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but didn't win

1. All The President’s Men (1976)

With an intelligent script (penned by William Goldman) and the steady hand of director Alan J. Pakula at the helm, All the President’s Men takes what is essentially an investigation conducted by two journalists and makes it feel like a political thriller. What started as a botched break-in at the Watergate building - headquarters of the Democratic National Committee - in June of 1972 eventually becomes one the biggest stories of the 20th century. Following leads and piecing together the various clues, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) connect the Watergate burglars with top White House officials, sparking a controversy that would soon force Richard Nixon to resign as President of the United States. Redford and Hoffman are pitch-perfect as the newspapermen hot on the trail of a big story, and the supporting cast, including Jason Robards as Post editor Ben Bradlee and Jane Alexander as one of the duo’s key sources, are equally solid (Robards won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, and Alexander was nominated for Best Supporting Actress). Under Pakula’s watchful eye, not a moment is wasted; every scene in All the President’s Men feels absolutely necessary, and his taut pacing brings a sense of excitement to the proceedings, keeping us poised on the edge of our seats for every second of the film’s two-plus hour runtime.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

2. Gosford Park (2001)

Robert Altman’s unique take on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, Gosford Park is as much a study of the British class system as it is a whodunit. Members of the upper crust, as well as their servants, gather at the country estate of Lord and Lady McCardle (William Gambon and Kristen Scott Thomas) for a hunting weekend. Among the guests are Lady Trentham (Maggie Smith) and her maid, Mary (Kelly Macdonald); Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and his valet Parks (Clive Owen), and actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who invited along Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and Weissman’s “Scottish” valet, Denton (Ryan Phillippe). Before the weekend is over, someone will be murdered, and it falls to Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) to track down the killer. Like many of Altman’s films (Nashville, Short Cuts, etc), the cast he assembled for Gosford Park is beyond impressive; Along with those already mentioned, there’s Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, and Richard Grant, all of whom play members of the McCardle’s household staff. As for the murder, it’s nothing more than a vehicle to shine a light on the differences between the “upstairs” guests and their “downstairs” servants, and how each had their place in “proper” society. The movie is often quite funny (the pheasant hunt had me laughing out loud, as did Stephen Fry’s hilarious turn as the incompetent Inspector Thompson), but it’s the presentation of high society in Pre-WWII England, fueled by Julian Fellowes’ Oscar-winning script, that has ensured Gosford Park a place of honor in Altman’s filmography.
Rating: 10 out of 10

3. The King and I (1956)

The King and I is a difficult movie to review. On one hand, it’s a grand, entertaining musical featuring two performers at the top of their game. On the other, it’s culturally insensitive, relating the tale of a genteel British woman who clashes time and again with her employer. an “uncivilized” Asian king. The year is 1862. Anna (Deborah Kerr), a schoolteacher, has been hired by the King of Siam (Yul Brynner) to teach his many children the ways of the west, including how to speak English. The arrangement gets off to a bad start, however, when the King refuses to build Anna the house he promised her, insisting that she reside in the palace. To further complicate matters, Anna takes it upon herself to help Tuptim (Rita Moreno), a young Burmese woman who was recently “gifted” to the King (Tuptim is in love with another man, and has no desire to become one of the King’s many wives). Over time, Anna grows to love the children in her care, yet continues to insist that the King honor his word and build her a house. As for the King, he is struggling with a potential threat from the West, and turns to Anna for advice. Brynner is intensely charismatic as the stubborn, strong-willed King, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance. Equally as good is the always-reliable Kerr, playing the lone person in Siam courageous enough to stand up to the King. The musical numbers are also enjoyable, highlighted by the tunes “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” Yet as fun as the movie is at times, it also made me cringe occasionally; several Caucasians were cast in key Asian roles (British character actor Martin Benson portrayed the King’s trusted advisor Kralahome, while American Carlos Rivas played Lun Tha, Tuptim’s love interest) and the scenes in which Anna teaches the King how to act when British Ambassador Sir John Hay (Alan Mowbray) pays them a visit came across as condescending. Yet I’d still recommend The King and I; even with its flaws, it’s a damn fine musical!
Rating: 7 out of 10

Thursday, November 26, 2020

#2,522. The Addiction (1995)

Existence is the search for relief from our habit, and our habit is the only relief we can find”. 

This is a line spoken by Kathleen (Lili Taylor), the lead character in Abel Ferrara’s 1995 horror film The Addiction who also serves as the movie's narrator. A graduate student majoring in philosophy, Kathleen’s world is turned upside-down following a chance encounter with a vampire (Annabella Sciorra). As a result of being bitten, Kathleen herself begins to change, and before long her thirst for blood is unquenchable. 

At first energized by this transformation, a brief meeting with another vampire named Peina (Christopher Walken, in a brilliant cameo) soon has Kathleen seeing her “condition” in an entirely different light. 

Shot in stunning black and white, The Addiction is a fascinating take on the vampire mythos, treating those afflicted with vampirism as addicts (equating their desire for blood with alcoholism or drug dependency) while at the same time drawing comparisons between the so-called “evil” inherent in vampires and that of humanity itself. At one point, Kathleen attends a lecture about the My Lai Massacre, and later visits an exhibit featuring images from the Holocaust. With moments such as these, Ferrara seems to suggest that vampirism itself isn’t the root of evil; it's merely a magnification of the fundamental evil that is 
always lurking - dormant or otherwise - within mankind’s psyche. 

By way of his thoughtful approach to the material, coupled with a kinetic visual style, Ferrara has fashioned a vampire movie with an art-house mentality that also features plenty of blood and carnage, creating what amounts to a hybrid genre film likely to impress academics and horror fans alike. 

This, coupled with an extraordinary performance by Lili Taylor, has me believing that The Addiction is one of the finest vampire flicks I have ever seen. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 - don’t waste another minute… see it now!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Lucio Fulci

Three from the Godfather of Gore (Over the course of my 2,500 Movie Challenge, I covered several Fulci films. To read these reviews, click here).

1.The Black Cat (1981)

The first half hour of The Black Cat features one incredible scene after another! There’s a creepy pre-title sequence in which a guy, driving down the road, spots a cat in the back seat of his car and crashes into a parked vehicle (his head smashes through the windshield, and the car bursts into flames). Next, we visit the home of Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), who is resting comfortably in a chair, listening to audio tapes, when he’s suddenly and viciously attacked by a black cat. From there, we join American photographer Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer) as she’s walking through a cemetery. She descends into an open crypt, where she finds numerous skeletons (from the way the remains are positioned, it’s obvious that, centuries ago, this area functioned as a torture chamber). Moments later, the action shifts to a small boat, where Maureen (Daniela Doria) and her boyfriend are making out. Interrupted by another boat that happens by, the boyfriend suggests they go somewhere a little more private… with tragic results. All of these scenes are great, yet as I sat watching them, it suddenly dawned on me: I had no idea what the hell was going on! As The Black Cat progressed, it started to make a little more sense: every tragedy centered on Professor Miles and his pet cat. Though I was admittedly baffled when David Warbeck, playing a Scotland Yard Inspector, was randomly attacked by a black cat. Or maybe it was three black cats? I can’t say for sure. But, you know, the seemingly incoherent story didn’t bother me, because The Black Cat featured plenty of that patented Fulci gore I’ve come to love, and many scenes, whether or not they made a lick of sense, were so damn cool that my comprehension of it all became secondary. To be fair, it does come together in the end, but even if it didn’t, I would have walked away from The Black Cat smiling ear to ear.
Rating: 8 out of 10

2. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Several children have been murdered in the small village of Accendura. As the police work diligently to track down the killer, an out-of-town reporter (Tomas Milian) and a pretty socialite (Barbara Bouchet) do a little investigating of their own, hoping to find out who is committing these heinous crimes, and why. Don’t Torture a Duckling is Fulci’s take on the Giallo subgenre, and it’s a good one! The mystery surrounding the killings becomes more puzzling with each subsequent murder, and there are hints that black magic might figure into it all. While not as consistently violent as some of the director’s later films, Don’t Torture a Duckling does feature a handful of bloody moments, the most shocking of which occurs when La Magiara (Florinda Balkan), a suspect in the killings, is cornered by five villagers and beaten with chains. Like most giallos, there are plenty of potential suspects, and Fulci does a masterful job juggling them all, keeping us guessing right up to the very end. A word of warning, though: there is a very uncomfortable scene towards the beginning of the movie, in which a naked Bouchet practically seduces an adolescent boy. But if you can somehow overlook this bit of creepiness, you’ll find - as I did - that Don’t Torture a Duckling is both a strong Fulci film and one of the best giallos of its era.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

3. The Psychic (1977)

Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill), a clairvoyant, experiences visions of a brutal murder that occurred sometime in the recent past. Before long, these visions lead to the discovery of a skeleton, which was buried in the wall of an estate owned by her new husband Francesco (Gianni Garko). The remains are those of a 25-year-old former model that Francesco once dated, so, naturally, the police arrest him and charge him with murder. But Virginia is sure her husband is innocent, and hopes that, with the help of her somewhat confusing visions, she can track down the real killer. With Don’t Torture a Duckling and The Psychic, Fulci proved he was more than the Godfather of Gore; both of these giallo-esque films are well-paced, with intriguing mysteries at their core. In addition, The Psychic makes great use of its lead character’s extrasensory abilities, showing us her entire vision at the outset and slowly revealing the mystery behind it, scene by scene. Jennifer O’Neill is very good as Virginia, and Gabriele Ferzetti (L’Avventura, Once Upon a Time in The West) turns up in a small but essential supporting role.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Thursday, November 12, 2020

#2,521. Black Narcissus (1947) - The Films of Michael Powell

Black Narcissus was filmed entirely within the confines of England’s Pinewood Studios. Watch the movie, and I guarantee you’ll find this tidbit of trivia as amazing as I did. With its gorgeous colors and setting high atop the Himalayan Mountains, you'd swear the film was shot on-location in India or Tibet. 

This is but one of the movie’s many strengths. Black Narcissus is a beautiful, frightening, incredibly moving motion picture, with flawless performances and two skilled filmmakers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) at the helm, turning out what I consider to be their masterpiece. 

The story centers on a group of Anglican nuns who have been invited by the Rajput (the ruler of the local Indian community) to establish a school and hospital to serve his people. Given a building (a former harem) situated on a sheer cliff in the Himalayas and under the guidance of newly appointed Mother Superior Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the sisters get to work immediately. 

Warned by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an aide of General Dilip Rai (played by Sabu, star of - among others - 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad), that the customs in this area of the world are different from anything they may have experienced before, Sister Clodagh and her order nonetheless are determined to make a go of it. It isn’t long, however, before troubles with the locals, combined with the beauty of their surroundings, cause the sisters to lose sight of their objective, and question whether they made the right decision taking up residence in this remote corner of the globe. 

The nuns and their experiences in this far-off land are what give Black Narcissus its energy, with each sister experiencing a strange combination of sexual repression and spiritual conflict that is compounded by their picturesque environment. Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh takes her position quite seriously, yet the beauty of this area reawakens memories of a past romance, which we see several times in flashbacks. As for Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), she falls in love with Mr Dean so deeply that she begins to see Sister Clodagh (who deals with Dean on an almost-daily basis) as a potential rival for his affections, and it’s more than her mind can handle. Even Flora Robsen’s Sister Philippa, the oldest in their order, is taken in by the landscape and the simplicity of the people.

The palace that serves as their home also works against them. Built years earlier by the then-Prince for his harem, Sister Clodagh and her order had hoped to transform it into a holy place, an institute of learning and care that would bring the indigenous population closer to God. But the ghosts of the building’s past are strong indeed, causing a spiritual crisis within each and every one of the good sisters. 

The performances are superb, from Deborah Kerr’s controlled yet emotional turn as Sister Clodagh to Kathleen Byron’s occasionally manic take on Sister Ruth. Also quite good in a supporting role is Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl who, after being caught stealing, is brought to the convent and turned over to the sisters. Equally as remarkable is the cinematography of Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for his work here. Cardiff shoots a late scene in the bell tower in such a way as to make it positively nerve-racking. Black Narcissus also netted an Academy Award for Alfred Junge’s Art Design and Set Decoration, both of which convince us that we’ve been whisked away to an exotic locale. 

All of these elements - along with a profoundly emotional story - work in unison to make Black Narcissus an undisputed cinematic classic. 
Rating: 10 out of 10 - add it to your collection immediately!

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Animation

A trio of Animated Films.

1. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

The oldest surviving animated feature-length movie, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a spectacle of the highest order, a film of incredible imagination that, almost 100 years later, is as entertaining as ever. Using her own brand of silhouette animation (in which cardboard and lead cutouts are manipulated, frame by frame), Reiniger relates the amazing story of Prince Achmed, son of the Caliph, who is whisked away to foreign lands by an evil magician’s flying horse. With the Prince out of the way, the Magician intends to kidnap Achmed’s sister Dinarsade and make her his wife. But with the help of a clever witch and Aladdin’s magic lamp, the Prince hopes to not only rescue his sister, but win the heart of Pari Banu, a beautiful island maiden he met during his travels. The fact that The Adventures of Prince Achmed was made in 1926 is itself impressive, but with animation that is so rich, so detailed, this film is an absolute wonder to behold; even the opening sequence, in which Reiniger introduces the main characters, had me in awe. Add to this a jam-packed fantasy tale that features flying horses, demons, and magic lamps, and you have a film that you simply have to see to believe.
Rating: 10 out of 10

2. The Point (1971)

A 1971 TV special (the first animated movie ever to air in prime time on U.S television), The Point is narrated by Ringo Starr (who voiced the home video release; Dustin Hoffman narrated the original broadcast version) and is based on an album of the same name by singer / songwriter Harry Nillson (whose music makes up a large portion of the finished film). In The Point, a father (Starr) tells his son a bedtime story about a young boy named Oblio (voiced by Mike Lookinland, aka Bobby in the popular TV series The Brady Bunch), a round-headed child living in a village of pointy-headed people. As the law of this land states, anyone without a pointed head must be banished forever. So Oblio and his dog Arrow are sent away, and during their travels they encounter a series of strange individuals, all of whom teach Oblio the value of being different. Directed by Fred Wolf, The Point is a curiosity; a breezy, well-paced movie that may look rough around the edges (the animation style is dated), but thanks to some memorable characters (after he’s banished, Oblio meets, among others. a creature made entirely of rocks and a man with three heads) and its timeless message of acceptance, this little oddity still has the power to entertain.
Rating: 7 out of 10

3. When the Wind Blows (1986)

Devastating. Having just watched director Jimmy Murakami’s animated film When the Wind Blows, that’s the only word that comes to mind, the only description I can offer as to how this movie affected me. It is a devastating motion picture. Based on the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows is the story of Jim Bloggs (voiced by John Mills) and his wife Hilda (Peggy Ashcroft), an elderly couple that resides in a small village in Sussex, England. The news is reporting that war between the Soviet Union and the west is imminent, and England could be rocked by a nuclear attack at any time. Having picked up several pamphlets the last time he was in town (which offer advice on how to survive a nuclear blast), Jim prepares his humble abode for the impending strike, while Hilda, who remains skeptical that such precautions are even necessary, tries her best to support him. When the bomb does hit, Jim and Hilda remain upbeat, but are they truly prepared to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war? Both Mills and Ashcroft do a masterful job behind the mic, infusing their characters with warmth and personality to spare, and there are moments in When The Wind Blows that will have you laughing out loud (As Jim follows the instructions laid out in the government pamphlets, which includes painting the windows white, Hilda angrily chastises him for making a mess). The animation is also superb, with Murakami employing different visual styles throughout (two brief dreamlike sequences - set to the music of Roger Waters - were really quite brilliant). But it’s the later scenes, when Jim and Hilda show their naiveté, that will stay with you long after When the Wind Blows has ended. Though it’s not an easy film to sit through, I wouldn’t for a minute want to deprive you of the experience.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, October 29, 2020

#2,520. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

In the long history of horror films, there have been a number of unusual monsters, but none quite so strange as the creature that looms heavy over this 1977 entry. Its monster is a bed. More specifically, a bed that eats people, and from what I can gather after watching this bizarre motion picture, the damn thing never seems to get its fill!

Situated in an abandoned house and with its lone companion being the spirit of an artist trapped behind its own painting (who also acts as the film’s narrator), the bed is possessed by a demon that, a century or so earlier, fell in love with a mortal woman. The bed was initially crafted for them to make love on, but his beloved died, and in his grief the demon remained inside the bed, doomed to devour every human it came into contact with, some of whom use the bed for the purpose for which it was originally intended (i.e. - they have sex on it). But when the bed lets its guard down, the artist sees a chance to possibly end the carnage once and for all.

A low-budget horror flick, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is one wacky movie, in both its story and its structure (the film is divided into segments titled “Breakfast”, “Lunch”, “Dinner” and “Snack”). Most of the audio appears to have been recorded in post-production, with very little live sound (the artist narrator, played on-screen by Dave Marsh , is actually voiced by Patrick Spence-Thomas), but as crazy as it all is, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is also kinda cool in a strange way; to devour its victims, the bed absorbs them, and we see the poor unfortunates floating in a liquid of some sort (presumably the bed’s “stomach acid”). There’s a smattering of blood (one woman’s throat is cut by the crucifix necklace) and some pretty good humor as well (a teddy bear is swallowed by the bed and begins to bleed; and at one point the bed has a case of indigestion and drinks a bottle of Pepto-Bismol for relief).

Shot in 1972 but not completed until 1977, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats has a history as unusual as the film itself; its writer / director, George Barry, tried selling the movie to distributors in the late ‘70s and then again in the early ‘80s, when home video started coming into its own. Both times he failed to secure a deal. Then, about 20 years later, Barry was searching the web and discovered his movie had been pirated: it was made available in the UK and Australia, where it had become something of an underground favorite, all without its director’s knowledge. And while it’s definitely rough around the edges, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is just odd enough to deserve its cult status.
Rating: 7 out of 10 - Yeah, it's weird, but watch it anyway

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Nordic Horror

Five movies from Europe’s northern regions that will get your pulse pounding!

1. Antichrist (2009)

So what kind of movie is director Lars von Trier’s Antichrist? Well, to answer that question, let’s jump forward to the film’s end credits, specifically those relating to the “research assistants”. Each of von Trier’s researchers was apparently given a specific subject to explore, and among them are Heidi Laura, who researched misogyny; Thomas Christensen and Astra Wellejus, who delved into mythology and evil; Trine Breum studied horror films; Poel Lubicke explored the subject of Theology; and Simo Koppe had the pleasure of researching anxiety. So based on that credit grouping alone, you can guess that Antichrist is going to be a bleak, emotional film, which is exactly what von Trier delivers. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are brilliant as the grieving couple who, to deal with a tragic loss, head into the woods, hoping the isolation of their cabin retreat will help them mend their failing marriage. But what they encounter instead might just destroy them forever. There’s a genuine chemistry between Dafoe and Gainsbourg, which makes where the story ultimately goes all the more troubling, and the black & white photography, coupled with von Trier’s use of slow motion, is breathtaking (even when what we’re seeing is so very disturbing). Antichrist is a dark, chilling movie about the nature of loss and grief, a beautiful motion picture that will shake you to your core. And I’ll never look at a piece of firewood in quite the same way again!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

2. Day of Wrath (1943)

Though more an historical drama than a horror film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath casts a spotlight on 17th century witch hunts, a subject most genre fans will likely find appealing. Anna (Lisbeth Movin) is the wife of local pastor Absalom Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), the lone priest in their tiny village. Anna’s mother was once accused of witchcraft, and as a reward for saving her mother’s life, Anna married Absalom (Absalom refused to condemn the old girl for witchcraft). Trouble arises, however, when Martin (Preben Lerdorff), Absalom’s adult son from a previous marriage, returns from abroad. The moment they meet, Anna and Martin are attracted to one another, and soon after they begin an affair. But is it love or something more sinister that has drawn them together? Dreyer, who also directed my all-time favorite silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc, establishes an ominous tone right at the outset of Day of Wrath, which he then maintains for much of its running time. In addition, the character of Anna remains an enigma throughout; seemingly naïve and innocent as the film commences, she grows more manipulative, more daring, once Martin enters the picture, and because of this we’re never quite sure what’s motivating her. Does Anna love Martin, or is it witchcraft that caused this attraction? It’s here that Day of Wrath sets itself apart from movies like The Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil and Haxan, films that clearly depict the witch hunters themselves - and not the so-called witches - as the true force of evil. In Day of Wrath, Dreyer looks at it from both sides, and we, the audience, are left to make our own judgments about what’s really happening. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath is a classic, and is not to be missed.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

3. Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Ingmar Bergman often delved into dark subject matter; his The Virgin Spring was remade by Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left, and his dramas occasionally crossed the line into horror-esque territory (Even Fanny and Alexander featured a handful of supernatural sequences). With Hour of the Wolf, the legendary director dives headfirst into full-blown horror, and true to form it’s psychological in nature. Artist Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) live on a small island. Johan has been experiencing terrifying visions as of late, but it isn’t until he meets some of the island’s other residents, including Baron Von Merkens (Erland Josephson), that he begins to comprehend the true nature of the horrors that haunt him night after night. The jarring camera movements and sudden cuts Bergman employs throughout Hour of the Wolf are unlike anything I’ve seen from him before (all of which enhance the horrific story he’s telling), and the director’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist once again proves he’s a master of black & white, with startlingly beautiful shots and sequences. Add to this the superb performances by Bergman regulars Von Sydow, Ullmann, and Josephson and you have a must-see motion picture (though to be fair, I have yet to watch a Bergman film that wasn’t one).
Rating: 10 out of 10

4. Marianne (2011)

The most interesting aspect of director Filip Tegstedt’s 2011 film Marianne is its lead character, Krister (Thomas Hedengran), a teacher who, since the tragic death of his wife, has been having terrible nightmares, which may be the source of an evil entity that’s tormenting him as he sleeps. Played quite well by Hedengren, we sympathize with Krister through much of Marianne; on the surface, he seems like a nice guy. But as revealed in the opening sequence ( a flashback of 10 years or so), he’s also a bit of a heel; he cheated on his wife, and for a time left her and their young daughter Sandra, who, now that she’s a teenager (played by Sandra Larsson), resents the hell out of him. Krister did eventually return to his family, and in so doing spurned yet another longtime lover, the titular Marianne (Viktoria Satter)! So even as we root for Krister to reconcile with Sandra, we understand that he may very well deserve the terrors that the ghostly presence brings his way each and every night. The mystery of who or what this ghost is - and why it has been visiting Krister - is easily figured out well before the final reveal. Yet I’d still recommend you check out Marianne; it’s a slow burn that sometimes favors family drama over horror, but with enough creepy moments to keep you on your toes.
Rating: 8 out of 10

5. Thelma (2017)

Thelma (Eili Harboe), a repressed young woman who spent her entire life under the watchful eye of an ultra-religious father (Henrik Rafaelsen), moves to Oslo to attend University, and there befriends Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student. As their friendship grows, Thelma develops deeper feelings for Anja, an attraction that may account for the sudden reemergence of Thelma’s epileptic siezures, a childhood condition she thought was under control. But is this newfound love the true cause of Thelma’s physical ailment, or is it all in her mind? Despite its more horrific elements, 2017’s Thelma is a beautiful motion picture; kudos to director Joachim Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who employ numerous long shots throughout, perfectly establishing the sense of isolation that plagues their lead character through much of the movie. In addition, Thelma features a positively chilling opening sequence - set sometime in the past - where Thelma, as a child, accompanied her father on a hunt (this scene changes our perception of Thelma’s relationship with her dad, essentially clueing the audience in on something that even Thelma herself doesn’t know). Eili Harboe is amazing in the title role, portraying a shy, demure girl who slowly comes out of her social shell, yet feels nothing but guilt for doing so, all the while never realizing the awesome power she possesses. Thelma is not a fast-paced movie by any stretch, but is so incredibly engrossing, and told with such skill, that I was completely immersed in it.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, October 15, 2020

#2.519. Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

Set during the depression and featuring gangsters, vampires, and an innocent girl at the center of it all, 1973’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is a very strange - albeit hugely entertaining - motion picture.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural relates the story of Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), the 13-year-old daughter of renowned gangster Alvin Lee (William Whitton). With her mother dead and her father on the run, Lila has been taken in by the local Reverend (played by writer / director Richard Blackburn), and every Sunday she sings like an angel during his church services.

Lila’s near-idyllic new life is turned upside-down, however, when she receives a letter in the mail telling her that her father is dying, and wants to make amends with his daughter before he passes. Believing it’s the right thing to do, Lila sneaks off one evening and makes her way to the town where her father is hiding out, only to find herself at the mercy of a vampire named Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who, with the help of her countless minions, plans to keep Lila prisoner for as long as she possibly can.

As directed by Blackburn, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural has the look and feel of a made-for-TV picture, and at times even comes across like a Disney-esque feature (though more along the lines of Something Wicked This Way Comes than The Apple Dumpling Gang). Yet, despite this, I was still surprised to learn this fantasy / horror film was only rated PG. Aside from the bloody killing that opens the movie, when Alvin bursts into the bedroom and murders his wife and her lover, most of the men young Lila encounters (including the Reverend who acts as her guardian) lust after her, even though she’s only 13 years old! There’s also a frightening scene involving a bus ride (through a dark forest) that likely scared the hell out of kids who saw this movie back in 1973.

When all is said and done, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is a solid horror flick, with decent performances (especially Lesley Gilb’s turn as the title character), ominous set pieces, and a well-paced, engaging story. My only advice to the parents out there is that you take its PG rating with a grain of salt; there’s a good chance Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural will prove a little more than your youngsters can handle.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (A film horror fans will enjoy).

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Capsule Reviews - 2020 Horror Movies

This week, I review five movies that went into wide release in the U.S. in 2020

1. Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest (2020)

The story that drives this Russian horror film is similar to that of another 2020 release, The Wretched. Egor (Oleg Chugonov) and his family: father Alexsy (Aleksey Rozin), stepmother Yullya (Maryana Spivak) and baby sister Varya, have just moved to a new neighborhood. To help his wife adapt to the unfamiliar surroundings, Alexsy hires Tatyana (Svetlana Ustinova), a nanny, to watch over Varya. But there’s something unusual about this nanny, and when Varya disappears without a trace, Egor is shocked to discover his parents no longer remember his baby sister! With the help of new friends Dasha (Giafira Golubeva) and Anton (Artyom Zhigulin), Egor attempts to find Varya, who, it turns out, has been abducted by an ancient witch that goes by the name… Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest features some effective early scares (the best of which involves a nanny cam), and the young performers, led by Chugonov, do a fine job handling the bulk of the workload. That said, the movie does occasionally give off an It: Chapter One vibe (especially when Egor and his pals descend into an alternate reality to battle Baba Yaga), and like many low-budget films, the computer imagery is its weakest aspect (it’s especially distracting in the final scenes). Fortunately, the strengths of Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest outweigh its weaknesses, and more often than not this one delivers the goods.
Rating: 7 out of 10

2. The Deeper You Dig (2019)

There was so much about The Deeper You Dig that impressed me, so much of it that worked, that it made those portions that didn’t work all the more frustrating. A tragic accident involving a 14-year-old girl (Zelda Adams) blurs the line between life and death for both the girl’s mother (Toby Poser) and a lonely stranger (John Adams).Written and directed by stars Poser and John Adams, The Deeper You Dig gets off to a great start; the introduction of its characters, the wintry setting, the event that sets the story in motion, all handled perfectly. I also loved how the movie utilized sound (even in those scenes where it was a bit of a distraction), and the main cast (including young Zelda Adams) delivers strong performances. Where the movie started to lose me was the way it approached its supernatural elements, some of which were occasionally intriguing (the mother’s journey into the seven circles resulted in a few cool scenes, but not enough to justify the subplot entirely) and others that were downright disappointing (especially the spectral visitations). Still, I would not discourage anyone from watching The Deeper You Dig; there’s a lot going on here, and even those moments that fell short for me were, at the very least, unique. And if you do check this movie out, be sure to let me know what you think of it; whether you love it or hate it, The Deeper You Dig is one you’re going to want to talk about!
Rating: 6 out of 10

3. The Dinner Party (2020)

How do you take a nearly two hour, dialogue heavy horror film and keep an audience’s interest throughout? You cast it well, which is exactly what director Miles Doleac has done with The Dinner Party. Jeff (Mike Mayhall), a playwright, and his wife Haley (Alli Hart) are the guests of honor at a dinner party thrown by several influential socialites, including Doctor Carmine (Bill Sage); opera aficionado Sebastian (Sawandi Wilson); best-selling author Agatha (Kamille McCuin); and investment banker Vincent (played by director Doleac). It’s Jeff’s hope that, by evening’s end, his hosts will have agreed to bankroll his newest play, but as he and his wife will soon discover, there’s more on the menu at this particular party than just wine and caviar. The Dinner Party is smartly written (the work of Doleac and his co-writer Michael Donovan Horn), but it’s the performances that really blew me away. Along with those mentioned above, Lindsey Anne Williams plays Sadie, a spiritualist, and Ritchie Montgomery has a brief but memorable role as a police deputy. In their more than capable hands, these performers deliver extended monologues about art, classical music, and opera in such a way that we’re hanging on their every word. The story itself is also good (though we realize before they do that Jeff and Haley are more than just dinner guests), but it’s the cast that makes this one memorable.
Rating: 8 out of 10

4. The Other Lamb (2019)

A cult-themed horror / drama directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, The Other Lamb tells the story of Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a teenage girl who has spent her entire life following the Shepherd (Michael Huisman), the only man in a commune of women and the self-appointed leader of his “flock”. Fast approaching the age of adulthood, at which point she will become one of the Shepherd’s wives, Selah finds her “faith” in the Shepherd waning, and feels more like a prisoner than one of his beloved followers. Cassidy, who also appeared in 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and 2018’s Vox Lux, delivers a magnificent performance as the confused young girl on the verge of becoming a woman. In addition, The Other Lamb is beautifully shot; cinematographer Michal Englert did a masterful job behind the camera (one scene in particular, where Selah is resting on top of a hill, took my breath away). Alas, The Other Lamb is a movie that approaches very dark subject matter, including male dominance and sexual abuse, yet spends most of its runtime dancing around them, rarely tackling these themes head-on. Though gorgeous, The Other Lamb is a slow burn-style horror film that never drives its point home as strongly as it should.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

5. The Soul Collector (2019)

A horror film steeped in folklore, The Soul Collector (Originally titled 8) takes a fresh approach to the subject of grief, and how the loss of a loved one can drive a man to do the unthinkable. The year is 1977. Her parents deceased, Mary (Keita Luna) now lives with her Uncle William (Garth Breytenbach) and Aunt Sarah (Inge Beckmann), who recently moved into a farmhouse that William inherited from his father. While exploring the nearby woods, Mary meets Lazarus (Thsamano Sebe), a wanderer who volunteers to help William work the farm. But Lazarus is hiding a terrible secret, one that might ultimately put young Mary in the greatest of danger. Shot on-location in South Africa and inspired by a Zulu legend, The Soul Collector tells a harrowing tale of demons, death, and the eternal soul, weaving all of these elements together in a way that is entirely satisfying. As played by Sebe, Lazarus is both hero and villain, a generally decent man who has made a pact with an entity that demands fresh souls, and it’s the battle between good and evil inside of him that gives the movie its energy. If you’re in the mood for a unique spin on horror, look no further than The Soul Collector.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Thursday, October 1, 2020

#2,518. Pig Hunt (2008)

Based on the DVD artwork alone, I went into director James Isaac’s Pig Hunt expecting a creature feature horror film about a giant pig that runs amuck, causing all sorts of chaos. Well, I got that, but I also discovered, fairly quickly, that there was a lot more to this 2008 film than its cover was letting on.

John (Travis Aaron Wade) and his girlfriend Brooks (Tina Huang), along with John’s buddies Ben (Howard Johnson Jr.), Wayne (Rajiv Shah), and Quincy (Trevor Bullock), head to a remote area of the woods to do a little hunting. Setting up camp near a cabin once owned by John's uncle, the group soon encounters the Tibbs brothers, Jake (Jason Foster) and Ricky (Nick Tagas), who invite themselves along on the hunt.

Having practically grown up at his uncle’s cabin, John knows the brothers well enough, and warns his companions how volatile the entire Tibbs family (which resides nearby) can be at times. But when a hunting accident leads to tragedy, John and his friends find themselves in serious hot water.

Throw in the fact that the locals believe a 3,000 pound man-eating hog - nicknamed “The Ripper” - has been roaming the area for years, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Pig Hunt does, indeed, have a creature, and we get a few early indications that this beast is more than a legend. The opening scene features a hunter being torn apart by an unseen animal, and there are several POV shots, from the monster’s perspective, littered throughout the movie.

But Pig Hunt is more than a creature feature. John, the lead character played close to the vest by Travis Aaron Wade, is an experienced hunter and former backwoods yokel who managed to break free of that existence, yet still bears the mental scars of this early lifestyle, including the tragic, unexplained death of the uncle that raised him. We figure out early on (almost at the same time his girlfriend Brooks does) that John is a complex dude, and being back in these woods has stirred something inside of him. If the movie has a weakness it’s that John is ultimately left underexplored. But thanks to Wade’s performance we get a taste of the demons that creep up on his character every once in a while.

In addition, Pig Hunt features a bloody showdown between the main characters and the Tibbs clan (which escalates when Ben does something very, very stupid), and their clashes result in some of the film’s grislier moments (though, on the violence scale, the creature attacks are much bloodier).

Then there’s the hippie commune, home to one man (played by Bryonn Bain) and a bevy of beauties. This seemingly peaceful bunch spends their days growing marijuana and raising emus, though their true reason for being out there might be a little more sinister.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in Pig Hunt, and for a time I was a bit concerned that the filmmakers may have bitten off more than they could chew, taking the story in too many directions. Fortunately, director Isaacs and screenwriters Robert & Zack Anderson manage to tie everything together in the end, leading to a finale that is as satisfying as it is insane.

And Pig Hunt is, without a doubt, an insane motion picture, but in a very good way. I had a great time watching it.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (watch it as soon as you can)

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Sept. 24, 2020

A random selection of films

1. Come And See (1985)

This 1985 Russian film is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Set in the Belarus region during World War II, Come and See introduces us to Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a young boy who finds a rifle and joins an underground regiment to fight the Nazis. Skillfully directed by Elem Klimov and beautifully shot by Aleksey Rodionov (who employs a number of uninterrupted – and highly effective - long takes), Come and See is nonetheless a harrowing depiction of warfare and the effect it has on the individual (hopeful and vibrant at the outset, Flyora looks as if he’s aged 15 years by the end of the movie), and a late sequence in which the Nazis terrorize a small village is among the most disturbing I’ve ever seen. Ranks right up there with All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory as one of the cinema’s all-time best anti-war films.
Rating: 10 out of 10

2. The Editor (2014)

Written and directed by the gang at Astron-6 (the creative minds behind 2011’s ultra-entertaining Father’s Day), The Editor is a crazy, often hilarious spoof of Italian horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The dialogue is so incredibly over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh, and affectionate jabs are taken at movies like Fulci’s The Beyond (tarantulas turn up throughout, for no good reason), Hitch Hike (there’s a fireside rape scene), and The New York Ripper (a dog playing fetch retrieves a severed hand). The Editor also features tons of nudity, plenty of nods to the Giallo subgenre (including a killer with black gloves), and blood and gore aplenty (in one very funny scene, a woman at an aerobics studio has her entire face ripped off). Put it all together and toss in Paz de la Huerta (as the lead character’s wife) and Udo Kier (as a bizarre doctor) and you have a movie you won’t want to miss. The Editor is an absolute blast!
Rating: 9 out of 10

3. Next Door (2005)

Wow, does this movie mess with your head! John (Kristoffer Joner), recently dumped by his girlfriend (Anna Bache-Wiig), is drawn into the bizarre world of next-door neighbors Anne (Cecilie Mosli) and Kim (Julia Schacht), a pair of promiscuous sisters intent on making his life a living hell. The theme of sexual violence runs rampant throughout Next Door, and often crosses lines that might make some audience members uncomfortable (especially a scene where John is seduced by one of the sisters), yet the ever-growing mystery that envelops the lead character is intriguing enough to keep even the easily shocked on the edge of their seat. This, along with its strong performances and a story that remains a fascinating enigma through much of its runtime, lifts Next Door to a level above that of simple exploitation.
Rating: 8 out of 10

4. Spider Forest (2004)

Spider Forest is a nifty whodunit-that also works as a horror film. Kang Min (Kam Woo-sung) believes he’s stumbled upon a murder scene in the middle of a forest and gives chase to the suspected killer, only to be struck by a car and left for dead. He ends up in the hospital, yet even in his weakened state is drawn to this mystery. With the police convinced he himself is the killer, Kang-Min decides to conduct his own investigation, but is he prepared to uncover the real truth behind these strange murders? The story eventually branches off in a number of different directions, though I never had a problem following along (thanks in no small part to Song Il-Gon’s solid direction), and while the final reveal wasn’t much of a surprise, the journey to get there - coupled with a handful of very brutal scenes - makes Spider Forest a mystery / horror hybrid that’s well worth your time.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

5. Visiting Hours (1982)

A Canadian horror flick with a solid cast; Lee Grant plays a TV newscaster who is being stalked by a killer, and William Shatner appears briefly as her boss. The highlight, though, is Michael Ironside’s amazing turn as the psychopath at the center of it all, a truly despicable guy who enjoys torturing women and photographing his victims while they lay dying. As its title suggests, the majority of Visiting Hours is set in a hospital (where Grant is recuperating from a run-in with Ironside), and there are some effectively creepy scenes. But as the story progressed, and Ironside continued his killing spree, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the complete incompetency of the hospital’s security force (which included a strong police presence). Even when the authorities knew he was coming (and where he was going), Ironside’s killer had no problem taking out patients and nurses alike. After a while, it was almost laughable, and actually detracted from the movie’s overall effectiveness (with security forces running in every direction and never finding anything, there were times when Visiting Hours looked more like a Mack Sennett Keystone Kops short than it did a horror film). Still, Ironside’s performance is reason enough to see it
Rating: 6 out of 10

Thursday, September 17, 2020

#2,517. The Villainess (2017)

The opening sequence of director Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess is a straight-up adrenaline rush; the lead character Sook Hee (Ok-bin Kim) is hopping mad, and has taken the fight to an entire building full of baddies,

These initial moments are shot from her perspective, as if we were watching one of those first-person videogames. From hallway to hallway, room to room, she battles guards, scientists, and a few skilled martial artists, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. 

It’s one crazy skirmish after another, and even when the point-of-view shifts from first to third person, this opening never loses an ounce of its energy. 

Once the battle is over, Sook Hee - who was trained from an early age by the underworld to be a world-class fighter - is taken into police custody. But instead of throwing her in jail, the authorities turn Sook Hee over to the National Intelligence Service, which immediately “recruits” her into their ranks. 

Promised she will eventually regain her freedom, Sook Hee follows orders well, carrying out one mission after another, until she is finally given a top-priority assignment. 

Provided with a new identity, she moves into an apartment complex, and even becomes romantically involved with her neighbor Hyun-Soo (Jun Sung). But as she awaits more details about the mission, Sook Hee begins to realize that not everyone around her can be trusted, and her past may have already caught up with her in a big, big way! 

Ok-bin Kim delivers a strong performance as the film’s lead, handling both the physical aspects of the role (she’s a convincing badass) as well as the emotional (Sook Hee i
s the perfect mother to her young child, who is permitted to stay with her as she carries out her assignment). But what makes The Villainess such an extraordinary motion picture are the action scenes, from the tense-as-hell opening to Sook-Hee’s first mission (a violent swordfight that transforms into a pulse-pounding motorcycle chase through the city streets), all leading to a final 15 minutes that you’ll have to see to believe. 

South Korea has turned out its share of excellent horror films in recent years (Bedevilled, The Wailing, Train to Busan, etc), and with The Villainess they’ve given the world an amazing action flick. Combining aspects of La Femme Nikita with the first Kill Bill and infusing it with a hell of a lot of style, The Villainess is one movie you won’t want to miss. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 - Buy it and watch it over and over

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Capsule Reviews - South Korea

In recent years, South Korea has turned out some tremendous genre films.  Here are a few of them...

1. Bluebeard (2017)

Directed by Lee Soo-yeun, Bluebeard is a gripping psychological horror / thriller about a doctor (Jin-woong Cho) who is convinced the landlords of his apartment building (played by Dae-Myung Kim and Goo-Shin), proprietors of a butcher shop on the first floor, are serial killers. Bluebeard never once lost my interest, with excellent performances throughout and, more importantly, a few unexpected twists that continuously caught me off-guard. And those surprises kept right on coming until the end credits finally rolled. The horror in Bluebeard, though effective, is definitely more psychological than visceral. Still, I think this is a movie that all fans of the genre - regardless of their tastes or preferences - will ultimately enjoy.
Rating: 9 out of 10

2. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is a found footage style movie about a team of investigators intent on spending an entire night inside the asylum in Gonjiam - ranked as one of the creepiest places on earth - and recording the experience for their internet show. To this end, the group sets up cameras throughout the facility, hoping to capture some supernatural events during the night, but as you might expect, they get a lot more than they bargained for. It’s a basic premise, and with the glut of found-footage movies released in the wake of The Blair Witch Project we’ve seen this sort of story before (Grave Encounters is one example that leaps to mind). And yet, somehow, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum still managed to feel fresh, and provided genuine ghostly thrills and some nail-biting sequences, including an ending that’s particularly unsettling. 2019’s Heilstatten: Haunted Hospital copied the premise of this movie, but wasn’t nearly as effective. I highly recommend this one.
Rating: 8 out of 10

3. Mother (2009)

Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother is a crime/mystery with splashes of comedy, and it is extraordinary. A widow (Kim Hye-ja) sets out to prove that her son (Won Bin), who is mentally backward, has been wrongly accused of murder, and the real killer is still on the loose. Kim Hye-ja delivers a superb performance as the title character, who is ready to do whatever is necessary to clear her son’s name. But it’s the twists and turns in the story, some of which are particularly dark (a late sequence, where the widow questions a homeless junk collector, is especially tough to watch), that make Mother such an outstanding film. Bong Joon-Ho won an Oscar in 2019 for the excellent Parasite, but he could have just as easily been nominated for this movie. Mother will stay with you for days!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

4. Thirst (2009)

Thirst is a fantastic take on the vampire mythos! Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a well-meaning Catholic priest, volunteers to act as a guinea pig to find a cure for a deadly virus - by becoming infected himself. But whereas the other 499 volunteers died from the illness, Sang-hyun recovers. At first, his survival is attributed to prayer, and many consider him a walking miracle. But it isn’t long before Sang-hyun learns the truth: while trying to save his life, the doctors gave him a blood transfusion, and the blood he received was “donated” by a vampire! His newfound vigor has also sparked Sang-hyun libido; he lusts after Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), the pretty wife of his boyhood chum Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), and Tae-ju, bored with her marriage, is only too happy to oblige! I was blown away by Thirst, so much so that it now ranks alongside Nosferatu and 1931’s Dracula as one of my favorite vampire films of all-time. Writer / director Park Chan-wook infuses the movie with just the right amount of gore and employs some cool special effects as well, all working in unison to make Thirst a fun watch. But it’s the characters themselves, played wonderfully by Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin, that remain the focus of the film, and the changes they undergo throughout are what make Thirst a motion picture you won’t soon forget.
Rating: 10 out of 10

5. Train to Busan (2016)

Directed by Sang-ho Yeun, Train to Busan is, hands-down, my favorite horror film of the 2010’s. Banker Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) board the KTX-101 train in Seoul, en route to Busan. Unbeknownst to them, a zombie outbreak is sweeping the country, and before they reach their destination, they and a handful of others will be fighting for their lives as - one by one - their fellow passengers succumb to the virus. Along with being a great zombie film, Train to Busan is a thrill ride from start to absolute (and I mean absolute) finish, with the action cranked up to 11. At one point, the train stops at the Daejoon station, which the survivors are told is a safe haven controlled by the army. This entire sequence is so intense, so exciting, it will have you poised on the edge of your seat. On top of the thrills, every character in Train to Busan has depth and, in many cases, their own story arch. Along with Seok-woo and Su-an, there’s Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), who are expecting their first child, and because we care about these characters, we root like hell for each and every one to survive. Bottom Line: I love Train to Busan, and I intend to revisit it at least once a year.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Thursday, September 3, 2020

#2,516. C.H.U.D. (1984)

People are disappearing in New York City, and the few witnesses who have come forward claim that underground monsters are responsible for this sudden rash of missing persons. 

 Wilson (George Martin), who heads up the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, knows more than he’s letting on but is refusing to talk. So it’s up to a local precinct Captain (Christopher Curry), a fashion photographer (John Heard), and a “Reverend” who runs a soup kitchen (Daniel Stern) to figure out what it is that’s lurking deep beneath the city. And what they find is more terrifying than they ever imagined.

C.H.U.D. (which is short for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) is a slick sci-fi / monster movie shot on location in the Big Apple. Director Douglas Cheek does a fine job keeping his creatures under wraps for the first 2/3’s of the film, giving us nothing more than brief glimpses of them (like 1980’s Humanoids form the Deep, the monsters in C.H.U.D. are of the men-in-costume variety), and by the time they become more prevalent, we’re already invested in the characters and their story. 

The acting in C.H.U.D. is above-average for this type of film (with Daniel Stern delivering a particularly strong performance) and there are a handful of creepy scenes (an early sequence involving a Geiger counter is our first clue that something very sinister is prowling New York’s sewer system). Throw in some well-done practical effects (many featuring bloody body parts) and cameos by John Goodman and Jay Thomas (as two cops in the wrong place at the wrong time) and you have a monster flick that’s definitely worth checking out. 
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Buy it if you can)