Oh God finally some actual time off quick write no don’t write relax watch a movie or something no that’s just making it worse but you just got this sweet Zatoichi box those 25 movies aren’t going to watch themselves shut up SHUT UP
So there’s no zombie plague this time, it’s vampires, and young Martin (Connor Paolo) is saved by a vampire hunter known only as Mister (Nick Damici) when his family is slaughtered in the first wave. Mister takes Martin under his wing and the two go on a Northward journey, seeking a promised land known only as New Eden. Things happen on the way.
This is an attempt to make a fairly epic horror movie, and I applaud things like that. My problem with Stake Land lies not in the fact that the movie has taken several other movies and put them in a blender and then didn’t hit the button long enough. It’s I Am Legend crossed with The Road with a very healthy dollop of The Outlaw Josey Wales as Martin and Mister pick up a surrogate family along the way. My problem lies with the fact that the movie keeps trying to get an over-arcing plot started, then resolves it in five minutes. Episodic works for some movies, but not here. It also doesn’t help my temper that our characters keep finding fairly safe enclaves and then abandon them for the uncertain promise of New Eden, which may not even exist.
The acting, however, is every bit as good as it needs to be and often better. Once again I find myself singling out Kelly McGillis for outstanding work in a genre picture. This will lead to people doing the Internet version of singing “Take My Breath Away” to me, as if this is clever or original. McGillis impresses me; she’s that rare actress who’s managed to get past the industry’s insistence on youth in its actresses, to do interesting, solid work. I had absolutely no desire to see We Are What We Are until I found out she was in it.
I can’t recommend Stake Land, but remember our mantra: Your Mileage May Vary. I use reviews as only vague indicators of what I might find interesting. I always have to see for myself.
I had wanted to see The Conjuring in theaters, but never managed to carve out the time. This works in my favor as I was able to work it in after some really tepid movies, which was a relief and a half, let me tell you. It does deliver, up to a point, and that point, I admit, may be my personal failing (or lack thereof). Confused yet? Let’s get underway:
The Conjuring is subtitled “Based on the True Case Files of The Warrens”, and by now we’ve learned that a combination of “Based on” and “True” applied to a movie can usually be translated as Hi, this is total bullshit, and that is especially true where the Warrens are concerned. There is an entire body of literature, online and off, about the veracity of The Amityville Horror. But you know what? I don’t care about that. I’m here to get scared, or at least heavily creeped out, and on that The Conjuring delivers. Up to that point.
A very nice family, the Perrons. buy a lovely house, and faster than you can say “I can’t believe we could afford this”, weird things start to happen, eventually leading to Mrs. Perron (Lili Taylor) begging the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to investigate. The movie has started out well enough with one of the Warren’s other cases, a possessed creepy-ass doll named Annabelle, and it continues to get even better as director James Wan delivers again and again on the setup-and-payoff scheme that somehow never quite manages to become mechanical.
Where The Conjuring scores big over the other modern major horror movie I watched in October, Sinister, comes down to one scene: Mrs. Perrone, investigating weird late night noises, moves through the house to investigate, and along the way turns on every single light in the house as she comes to it, a trick Ethan Hawke never managed to learn. It doesn’t do her any good, but at least she’s not an idiot.
I’m also going to give Conjuring props for taking paranormal research seriously. I love movies that do that - Legend of Hell House comes to mind. Paranormal research has been seriously shot in the foot by the popularity of “reality shows” on various cable channels, where you can watch bros in night vision scaring themselves in the dark. I really enjoyed the matter-of-fact approach in The Conjuring.
Well, it sounds like I loved it wholeheartedly, doesn’t it? And I did, up until the last fifteen minutes or so, when it decided it didn’t want to be a haunted house story anymore, it wanted to be The Exorcist. Which, with all the talk about demonic entities and the Warren’s reporting to the Catholic church, I really should have expected.
Look, I don’t find The Exorcist scary. Okay, that first scene with the discovery of the statue of the demon, but after that, eh. I am one of the least religious people on the planet, so the possession of people by boogeymen and their casting out by hyper-prayer just leaves me cold.
Still enjoyed The Conjuring immensely, though. I knew I was going to have to see it after this teaser trailer:
I love it when the Criterion Collection puts out movies that must seem kind of marginal to the typical cineaste, but bless ‘em, they do it often enough to be interesting. In October, one of their selections was Lewis Allen’s 1944 ghost story The Uninvited. In a story that is starting to sound familiar, brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) find a surprisingly affordable clifftop house in Cornwall that they move into, only to find the joint’s haunted, not only by a ghost, but by a living young girl (Gail Russell) whose mother died there.
Ray, of course, gloms onto the girl and romance blossoms, impeded by the girl’s cranky old grandfather (Donald Crisp), who has a valid point: whatever is haunting the house also seems intent on killing the girl. There’s a mystery at the root of The Uninvited, and the new tenants start to unravel it, aided by the village doctor, a shockingly young Alan Napier. Though there’s some goofy humor, there is also some serious dread in this flick, and it’s a grand way to spend 99 minutes.
I had managed to forego Death Ship for 33 years - 33 years! – since its release, but the combination of a halfway decent review by Chad Plambeck and a $5.00 blu-ray steered me toward it. That “I always have to see for myself” dictum of earlier really does bite me on the ass sometime.
George Kennedy is Captain Ashland, who is on his last voyage as the captain of a cruise ship because, basically, he is an asshole. Richard Crenna is First Mate Marshall, who will be taking over. Marshall’s wife and two children are on the voyage, too, so we can see that Ashland hates children and happy couples. Then the cruise ship is rammed by the titular Death boat, killing everybody except Ashland, Marshall and his family; Nick Mancuso (sorry, never caught his function) and his hottie; an older woman, Sylvia (Kate Reid); and Saul Rubinek, because someone has to be the first to die.
These survivors manage to get on the Death Ship, which begins to pick them off one by one. The delirious Ashland keeps hearing a voice telling him this is his new ship – in German. And there is your plot. Now for my litany of problems.
- If you fall in the ocean, you are dead. No saving throw.
- If we establish, several times, “It’s like the ship is alive! It’s trying to kill us all!” why does the hottie decide to take a shower? Besides the fact that she’s the hottie, I mean?
- When it comes to that, the hottie discovering that the shower is raining blood on her, not water: I get it, it’s blood, it’s gross, it probably smells bad. The door won’t open. But why the histrionics? It’s not like it’s acid, or it’s filling up the room.
- What the hell is the Marshall boy’s obsession with peeing?
- As if you didn’t already know, the boat is a “Nazi Interrogation Ship”. Were there such things? Isn’t that kind of inefficient?
There is precious little tension or even excitement here. Save the nudity, there is no reason this couldn’t have been a TV movie. The only death with any real punch is Mancuso’s, and that is largely due to his over-the-top acting. Not a criticism - I appreciated such a diversion at that point. The death of Kate Reid is barely seen, as her boil-consumed makeup (which was good enough to make Fangoria) embarrassed the filmmakers or something.
Bah and double bah.
I’ve downloaded a bunch of images of movie posters over the years, and one poster in particular surprised and intrigued me: The Devil’s Express, which was seemed to be a mix of horror, martial arts and blaxploitation. I can’t claim an encyclopedic knowledge of those genres, but I am fairly well-read, and I had never heard of this flick. There was also no info on it to be found on the IMDb, so intrigue grew into a low-level obsession.
We meet Luke (the musically named Warhawk Tanzania), a Harlem-based kung fu master and his rather skeevy student Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan). Luke and Rodan travel to Hong Kong (Central Park) so Luke can be certified to a higher level of mastery; during the final ceremony, Rodan steals an amulet that was keeping an ancient demon imprisoned. Said demon follows them to New York, where it finds things entirely too bright and too noisy, and it hides out in a subway, killing people at random. Meanwhile, Rodan ignores his sifu and continues his drug-dealing ways, eventually causing a turf war with a Chinese street gang, which is why the subway murders go undetected for so long. The demon finally kills Rodan, but that Asian street gang has already stolen the amulet and passed it to an ancient Chinese sage (who sports the worst makeup job evar), who guides Warhawk to fight the demon, and then takes the amulet back to China.
The reason I could never find any info on the movie is that, in order to capitalize on the success of Walter Hill’s The Warriors, the name was changed to Gang Wars, which is how it is listed in the IMDb. The gang war aspect of the plot is so prevalent that Warhawk all but vanishes from his own movie for some time, and sad to say, it’s no great loss. As a fighter, he’s certainly no Jim Kelly (hell, he’s barely even David Carradine), but he does have some presence. He’s better when he’s dissing honky cops and telling them he won’t subscribe to their “white legal ways” when he determines to avenge the death of his student. In the final (inevitably weak) fight scene with the demon, he does rock sweet gold lamé overalls with matching boots, give him that.
The gang war segments are interspersed with the demon murder scenes, which have no real motive except demons like to be murderous dickweeds, I guess. There one scene where it drags off a rapist, which triggered a nasty Blood Beach flashback.
There are unexpected bright spots: when the demon possesses an innocent traveler to get to New York, when he arrives, the demon’s sensitivity to light is signified by painting huge eyeballs on the man’s eyelids, and having him stumble around. It works a lot better than it has any right to, until he gets too close to the camera. There is some swell footage of good old, bad old New York. And the priest who keeps showing up to say last rites over the bodies is none other than Brother Theodore. Just when you think “These guys hired Brother Theodore and totally wasted him,” Warhawk needs a distraction and Theodore cuts loose with some insane street preaching, and they’re smart enough to just let the cameras roll.
Blaxploitation/kung fu/monster movie. There was no way it was ever going to be as awesome as it sounds, but it is strangely entertaining.
Thanks to Halloween sales, I got my hands on the blu-rays for a late-period Hammer double feature I had not seen: Hands of the Ripper and Twins of Evil. The lack of earlier Hammer flicks on blu in the US is a continuing sore point with me, but if we finally get some Region A love in that respect, I hope Synapse Films has something to do with it, because boy, are these discs pretty. Hands is flawless, Twins only slightly less so.
That carries over into the movies themselves. Twins is a fairly tepid affair, once again attempting to riff on Le Fanu’s ”Carmilla”, as the cursed castle on the hill belongs to the Karnsteins, not the Draculas. The twins in question are the Collinson sisters, Mary and Madeleine, playing Maria and Frieda. After the death of their parents, they are unfortunate enough to be remanded to the care of their dour, neurotic puritan uncle, Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), who spends his evenings finding young girls to burn at the stake. The rebellious Frieda takes a shine to Count Karnstein, whom she sees as her ticket out of Gustav-ville. Unfortunately for her, Karnstein has recently resurrected the infamous Carmilla, who vampirized him and then conveniently left the movie.
Bereft of the talent that made their star rise though the 60s, Hammer is jobbing in people at this point and not just teasing the sexuality but employing full nudity. There’s really not much else to recommend this particular outing, except a bunch of familiar, welcome faces in the cast, including a sadly ailing Dennis Price in his final role, Kathleen Byron, and David Warbeck. I guess we could also count the sets recycled from Vampire Circus as a guest star, too.
Hands of the Ripper is much the stronger movie, benefitting greatly from the strong direction of Peter Sasdy guiding an equally strong cast. Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter) takes in the orphan waif Anna (Angharad Rees), after her fraudulent spiritualist foster mom is brutally murdered. Pritchard seeks to use this newfangled Freudian psychoanalysis to plumb the depths of Anna’s trauma, only to discover that under a particular set of circumstances – all too easily duplicated – she channels the spirit of her father, Jack the Ripper, and recreates the murder of her mother at his hands.
Porter is intriguing as he covers up murder after murder, determined to solve this mystery; at the beginning of the movie he is angrily planning to debunk the medium that Anna nails to a door with a fireplace poker, but by the end he has not only consulted another medium, but has come to believe that Anna truly is possessed. The realization comes far too late for either of them as events rush to a suitably tragic, yet impossibly bittersweet, resolution.
A strong cast and unique storyline carries the day here, allowing me to gloss over some problems like where the hell does Anna keep getting those knives or why there’s not more fallout from at least one of her trance-induced murders. It remains a solid movie overall, and good way to finally close out this massive piece of catch-up.
Now where’s that leftover turkey?