Z: Zoombies (2016)

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So. Back around 2004 or so, I declared a personal moratorium on zombie movies. There were just too many of them, almost all laughably bad. Before you ask, yes, I’m pretty sure it was the one-two punch of Resident Evil and House of the Dead that put a bullet through the brain of those movies for me. I didn’t even rouse myself to watch George Romero’s Land of the Dead until seven years after it was released. So I’ve been very picky about what zombie movies I will watch, and I discovered while watching [REC]³: Genesis that my old zombie fatigue was waking up and gnawing on my skull again.

Since for some reason all movies beginning with a Z (except Zelig) have something to do with zombies, this could be a problem in an A-to-Z movie challenge. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps the problem is with human zombies. Maybe I should check out this Zoombies people are asking about. In the interest of transparency, I should admit that I put it off primarily because I thought it was about fast zombies, or maybe zombies on motorcycles. It’s not.

Let’s start with a promotional video for the Eden Wildlife Park, a combination safari park and endangered animal refuge. This is hosted by Dr. Ellen Rogers (Kim Nielsen, who has simply impossible cheekbones), the granddaughter of the conservationist who started the refuge. We’ll find out later that she’s added such things as a rock-climbing wall and a zip line to attract families and therefore more money for the park.

But never mind that, let’s go the veterinary clinic, where workers have brought in several monkeys that have all contracted an unknown virus. One goes into cardiac arrest and dies, and the desperate vet injects some adrenaline in an attempt to save the endangered species; when the monkey revives, hoo boy, the carnage starts.

See? CARNAGE!!!!

In parallel with that, Dr. Rogers is bringing in her new interns. The newly renovated park isn’t open yet, so she confiscates all their cell phones so no interpark espionage can take place. While their shuttle distributes the interns to their new jobs, they run across a security guard on his bike, headed to the veterinary clinic because they’re not answering the radio.

You can probably write the script from there, if you’ve seen any movies at all in last ten years. Virus spreads to the other animals, has to be stopped before it gets outside the zoo, oh god what about the aviary, we can’t let a single infected bird fly out . Some of you will groan when the credit “The Asylum Presents” appears at the beginning, and those people need to seriously check their B-movie cred, because these guys have been doing yeoman work in that realm for years. Much of Zoombies is done by the numbers, sure – there are a lot of things in the first twenty minutes, like the new security card system acting dodgy, that will have you stroking your beard (or chin, if you are not particularly hirsute) and murmur, “Hmmm, I wonder if that will be significant later.” (Frankly, I was a little disappointed that they never managed to work in the rock-climbing wall)

I will give them this: you are presented with a fairly large cast of characters – which start being winnowed down almost immediately – but among the remainder, you are fairly uncertain who is going to survive, and who might grow into the hero role. I, at least, got surprised a couple of times, and if you can violate my jaded expectations, good on you.

Which is not to say there are no blemishes, oh good heavens, no. They make fruitful use of their location, but obviously, live stunt animals were way out of their budget, so CGI is the order of the day. The devil monkeys in the clinic are pretty good, but later beasties – giraffes, elephants and the like – look like they’re jobbing in from the original Jumanji. I can forgive a certain amount of “Sorry, this is the best we could afford”, but others won’t be so charitable. Lala Nestor, who plays Rogers’ young daughter, Thea, has been directed to say all her lines with an odd smile that shows no teeth, because somebody deemed that “cute”. It takes twenty minutes for it to look psychotic. The fact that she’s written to be precocious and cute and barf-worthy does not help the poor girl, either. She does have the best twist in the movie, though, and at least after that they said she could stop smiling.

Ah, which brings us to the writing. I’ve got absolutely no problem with the plotting (some difficulty with some of the physics, sure, but…) it’s the dialogue. I am painfully familiar with this type of dialogue. It seeks to give us exposition in a clever, amusing way. It is dialogue that looks great on paper but feels entirely too stagey when uttered. I spent most of this movie thinking, Jesus, this is the sort of stuff I would have written twenty years ago, and probably still do. It’s not awful, but the shock of familiarity stayed with me through most of the movie.

Also, I’m not sure why people trying to get away from zombie monkeys think climbing up a tree will do the trick, but it does give the zombie giraffes a chance to shine.

The bitching done: the sequences that are supposed to ramp up the tension actually do, and those are the reason folks watch movies like this. None of the actors are bad, they’re just written that way. Some surprising gore, and some of that is even practical. It’s is a pretty painless way to kill 87 minutes, and remember, that’s a zombie hater talking here.

Y: Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)

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So it was *mumblemumble* years ago that the late 60s Japanese Yokai Monsters movies were released on VHS: this one and the earlier Along With Ghosts, and 100 MonstersI think I wrote about 100 Monsters somewhere back there: I found it diverting, even charming at times. I always intended to check out the others, but life got in the way, and so here we are.

In an utterly cool prologue, we are told that an ancient Babylonian demon is sleeping in some ruins, which is a pretty good arrangement until some treasure hunters show up and unearth his magic staff (I am endlessly amused by the fact that the raiders are dressed like Bedouins but speak English). The demon (conveniently named Daimon) awakes and wrecks everything, burying the despoilers under styrofoam rocks, and then leaves for greener pastures.

Which means, as so often happens when it comes to monsters, he is now Japan’s problem. Ever the dick, Daimon’s stormy passage sinks a fishing boat.

It’s medieval Japan again, though, so when the local beneficent lord is checking out his turf before the oncoming Daimon storm, he finds his samurai sword is useless; Daimon drinks his blood and takes over his body. The sudden change in the lord is noticible (after all, he goes into his compound and starts wrecking all altars and holy items, calling for them to be burned), and when the steward inquires as to what is going on, Daimon drinks his blood and takes over his body, too.

A Kappa living in the compound’s pond sees the demon in his true form, and challenges him. In the ensuing fight, he is severely overmatched and kicked out of the compound. He goes to his fellow Yokai monsters in the local graveyard, but they don’t believe him. At least, not until Daimon tires of exsanguinating servants and sends his lackies out to kidnap children from the village. Then the good-hearted monsters decide it’s time to kick some foreign monster butt.

Spoiler: Daimon is still too tough for them, so they have to call on every monster in Japan to fight Daimon, who naturally grows to giant size to do some Yokai-stomping. KAIJU BIG BATTEL!!!! (I thought I was going to be showing my age again with that reference, but nope – they’re still going!)

I see where the IMDb now has this listed as Big Monster War which is a better title, if a bit misleading. The last fifteen minutes delivers on it, but for the most part, so much time is spent on the samurai drama of dealing with a Babylonian vampire, there are times I found myself wondering, “Wasn’t this movie supposed to be about yokai monsters?” It’s 1968, so prepare yourself for the suit technology of that era. The monsters are pretty nicely detailed, but largely unable to so much as crack a smile. The Kappa gets a movable beak, though, and is a good choice for comic foil, the actor moves so expressively; the rest, save for the two with human faces, have to rely on their voice actors.

Heyyyy, Karakosa!

It still manages to be pretty charming, in a creepy fairy tale kind of way. Despite some blood, it’s the sort of dark fantasy you could show the kids. It does help to be familiar with the folklore monsters referenced. I’m glad that it features my favorite, the karakasa kozō, the one-legged , one-eyed umbrella creature who likes to scare people by licking their cheek with its long tongue. Do not judge me.

It is also well worth mentioning that no less than Takashi Miike remade this in 2005 as The Great Yokai War and that is all I need to know.

Man, like I needed another movie to track down and watch.

X: X Moor (2014)

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Honestly, any year when I don’t have to cheat to get a horror movie starting with X is a good year. So I’m not going to have anything to with it’s alternate title, The Beast of X Moor.

X Moor is based on a true story, for a certain definition of “true”; it uses as its basis the urban legend of a great cat resembling a panther or puma sighted in the Exmoor region of southwest England. The bulk of the sightings referenced on that page are from the 1980s, but let’s not let that get in the way of our movie.

Upon learning of a £25,000 reward for proof of the Beast’s existence, Georgia (Melia Kreiling) convinces her boyfriend Matt (Nick Blood) to “borrow” some fancy equipment from his job to get some footage of the elusive kitty. They’ll be aided in this by professional hunter Fox (Mark Bonnar), who seems to feel that catching the creature is a very personal challenge. Perhaps too personal.

After a couple of violent encounters with local hooligans, our documentarians set up their network of motion-controlled night vision cameras and the control center in their central camp, only to discover a dead body – in fact, several dead bodies – and their survival on this expedition is suddenly in question.

There is a plot twist in X Moor I did not see coming, so I’m going to keep mum about it. The story developing from that is itself full of twists and turns, not all of them logical or deserved. It’s fairly well done, and although as a whole the flick just didn’t gel for me, I recognize there are other folks out there that will enjoy it. It might be also be appreciated that although it seems to be setting up a found footage movie, it’s not that at all.

W: Willow Creek (2013)

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So the question is, how in the hell did I manage to find myself watching two found footage Bigfoot movies in one year? Well, Hubrisween, that’s how.

We’ve got Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) on a road trip. Bryce has got a nice new video camera and a serious wireless microphone, aiming to make a movie documenting his trip to the town of Willow Creek, California, then down to Bluff Creek, which is where Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin shot their famous Bigfoot footage back in 1967. This is Jim’s obsession, and his birthday is coming up, so Kelly is humoring him by coming along.

The first half of the movie is getting there, which is going to be a problem for some people. Jim is not a good filmmaker, but we do see him improve somewhat with practice. He interviews some real people, Like Steven Streufort, who runs Bigfoot Books in Willow Creek. Tom Yamarone, “the Bob Dylan of Bigfoots”. Shawn L. White Guy Sr., who saw a Bigfoot when she was a child. And Nita Rowley, who runs the Visitor’s Center, and gives the best, most frustrating (to Jim) interview, because she doesn’t believe in Bigfoot, but keeps warning the two about bears and mountain lions. Character actor Peter Jason plays a former Ranger whose dog got torn apart by something in the woods, just in case you were forgetting this was an actual movie (to Gilmore and Johnson’s credit, that actually is possible).

They also meet up with a couple of vaguely threatening guys who warn them away from the forest. Not that this will do any good, mind. Does it ever?

The Bigfoot Burger – why wouldn’t you want one?

Once they actually hit the Bluff Creek area and start hiking into the wilderness (at almost exactly the movie’s halfway mark), you’re going to start to get what most people came here for, and also cement the fact that Jim is an idiot. They brought camping gear, and Kelly claims to have spent some time in the woods, but neither of them brought, say, a compass? After some trekking, Jim wants to push on to the Patterson site, but Kelly demands they set up camp, as light is fading. And so begins what you really came here for.

There are sounds in the night. Jim turns on the camera, apparently the only light they have (idiots). What follows is an 18 minute long single take, as the noises get closer and something starts shuffling around the tent. There is also what sounds like a woman crying, which doesn’t help matters. This scene goes from skepticism to curiosity to fear to absolute terror; it actually gets pretty intense, and what’s remarkable is that it is all conveyed by acting and sound. I generally watch movies with headphones on, which aided the effect immeasurably.

With the morning light, Jim and Kelly make the sensible decision to get the hell out of Dodge, but that lack of a compass I was yelling at them about ensures that they immediately get lost (as if they weren’t already), and there’s not even a Blair Witch screwing with them. For a few moments I thought they were actually going to show some brains and follow the creek to civilization, but something in the bushes scares them back into the woods, night falls again, and, just like the afore-referenced Blair Witch Project, a number of plot threads come together at the end with tragic results. I’m going to give Willow Creek the clear edge on escalating, frightening endings, though.

Willow Creek is not going to be for all markets (as a glance at user reviews at the IMDb will tell you); I’m not even sure fans of slow-burn horror will take to it. I was pretty iffy on it myself until that 18 minute single take, which, among other things, had me wondering what Tarkovsky would have done with modern equipment, unburdened by limitations like the size of a film magazine. If you want more excitement sprinkled through your found footage Bigfoot experience, then Exists is definitely the way to go. But Willow Creek, while lo-fi in concept and execution, does have a couple of scenes that pack a memorable wallop.

 

V: Vanishing on 7th St. (2010)

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Here’s a story that may seem familiar to you: see a title that looks interesting, tag it on Netflix… and then proceed to ignore it for a few years.

Until you need a movie that starts with a “V”, anyway. (I may have lost some of you there)

We’re first going to meet Paul (John Leguizamo)a projectionist at an AMC theater in Detroit, puttering around his domain, headlight ablaze, making sure the latest Adam Sandler movie runs smoothly (all we hear is some really improbable music and the audience’s laughter). There is a sudden blackout, and when the lights come back on, everybody is gone. Literally. All that remains in the theater and lobby is spilled popcorn and empty clothing, still in shapes that suggest the people once wearing them. There are screams in the distance.

Then the lights go back off again.

We are introduced to Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a physical therapist at a hospital, and Luke (Hayden Christensen), a TV reporter who managed to sleep through the whole thing. Like Paul and his headlight, Rosemary was holding a lit match, and Luke’s girlfriend had some candles burning on a bedside table. In the 72 hours that follow, they wander around Detroit, scavenging flashlight batteries and glowsticks, finally winding up at a bar on 7th Street that has a backup generator, its lights keeping the hungry darkness at bay. There they meet a fourth survivor: James (Jacob Latimore), the 12 year-old son of the bartender. They will try to figure out what happened, and how they can get out of Detroit – or if they should even try.

The first 15-20 minutes of Vanishing are absolutely perfect and nightmarish, leaving me wondering why this movie wasn’t better known. Then we settle down in the bar and it becomes a different movie; a kind of a spam-in-a-cabin flick with all the bickering and psychological drama you’ve come to expect. That was a bit disappointing, but it has to be admitted that director Brad Anderson and a quartet of talented actors sell it and keep it moving, breaking up the submarine movie with flashbacks from Rosemary and Luke  – Luke in particular receiving a satellite broadcast, during a momentary resumption of power in his TV station, from Chicago – implying that whatever it is, it’s worldwide, and laying out the rules: Stay in the light, don’t listen to the voices, and only trust the light that is in your hands.

I may have checked the time remaining, but I never once was tempted to press the fast-forward button.

There are going to be those among who will look askance at my describing Hayden Christensen as a “talented actor”, but really, separated from George Lucas’ ham-fisted direction (the man is a brilliant technician but considers actors mere props – and let’s not talk about his dialogue) Christensen is fine. We already knew about Newton and Leguizamo’s talent, and Jacob Latimore has had a good career since. Honestly, the fact that there are two kids giving great performances in this movie is amazing (the other is Taylor Groothuis).

You may have noticed that a couple of paragraphs above, I dropped the name of the director, Brad Anderson; you should recognize that name, as he is the director of, among others, Session 9 and The Machinist, both off-kilter, unusual horror movies. Vanishing on 7th Street was his first, and as far as I know, only apocalypse film, and I’d love to see what he could do with a larger budget on the same subject. He seems to be concentrating on TV more in the last eight or so years, with only the occasional movie, seemingly leaving overt horror behind. Let’s hope not, though.

U: The Uncanny (1977)

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Another anthology already?

The first thing you’re going to ask is, “Is this an Amicus Film?” Which is fair, since the name Milton Subotsky is right there in the credits. But no, at this point Amicus’ grave wasn’t even cold yet, after The People That Time Forgot. Subotsky relocated to Canada, and tried to get the ol’ anthology (“portmanteau”, if you want to get fancy) mojo workin’ again with this and The Monster Club. That didn’t work out so well, alas.

Our two big stars for the framing device are Ray Milland (yay!) and Peter Cushing (double yay!). Cushing is a very high-strung writer (his previous books were on flying saucers and ESP), who has made his way to Milland’s house with a thick binder. He’s Cushing’s publisher, you see, and he’s doubtful about the new book. Cushing responds that he has proof going back years that cats are horrible monsters that actually control the world.

Most of us who live with cats will shrug “well, duh”, but we already bought the ticket so let’s see what Peter has to say.

In 1912 London, a rich old matron (Joan Greenwood, rather wasted here but still managing to steal the show) dictates her new will, cutting out her wastrel nephew (Simon Williams) and leaving her vast estate to her multiple cats. Our snoopy maid (Susan Penhaligon) however, is also the lover of that nephew, and they hatch a plan to steal the old lady’s copy of the will. When she surprises the maid during the theft, there’s an employer murder, bringing down the wrath of all those kitties. I liked this story better when it was called Eye of the Cat and starred Michael Sarrazin, but that movie didn’t have the murderer trapped in a pantry for days, living on cat food, or the gruesome discovery that the hungry cats figured out the old lady was made of meat (Joan Greenwood, ladies and gentlemen – even dead, still upstaging everybody).

Oh, that’s never a good sign.

Then, in 1975 Quebec, the Blakes (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) take in their young niece Lucy (Katrina Holden Bronson) when her parents die in a car wreck. She brings with her dead mommy’s black cat, Wellington. Mrs. Blake doesn’t particularly like this, and she definitely hates the cat. Their daughter, Angela (Chloe Franks) is a nasty little shit who proceeds to make Lucy’s life hell. Mom finally steals Wellington away to have it euthanized, and burns Lucy’s mother’s book on black magic. Not all of them, though, and the euthanasia doesn’t take, and Angela is about to be in a lot of trouble.

Lastly, in 1936 Hollywood, a tragedy happens on the set of Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasance)’s latest horror movie, when somehow the Poe-inspired pendulum over his co-star – his wife Madeliene (Catherine Bégin) – turns out to be quite real. Luckily for the desperate producer (John Vernon sporting a really weird accent), Madeliene’s stand-in Edina (Samantha Eggar) is willing to step into the role. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, Edina is Valentine’s mistress, the accident was murder, and Madeliene’s cat is going to be tossed out as soon as possible. Just to make sure you know Valentine is a cad, the cat has kittens and he drowns them. Well, that doesn’t go over well at all, and not only does the wily cat evade every trap Valentine sets out for it, it starts engineering on-set accidents to avenge its mistress.

Back at the framing device, I’m sure you can figure out how things shake out. Cushing is murdered by a mob of cats on his way home, and Milland burns his book while giving his cat nice dish of milk. The end.

Most of Subotsky’s anthology movies had four or even five stories, and cutting them down to three isn’t justified by the stories, which get so padded out that your wristwatch arm will get lots of exercise as you check how much time is left. The only story that doesn’t have this problem is the third one, where everybody – especially Donald Pleasance – seems to be having a lot of fun. Sure, Bram Stoker should have gotten a writer’s credit because it rather shamelessly rips off “The Squaw”, but, we take our entertainment where we may. I pondered if my reaction to The Uncanny was due to its close proximity to the more feral and kinetic Tears of Kali, but no… this one creaks in the wrong places. Oh, it’s a fair use of 90 minutes, the actors and game and uniformly good, but some patience will definitely be called for.

T: Tears of Kali (2004)

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Oh, hello again, Germany.

I stumbled across this movie while searching off the beaten path for Hubrisween. I fancy myself fairly well-read in the realm of horror, and searching somewhere other than the US and the UK offer strange delights. For me, there is nothing quite like coming across a movie I’ve never heard of. Even better is finding out it doesn’t suck.

We begin in a compound in what we are told is Poona, India in 1983. People on mats, all appearing to be in various stages of suffering as an older man (Pietro Martellanza) walks among them, comforting them. One in particular is Kim (Anja Gebel), quite striking because she is naked. The man asks her where she’s looking. “Inside.” “What do you see?” “Darkness.”

He walks her to a window and asks her to open her eyes. She does, only for a second. He asks her to look outside, “For there is everything. Life. Do it for me.” And he leaves her.

And she walks slowly out of the room, returns to the window, and cuts off her eyelids with a pair of scissors.

From this we go to our first story (yes, this is an anthology) “Shakti”. A writer (Celik Nuran) visits a mental hospital to interview a patient, Elizabeth (Irena-Heliana Jandis), due to be discharged in a week. Years before, Elizabeth had belonged to a cult headed by Samarfan (Joey Bazatt), where she was known as “Shakti”. Samarfan, we will find, belonged to the infamous and experimental Taylor-Eriksson Group, who we saw in that opening. What Samarfan brought from his stay in Poona was a system of meditation and primal scream therapy, first contacting what Jung called “the shadow” in each person and casting it out with the scream. One night, Samarfan was torn messily to pieces, and Shakti confessed to the crime – even though witnesses claimed she was with them all night.

It turns out that the cast-out shadows didn’t simply go away, in Elizabeth’s case becoming a tulpa composed entirely of her rage. The writer has her own agenda, and wants Elizabeth to once more summon her tulpa so a hidden video camera in her purse can capture the proof.

This is a bad idea.

The second story, “Devi”, concerns young skinhead thug Robin (Marcel Trunsch) who has been convicted of beating a Polish tourist nearly to death while hopped up on speed. To avoid jail, he must get 15 hours of therapy, and is referred to the office of Dr. Steiner (Michael Balaun). Robin puts on what he thinks is a good contrite act, only to be countered by Steiner at every turn, until the doctor puts a Vulcan nerve pinch on him. When Robin awakes, everything in the office has been covered in plastic sheets. Dr. Steiner, you see, was in the Taylor-Eriksson Group, where he learned some interesting things about therapy. Here’s a hint: Watch out what you say in your first sentence to your therapist.

As you might guess from that plastic sheeting, this story has the goriest ending of the three.

Speaking of third stories, “Kali” introduces us to Edgar (Mathieu Carrière) a faith healer who is losing his faith. Though not spelled out, the story skillfully implies that his gift left him when he was unable to save his daughter from some disease. He’s drinking a lot more these days.

One of the people who come to him is Mira (Cora Chilcott), who is bent over with the burden of something from her past. Edgar can sense whatever it is, and it is powerful; after a tense bout of thrashing and screaming, it leaves her, and we see a shadowy form slither into the old church building Edgar has rented. Mira was in, you guessed it, the Taylor-Eriksson Group in its final days, when they were experimenting with “the Kali Process”, venturing inward, into “the cellars of the soul, where there is no separation between the living and the dead.” There are things down there that should stay there, but Mira brought one back. And now, free of her, it’s in the dark building. And it’s hungry.

Tears of Kali was originally three short films (each story starts with its own credits) and, indeed, writer-director Andreas Marschall has made quite a few short films, and I’m trying to figure out how to find more of them to watch. You can usually trust that in any given anthology film, you’ll find one great story, one lousy story, and the rest various shades of mediocre; Tears of Kali puts the lie to that by presenting three very good stories – though I will admit “Devi” is my particular favorite. All that work he did on shorts shows in a good, solid movie obviously done with not that much money but a whole lot of skill, commitment and artistry.

It’s probably not a big surprise that Marschall is also known as an artist for heavy metal album covers.