Science Crazed (1991)

I first “met” Doug Tilley when he contacted me for an e-mail interview about my own long-ago crap movie, Forever Evil. He’s a nice guy, talented writer. Does a couple of podcasts in addition to his No Budget Nightmares feature on Daily Grindhouse.

sciencecrazedI should have paid more attention to my story tropes, because guys like Doug are the ones who stab you in the back during climactic battles, or innocently cause the Apocalypse. This begins innocently enough with an entry on the aforementioned column, on a movie I had never heard of before: Science Crazed.

“You have never, ever seen anything like SCIENCE CRAZED. I promise you.”

Reading Doug’s review again, it is like the circular narrations I wrote about last week, where the first time you hear the narration, you have nothing to hang on the words, but when it’s repeated at the end, the narration becomes heavy with meaning. There have been other mentions of Science Crazed from Doug on Twitter and Facebook. Enough that I was finally curious enough to track down a copy. Like The Necronomicon, there are no copies available to the general public, and for a damned good reason. And like a doomed character in an H.P. Lovecraft story, I tracked it down anyway.

We will pause now while I stare emptily into space for a few moments, shuddering.

I have watched many, many bad movies in the course of my life. I had thought that I had hit the lowest with Sorority House Vampires From Hell, but I was proven wrong when Joe made me watch Things for my first Daily Grindhouse podcast. This, surely, was it – but the Universe keeps finding ways to prove me wrong.

Okay, the first thing you are going to notice about Science Crazed is that it’s shot on video. I’m okay with this. The second thing you are going to notice is that everybody is dubbed. Okay, I can handle that. They are dubbed poorly, which is a little harder to take. And even though they are dubbed, the room tone still changes from shot to shot. Here, allow me to demonstrate, with the movie’s opening:

You will notice something else, here. Although the intention was to overdub everyone, writer/director/super auteur Ron Switzer apparently told everyone to pause for a few seconds before saying their lines so the echo of his voice calling “ACTION!” could die away. But, in order to pad his movie out to the required 80 minutes for a feature, he left these pauses in. I could reduce the running time by about fifteen minutes just by cutting out those pauses. More on padding in a moment. First we should address what plot can actually be found:

Dr. Frank straps a woman to a chair and gives her an injection that he promises will cause her to give birth to a baby in 24 hours. Strangely, she is okay with this. She writhes in the chair while screams are dubbed in. The next morning, Frank and his assistants come in (science is not something that needs to be observed, I guess), to find her corpse and a baby on the floor. Frank instructs his assistants to wrap the baby’s head in gauze, which makes as much sense as anything else so far.

crazed4In the matter of a few hours, the baby has grown into a strapping adult gauze-faced Fiend, who kills Frank and proceeds to wander the endless halls of the Shelley Institute, looking for victims. The Shelley Institute has an pretty unusual variety of facilities, and a bunch of people doing a variety of things in these facilities, most of them unexplained. None of them know a Fiend is coming, although the thing sounds like a lion with a sinus infection snoring in a cardboard box.

Let’s look at the first major segment, which is going to bring us back to the truly diseased amount of padding in this movie: There are two women exercising in one of the Institute’s many odd rooms. The Fiend stalks the halls, drawing closer. We think he’s drawing closer. He could be moving away from them, for all the clues the camerawork and editing give us. The women continue to exercise. No, wait, it’s not so much that they continue to exercise as the same damned footage is repeated over and over again until the segment is ten goddamn minutes long. Switzer took his tape recorder to a gym to record a real workout session, which means there are far more people on the soundtrack than there are in the exercise room.

Doug Tilley, possibly in an attempt to warn the world, possibly in an act of contrition, posted this entire sequence to YouTube. Go ahead, I dare you:

Some build-up, huh? Some monster attack, huh?

Now consider the excruciating volcanic hell of nearly an hour and a half of this.

There is a blonde in a room doing something with a microphone, maybe? Switzeris quite proud of the swirling camerawork he did around her because he repeats it five or six times while someone bangs on a Casio keyboard. Interspersed with hallway shots, of course.

vlcsnap-2012-12-18-19h36m22s36The two assistants do call in a cop (he’s browsing in a local video store) who looks like a high school senior giving his impression of what a loose cannon cop must be like – I haven’t seen a prop gun so misused since Plan 9 From Outer Space. Apparently all the other cops have the weekend off, so he and the two assistants split up to look for the Fiend.

The Shelley Institute also has an indoor swimming pool which has some sort of party going on in the middle of the night. Science Crazed has its educational aspects, as we discover that ladies in Canada wear high heels and sunglasses to indoor pools. The Fiend takes exception to this, drowns one woman who obligingly swims up to him, and shuffles off.

One of the last of the people in the Shelley Institute to fall to the Fiend’s strolling rampage is a woman making a list of countries in which to test nerve gas, That she composes her list so slowly is a droll bit of self-parody in this movie, so I assume it’s in there by mistake.

This is a movie shot in slow motion that has absolutely no slow motion in it. Unless you count the scene where the worthless cop dies, and I think he’s supposed to be crumpling to the ground in slow motion, but is really only moving very slowly.

scicra3I’ve also seen movies that get confused between daytime and nighttime, but I’ve never seen that in a movie happening indoors. There are plenty of times that the Fiend walks into a fully-lit room, only to have the next scene happen in a spotlight in a dark room. I’d say it’s an artistic conceit, but the rest of the movie argues against any artistry whatsoever.

Incidentally, the Fiend can dodge bullets, but it can’t dodge a machete. Go figure.

The movie ends with the supposedly dead Fiend’s eye opening and a promise of a sequel, which results in my traditional send-off to really bad movies: “Oh, fuck you!”

Science Crazed is apparently on YouTube in its entirety. You can find it yourself, if you’re so inclined. I refuse to have that stain on my karma.

Doug Tilley, why you hate me so?

Madwomen Across The Water: Two Horror Movies From The Early 70s

I’m a lifelong Texan. This is due to a lot of factors, not the least of which is my tendency toward inertia. Financial, business, all my friends are here, all my family is here… it ain’t the climate that keeps me around. I hate being hot. I hate being hot in a steambath, which is a fair description of summers around here. I would have split for parts with a more temperate-to-frigid tradition, except for… you know. Then again, I’d have to admit I’d be spending my time bitching about shoveling the sidewalk.

So we had an Arctic Event here last Friday , by which I mean No One Cares. At All. There were icicles on my mailbox. There was ice on my car, and more importantly, there was some ice on roadways. Nothing compared to what our Northern friends were experiencing, but when you live in a swamp, you do not build an igloo; we simply do not have the infrastructure for such weather. It was uncommon for these parts, but I still sort of feel there was a general overreaction. School districts and colleges shut down, which was my work day shot right there (in fact, the next day, when all this stuff had melted and it was sweater weather at best, I went to the campus and it was still locked down). My regular Friday night show was cancelled too, and when I stopped counting the money this enforced day off was costing me, I decided to have a little mini-film-festival, so I could pretend I was up in Chicago, at B-Fest, without all the shouting and slowly growing body funk.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

messiah_evil_1973_image-25Before the Frost Giants came to visit, I made use of a night off to watch Messiah of Evil, an oddity from 1973 . In it, a young lady named Arletty (Marianna Hill) goes to an insular seaside California town to find her missing artist father (who will turn out, eventually, to be Royal Dano). The townspeople are spectacularly unhelpful, if not downright hostile. She finds her father’s journal, which chronicles his apparent descent into madness – apparent except for the fact that Arletty’s experience begins to mirror his. She is joined by peripatetic curiosity seeker Thom (Michael Greer, better known as a comedian) and his two female (and somewhat mysterious) traveling companions (Anitra Ford and Joy Bang).

Messiah of Evil 2There is some mythology hanging around in the background about a Dark Preacher who passed through the community 100 years before, and walked into the ocean with a promise to return in, yes, a hundred years. Packs of townspeople spend the night on the beach, keeping warm with bonfires, doing nothing but staring out to the ocean, waiting. And when the moon turns red, the whole town turns into Night of the Living Dead. Well, we’re told that it’s when the moon turns red, but we see anti-social flesh-eating behavior from the townsfolk on regular nights, too.

Eventually our Scooby Gang is whittled down to just Thom and Arletty – and Arletty has already confronted her supposedly dead father, and is pretty far down the same path he was on – bleeding from the eyes (a sure sign of trouble in the town), inability to feel pain, general insanity. They try to escape hordes of violent townsfolk apparently come to eat them, but then…

…the movie runs out of money.

muralIn the extras of Code Red DVD‘s superb presentation of Messiah of Evil, co-writers and co-directors Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck talk about schlepping the mostly completed movie around LA, trying to get the money to finish it, and meeting with general disdain. Finally the legal squabbles between investors were settled, and they surrendered the work print, which was hurriedly completed, probably with existing footage, and released. The story gets, shall we say, rather rushed there at the end. A common enough story in Hollywoodland.

And that, oddly enough, works in favor of the movie. There’s already a Lovecraftian air to the proceedings, and what Huyck and Katz didn’t get to shoot – the rest of the backstory, explaining the Dark Preacher and what nefarious outcome he hoped to accomplish with all this flesh-eating and Blood Moon stuff – that goes unexplained. And inexplicable circumstances is the tentpole of Lovecraft-style horror.

messiah marketHere in the hyper-cynical ‘teens of a new century, it’s easier to appreciate the general tone of Messiah of Evil. My first reaction was that it was Lovecraft by way of Lynch through Argento’s sensibilities. Arletty’s encounters with the townspeople, and Thom and his mini-harem, the father’s beach house with its disorienting murals, all feel distinctly Lynchian; witness Arletty’s first encounter with Thom & Co., when a motel door opens to reveal none other than a disheveled Elisha Cook, Jr. relating a horror story of local events, apparently directly to her (it’s to Thom and his tape recorder).

hallwayThe way in which the plot unfolds, the camerawork, the reliance on narration, the dreamlike interactions between people, the lighting… it all feels positively European, and given the supernatural events, my mind drifts to Argento’s Suspiria, except without such a saturated color pallet. Hearing Huyck and Katz talk about their admiration for French film and their attempts to emulate it in the disc’s extras made me feel better – at least I got the continent right.

The cast they assembled is also surprisingly solid for the limited budget, and has plenty of genre clout. Royal Dano and Elisha Cook, Jr. require no introduction, and were probably there for a day each, at most. Marianna Hill has a varied resume, reaching from The Traveling Executioner, Blood Beach  and Schizoid all the way to Godfather Part II. Anitra Ford’s career is pretty much centered in the 70s, where she was mainly known as a model on The Price is Right, but pervert that I am, I mainly know her from The Big Bird Cage. Joy Bang – who always looked 14, no matter how old she really was (and she’s about 26 or 27 here) is probably best known for Night of the Cobra Woman, and she called it quits on her acting career soon after this movie.

Messiah theater(Another odd note is… oh, ahem, SPOILER ALERT …when Joy’s character buys it, she’s in a movie theater that slowly fills up with zombified townspeople, a chillingly effective scene. Though the movie she’s watching is supposed to be Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, it’s actually Gone With the West, also known as Little Moon and Jud McGraw, which stars Sammy Davis Jr., James Caan and Stefanie Powers. That couldn’t have been cheap to license. It also has a release year of 1975, so I have no earthly idea of what the hell is going on here, appropriately enough.)

(Future me jumps in to mention that is probably a trailer for Gone With the West, as trailers do not have such complex licensing  problems. But man, Messiah would have you believe it’s an amazingly long trailer!)

Messiah of Evil was a genuine surprise to me. Incomplete, but fairly unique in its approach and subject matter. The sequences involving Ford and Bang’s fatal encounters with the townspeople are very good, especially for a low-budget movie from a first-time director. You start wondering what Willard Huyck did afterwards. Unfortunately, the answer to that is Howard the Duck.

(That was cheap and mean and the easy way out. Huyck and Katz also wrote American Graffiti and wrote and directed French Postcards, which I thought was a pretty good movie.)

lets_scare_jessica_to_death_poster_01So then, what am I to think when the first of our Arctic Events hits (I’m typing this during the second one) and I start my little mini-fest with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death?

This movie wasn’t what I expected; that title gives you the impression a plot is afoot, and it is not (oh, yeah, spoiler alert again). Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has only recently been released from a mental institution. Her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), a concert cellist, has sunk all his money into an old house with an attached apple orchard, intending to become a gentleman farmer and using this idyllic life to help his wife recuperate. Their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) comes along for the ride. They find Emily (Mariclare Costello) a red-headed hippie chick squatting in the house, and seeing how attracted Woody is to her, they wind up asking her to stay.

If you’re thinking that the townspeople are going to be stand-offish if not downright hostile, you’re right. They all seem to be wearing bandages or nursing woundsof some sort. Duncan and Jessica find a fellow transplant, an antique dealer originally from New York, (Alan Manson), who’s willing to tell them about their new home and its unfortunate history, how one of the girls drowned in the lake and now haunts the woods as “a vampire or something”. There’s some spooky girl haunting the woods alright, and Jessica keeps seeing something in the lake, beckoning to her under the surface. Then she notices that in an old photo of the previous occupants found in the attic (that was sold to the antique dealer but somehow crops back up) one of the daughters looks a lot like Emily…

lets-scare-jessica-to-death-jessicaOne of the best things about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is that the movie keeps the viewer just as off-kilter as the title character, often unsure of what is actually happening or even what just happened. The actual reality of events is always in question, and the fact that almost all of the events happen during broad daylight, a direct violation of everything that is held dear and traditional in a horror movie, just makes everything that much more disorienting. This is also another movie where the sound design is an uncredited cast member, adding to the viewer’s growing unease.

Lampert is phenomenal as Jessica, walking a razor’s edge of panic and brittle bravery in the face of her recent “sickness” and resultant unreliability. Mariclare Costello, as the vampire-or-something Emily, also walks a tightrope of intentions; we’re never quite sure what she’s all about until the third act. Both women went on to lengthy acting careers deservedly so. The men, unfortunately, are just there to be manipulated, which is another reason this movie stands out in the horror field: the women do all the heavy lifting.  The men are there mainly to be culled.

(I should also indulge in another of my annoying asides to mention that the main actors deserve extra props just for getting into that lake over and over again, especially with all the nice pans over that gorgeous Connecticut fall foliage, all bright red and yellow… it’s late Fall, and that water must be freezing.)

lets-scare-jessica-to-death-watery-ghostWriter/Director John D. Hancock has an enormous set of brass gonads for even attempting to make a horror movie that unspools in the daylight, and he earns them by largely succeeding. When most people discuss him, they point to his later movie Prancer, but for my money his best movie is Weeds (which he also wrote), starring Nick Nolte.

The juxtaposition of these two movies so close together in my experience was so jarring because in many ways they are so similar: both open and close in a circular fashion, with the main character in isolation, narrating. This snippet of prose is repeated at the end, and of course, the second instance has a much heavier meaning due to what has transpired in the previous 90 minutes. Both women are insane. Both have to deal with bizarre, cultish townspeople. And both are bedeviled by things lurking in a nearby body of water.

Lets_scare_Jessica_to_death_Trailer_1971__154728 (1)Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, when it was re-released by Warner Archive, was touted as a Lovecraftian tale, which I don’t see at all: it is Lovecraftian only in that the events are never fully explained, outside of Emily being “a vampire or something”. Messiah is the more genuinely Lovecraftian of the two, with its unknown and unknowable mythology lurking around the periphery in the land of unshot footage. Jessica is more a ghost story with teeth (perhaps literally), if not a sheer examination of the horror of a decaying mind, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Messiah is like Shadow Over Innsmouth re-imagined after a viewing of Night of the Living Dead.

Jessica precedes Messiah by a good two years, minus whatever time it took for Messiah’s finances to get ironed out and the movie released in its unfortunately incomplete form. Did one inspire the other? I can’t say; the common elements are such sturdy pieces of storytelling boilerplate that I can’t really judge. Sometimes the disparate pieces of a tale, floating around in the collective ether, fly together on their own, and two or more similar stories are crafted. Witness Dredd and The Raid: Redemption for a more recent example.

messiah_of_evilBut there is one thing for sure: they are both good, if odd, horror stories, well worth watching. Though I should also mention that both are going to be pretty much dismissed by the modern horror fan, with their deliberate pacing and lack of gouts of blood – Jessica moreso than Messiah.

That’s something else they have in common.

Lurching Toward Halloween

This has been a rather full month. I started an entry about two weeks ago, about my viewing of the Matt Helm spy spoof The Silencers, but then found out Teleport City had done one of their typically complete and engaging exposés on the entire Matt Helm oeuvre, rendering anything I might have to say pretty moot. Then things got pretty busy. Pretty, pretty busy.

My day job is back on the one-story-a-week schedule, I find myself attending up to three meetings a week for various writing projects, my weekend show – usually only Saturdays – has added Fridays and occasional weekday private shows, I still work at least three city meetings a month… it’s been a rough-and-tumble confluence of three part-time jobs with three freelance jobs, leaving no time for non-paying propositions like watching movies and then blogging about them.

It’s usual to do something stupid under these circumstances, like another Movie Challenge, especially since I finally seem to be recovered from the last one. For a longtime horror fan like myself, 31 Days Of Horror seems like a natural, right? Then I look at my Google Calendar for October, tote things up, and discover I have, at present, 18 of those evenings free – if I totally ignore the freelance writing work, which I won’t, because they’re like, paying me money (that work ethic may be compromised as that project is dependent on a government grant, and some lunatics think it would be a good thing to shut down the government for a while). So I put together a list of 18 movies I want to watch in my birthday month, almost certainly an act of punishable hubris. There is a stretch goal of 31, because I also like science fiction, har de har.

I also cheat, and have so far watched 3 of the stretch goal movies, and two of the 18, here in September.

Frankensteins-ArmyThere had been a steady stream of good advance buzz on Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army, and that, coupled with an impressively cheap blu-ray, put it square in my sights. It has a great, creepy storyline with an unexpected viewpoint: a Soviet recon squad in WWII Germany responds to a distress call from another Russian squad and finds itself in a deserted village with a funeral pyre made of nuns and a cemetery full of opened, empty graves. Things quickly go from bad to worse as they find themselves besieged by primitive cyborgs cobbled together by none other than Victor Frankenstein, building super soldiers for an increasingly desperate Third Reich.

That’s pretty standard comic book boilerplate, but two things set Frankenstein’s Army apart: first, the brilliant (if incredibly twisted) production design by Raaphorst – not just the creatures, dubbed “zombots”- but the superbly creepy-ass village, retrofitted by him and his crew in an abandoned coal mining complex outside Prague. Second, the fact that this is a found footage movie.

Yeah, yeah, stop your moaning. I like them – they’re great, if done well (and what can’t you say that about?), and Frankenstein’s Army gets it right in large part. At least once you get over the concept of a 1940s movie camera that is man-portable, records sound, and has an abundant supply of film. And the fact that our cameraman gets some shots that would be impossible, or at least ridiculously dangerous, in the field. Or…

Pfeh. I’m watching a movie about Nazi Zombies with blades for hands and propellers for heads. Suddenly I’m concerned about realism? And there’s certainly enough audacious instances causing this battle-hardened monster movie watcher to go “Holy shit!” that any imperfections along the way get immediately forgiven.

a-bay-of-blood-movie-poster-1020534632That got followed up with Mario Bava’s seminal murder spree movie, A Bay of Blood, aka Carnage aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, which starts with a bizarre, wince-inducing murder, and then seems to violate giallo tradition by revealing the identity of the black-gloved murderer.. but then he gets murdered, and things start to spiral out of control from that initial five minutes.

The first murder – of a wheelchair-bound countess – means a power vacuum around the ownership of the titular bay, an idyllic place that the dead woman strenuously resisted developing. The Bay is now up for grabs, as her second husband (the now-deceased murderer) has apparently disappeared, leaving it up to his daughter and, surprise, surprise, a bastard son. The architect who wants to develop the Bay (and already has a very nice house there) is pressuring the bastard to sign over everything, a bunch of dune-buggy riding hippies break into his house to party (and wind up getting killed), the daughter and her husband show up, and she’s not adverse to getting her hands bloody (or significantly, forcing her husband to get his equally sanguinary) and holy crap the death count just starts spiralling and finally you’re not really sure who’s killed who.

That speaks to Bava’s usual streak of jet-black comedy. There’s something about the Bay – or real estate in general – that just seems to kick off everyone’s killer urges, leading up to one of the most demented, absurd conclusions in any horror movie. At least three of the murders are famously stolen for Friday the 13th parts one and two, movies I would have liked had they a fraction of the wit and style exhibited here.  Needless to say, it’s Mario Bava, so the cinematography is gorgeous even when grotesque, and the Kino Blu-ray punches all that up admirably.

DraculaPrinceOfDarkness_FrSmallDracula, Prince of Darkness is not my favorite Hammer Dracula, but until Horror or Brides is released on Blu here in the US, it will suffice. In fact, I found myself warming to this entry on my first viewing in years – and come to think of it, chances are good my previous attempt was mangled for TV.

Four English twits touring their way through Europe ten years after the events of the first movie have some incredibly bad luck and wind up spending the night at Castle Dracula. The manservant, Klove (Philip Latham) guts one of them over a stone sarcophagus, using his blood to resurrect his dusty master. So Christopher Lee is back, stalking the womenfolk, and snarling a lot (It’s a great story, though unproven, that Lee found the Count’s lines so terrible that he refused to speak them).

Prince has some great setpieces, driverless carriages and slow unfolding of plot. It also has some dreadfully clunky places, and suffers from the absence of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. The substitute is Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a bluff, brusque clergyman who has not time for fools or the undead’s nonsense. Keir is great in the role, and honestly, you can’t criticize him for not being Peter Cushing – who among us is? Anyway, Father Sandor is memorable enough that he inspired a continuing comic in the Hammer House of Horror magazine called “Father Shandor, Demon Stalker”, which I know about primarily because it carried over to the amazing Warrior magazine.

If nothing else, Prince does pay homage to several tropes of vampire mythology that Hammer would exploit many times in the coming years – the thralls, like Klove and mad Ludwig; vampires having to gain permission to enter a house; and their allergy to running water. Not top-notch Hammer, but better than none at all.

outpost2dI bought the DVD for Outpost because – well, okay, because it was cheap, but also because it’s a horror movie starring Ray Stevenson. Latecomer that I am, my first exposure to Stevenson was in Punisher: War Zone (the only Punisher movie I’ve ever liked), and then I was overjoyed to find him cropping up in other places: HBO’s Rome, that weirdass steampunk Three Musketeers. He has nowhere near the girth to play Volstagg in the Thor movies, but I’m still glad he got the role.

So. Outpost. Stevenson leads a squad of mercs into an abandoned Nazi bunker and fights zombies. Oh, holy mother of God and all the disciples in a Honda Civic,  not Nazi zombies again!! How did they manage to lose the war with all these Hell Creatures at their beck and call?

I’m going to give Outpost the courtesy of admitting it at least gives these zombies a different, even unique, origin: the SS, in the last throes of the War, are messing around with Unified Field Theory, with the result being a bunch of stormtroopers under command of a pasty white Gestapo officer (a genuinely unnerving Johnny Meres), unstuck in time, trapped in a limbo that allows them to conveniently appear and disappear, apparently at will. And, as we learned in Dead Snow, all Nazis care about is being evil dickweeds. Our mercs are there to help a historian find the Unified Field Generator for his wealthy backers, who turn out to be just as ruthless as the Nazis.

If there is a major flaw in Outpost – outside the feeling that we’ve already been through this many times before – it’s that our mercs are so obviously, hopelessly overmatched, there’s no real suspense, just some nasty kills. When our remaining crew do figure out a plan to extricate themselves, it relies heavily on the Nazis conveniently forgetting they can shadow walk anywhere in the complex. This didn’t stop the production of a recent sequel, Outpost: Black Sun, so it must have had some success.

I do still love Ray Stevenson, though.

I also love living in the DVD age. The mercs run the gamut of nationalities and opaque accents, so the ability to turn on subtitles was a real plus.

World-War-ZSince I ended my decade-long moratorium against zombie movies, the floodgates have opened, as it were (in other words, I am dealing with that particular glut of product), so why not experience the ne plus ultra of this bizarre cultural obsession, something that would have been unthinkable back in 1978, when Romero released Dawn of the Dead: a zombie movie costing over $200 million, World War Z.

Since Max Brooks’ novel of the same name was subtitled An Oral History, deviation from the source material was practically a given, unless you wanted a movie about a bunch of people being interviewed or Ken Burns’ World War Z. What we get instead is Brad Pitt playing a former UN war crimes investigator having the worst day of his life, being pressed back into service by the end of the world.

World War Z is more disaster movie than zombie flick, but with a budget that huge, it is also an incredibly impressive disaster movie. Way back when,  watching one of the movies that triggered my moratorium, Resident Evil, there was one moment that I did appreciate: the final pullback from Milla Jovovich to reveal a city devastated by a zombie apocalypse. World War Z gives us several segments of the apocalypse in progress, and that money gets spent hard, and much of it winds up on the screen. Great cast, good effects work, dynamite pacing, and a few genuine surprises. It was everything I look for in movies. Not just horror movies, but movies in general.

As I write this, September is drawing to a close. This looks to be another busy week, even though my freelance jobs are probably going to be shut down for a while thanks to some World War Z-worthy antics in D.C. After a burst of tending to my other jobs, I’ll be back to the horror movies, taking comfort in the fact that the insanity in them is limited to two hours or less, and the impact upon myself and my family, minimal.

Human Lanterns (1982)

HumanLanterns_GoldenSwallow_SC36Before I descend into the madness of another Movie Challenge Month, I should probably talk about one of the movies I did manage to watch during my burnout from the last one: Human Lanterns, a piece to 80s horror nastiness from the Shaw Brothers. It is on The List, after all.

When the craze for Asian movies started up again in the 90s, I was right there with it, searching out movies in an age when the Net was just starting out and a person in my position had to make do with books, magazines, and mail order. I still have a ton of VHS tapes in boxes in my garage, most of very iffy quality and downright scurrilous sources. But one of the movies spoken of as a sort of HK video nasty was Human Skin Lanterns, later amended to Human Lanterns. And here it is, in my hands, in a pristine DVD.

A company named Celestial Pictures started putting out remastered, gorgeous DVDs of the Shaw Brothers back catalogue in the early 00s, and again, there I was. The American Dollar was very strong against the HK dollar, and I was importing close to 20 discs a month for under $200. There were movies I thought I would never see in my lifetime, movies familiar only in their cropped, dubbed versions on Saturday afternoon TV, and movies I took a chance on and was rewarded handsomely.

Human-LanternsAs all good things must, the contract I was working on at the time ended, and I was back to my duller, more financially strapped state. But then domestic American editions of the Celestial discs began appearing, and look, there it is in my hands: Human Lanterns. With the Image Entertainment logo.

So here’s your plot: There are two kung fu bigshots in town, Tan (Chen Kuan Tai) and Lung (Tony Liu). There is the usual rivalry between the two, but the difference here is that both men are real douchebags, and their antics are the sort of things that make their friends look away uncomfortably. Their latest achievement is wrecking a party at Tan’s over a prostitute both men frequent.

The upshot of the evening is that both men swear they are going to win that year’s Lantern Competition, and Lung journeys to the town’s market to find out who has really been making lanterns for Lung in past years – the merchant he actually pays for them doesn’t have the skill. To his surprise, Lung discovers this masterful lantern maker is none other than Fang (Lo Lieh), a man Lung beat in a duel seven years before, leaving him with a facial scar and a brooding hatred.

Lung beseeches Fang to let bygones be bygones, to make him a truly beautiful and unique lantern that will beat Tan’s entry. In return, Lung promises riches and a way out of the hovel in which Fang lives and works. Fang agrees, as this is the spark that will power a vengeance seven years in the building.

human-lanterns-2_webFang begins by kidnapping the aforementioned prostitute and skinning her alive. There are gorier instances of this in genre cinema, but this particular version is low-tech and pretty nasty. Tan and Lung cast suspicions on each other for the woman’s disappearance, and the local policeman (Sun Chien) is pretty ineffective, as in all horror movies.

Fang continues his plan apace, eventually kidnapping Tan’s younger sister, and finally Lung’s wife, who we discover was the cause of that duel seven years before.  Things build to a massive kung fu fight and a fiery finish, which only one of the characters will survive.

There are, as I said, gorier movies of this sort, but Human Lanterns manages to be unpleasant in its own, personal ways. Thankfully, we only see two of the women being skinned, but Fang, in the full throes of his villainy, has to rape the woman who caused his defeat and disfigurement. We never see Tan’s younger sister go through this, only Fang’s gleeful playing of cat-and-mouse with her in his hellish underground workshop. We entertain a bit of hope that she might still crop up, unharmed toward the end… but no. This is a horror movie, a slasher film in period garb. Don’t let the accouterments of an action movie fool you.

There is a special kind of chill when Lung finally finds that underground charnel house and sees the completed lanterns, and is held transfixed for a moment by their beauty, not realizing that the one he is admiring features the “beautiful red mole” on his wife’s back that he so treasured.

lantern25The cast is quite good. Chen Kuan Tai, a superb martial artist and star of many a Shaw Brothers blockbuster, seems pretty wasted in his role; Tony Liu is given much more screen time and fills it well enough, but neither of these men are given any way to truly gain audience empathy; the only people we feel for are the victims. Poor Sun Chien never got a break – we always see him playing second fiddle to other members of the Venom Gang, and here he has to play the Asian version of Barney Fife.

Lo Lieh was a very versatile performer; he could certainly handle hero roles – witness King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death – but where he really excelled was playing villains, and Human Lanterns gives him more than adequate atrocities to sink his teeth into. While doing his wetwork, Fang wears some sort of hairy ape suit with a skull face ,and watching this figure, swinging through the trees, loose-jointed and cackling, is pretty chilling.

lantern17Human Lanterns has its share of fight scenes, but none are dynamic enough to cement the movie as a kung fu flick – and the horror segments are memorable enough, but often seem imported from another movie. It’s an odd creature to be sure, worth a watch from horror fans, but probably not action-packed enough for martial arts mavens.

V/H/S (2012)

As we’ve seen recently, I’m fascinated by the found footage format.  I was burbling about a horror anthology called V/H/S which was going to be nothing but found footage as interpreted by six directors (more really, there’s at least four operating under the pseudonym Radio Silence). Well, it finally became available on a number of Video On Demand venues, so I didn’t have to wait for its October theatrical debut… and I don’t like watching found footage movies in a cinema, anyway. It’s just not right.

Horror anthologies always have a framing device, and this one is fitting: a gang of hooligans who videotapes their illegal activities (like vandalism, burglaries and grabbing women to expose their breasts) get hired to pull a job that seems up their alley: breaking into a remote house and stealing a particular videocassette. Once there, they find the house’s sole occupant dead, and a lot of tapes. While the others search the house, various members of the gang check out tapes one by one…and these contain our stories.

The first story, “Amateur Night”, starts the proceedings off fairly strongly, and has one of the better devices for combating the “Why do they keep filming?” skepticism: a pair of “video glasses” with a built-in camera and microphone. Two frat boy-types pop these glasses on their nerdier friend, rent a hotel room, then start cruising the local bars. There is one woman who seems attracted to our walking camera, an odd, seemingly feral girl who only seems to know one phrase, “I like you.” Back at the hotel room, when the only other pick-up passes out, the other two men start concentrating on the Spooky Girl, with predictably (yet still somewhat surprisingly) gory results.

I should mention that Spooky Girl is effectively played by Hannah Fierman, an actress whose face I swear is 1/3 eyes. Very striking, very good performance. I’m going to say all the performances in “Amatuer Night” are pretty good, to the point of making me extremely uncomfortable. This segment seems to take a little long to get to its payoff, which is the only real criticism I can make.

You’re going to wind up in the same fix with “Second Honeymoon”, written and directed by Ti West. West has been getting some very good press with this movies House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, but I was dreadfully let down by this sequence. Very long setup, very sudden and unsatisfying payoff.

The third sequence, “Tuesday the 17th” starts yet again with a group of young people heading out into the country while some guy annoys everyone with his video camera – that’s pretty endemic to the format – but at least it’s dispensed with pretty quickly. The girl taking everyone out to her folks’ “cabin by the lake” has an agenda of her own, involving some murders at that location several years before.  The main interesting point to this story seems cribbed, however unwittingly, from the Marble Hornets web series, with a killer that screws up video signals, which at the very least leads to some interesting visuals.

No spoilers here, nope, nuh uh.

Story #4, “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger” breaks with established form magnificently by presenting the story as series of Skype calls, instead of camcorder footage. It also has some of the most effective scares and the best twist of the movie.

The last story, “10/31/98” is about yet another group of young men who are headed out to a Halloween party on the titular date. One of the guys has built a handycam into the head of his bear costume, so there you go. Nobody is really sure where this party is located, and there’s some driving around to fill time. Once they think they’ve finally found it… well, needless to say, it’s the wrong house. It is a very wrong house, and this story has some of the best frights in the whole flick.

The build on V/H/S is very good, starting out solidly, if a bit slowly, then upping the ante through the last three tales. Sadly, I think the Ti West story could have been easily excised and produced a tighter, shorter movie. The framing story does stand on its own pretty well, with a few shocks of its own. The acting is never less than professional (though the character work in “Tuesday the 17th” is pretty cliché, which I think was the point), and even very, very good in places.

So I’m going to say, yeah, very worth the rental. If you don’t like found footage, this isn’t going to change your mind. But in a pretty tepid year for horror stories, it’s nice to find one that goes for the gusto without resorting to the simple meanness of torture, or by remaking another, more successful movie from 20 years before.

Keeping that in mind: definitely worth the rental, especially if you’re a horror fan suffering through a drought of decent material.