Oct 22 2014

Reading Material: Pumpkin Cinema: The Best Movies for Halloween

pumpkincinemaGiven the innocuous title and a cover to nearly match, I assumed Nathaniel Tolle’s Pumpkin Cinema: The Best Movies for Halloween would not only have nothing to offer a well-seasoned horror vet, but be an outright embarrassment as well. Those fears were wholly unfounded; this Schiffer Publishing release oozes credibility like its titular gourd does its own guts if left on the porch, exposed to the elements, well into November.

Beyond that cursory, first-impression glance, I had good reason to worry. In his introduction, Tolle lays out his criteria for selecting the 100-plus films he chose for review; among them, “It cannot be mean-spirited or cruel.” Somehow, this self-imposed rule doesn’t defang the contents at all; turn four pages from there and the X-rated Andy Warhol’s Dracula slaps you in the face (with what exactly, I leave to your imagination).

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Oct 12 2014

Reading Material: 6 New Film Books for Fall

bloodedwoodCult cinephiles know Ed Wood also applied his unique stamp of “talent” to two-bit porn mags in the 1960s and ’70s, via short stories; however, the fiction’s scarcity kept fans’ knowledge from extending into experience. That all changes with OR Books’ release of The Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr., a paperback whose exacting design, pulp illustrations and overall packaging belie the quality of the Plan 9 madman’s prose. Never subtle, the guy sure loved his ellipses, exclamation marks and “shock” endings, all evident in these 33 tales, more expertly curated than offerings like “The Whorehouse Horror” and “Breasts of the Chicken” have a right to be. Cheap, dirty and often deviant sex fuels much of the riotous contents, with horror being the primary genre in which Wood banged these things out, and they can be read almost as quickly as they were birthed; one can assume there were no second drafts. After all, at the time of their printing, the stories likely were read (if at all) during masturbators’ refractory periods. You can read them whenever you wish — I won’t judge — but please, just pull the string.

daydeadTo trot out and paraphrase the cliché, you don’t have to be a fan of the Night of the Living Dead trilogy’s third leg in order to enjoy Lee Karr’s The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, but it sure helps. Published by the UK-based Plexus, the full-color trade paperback overcomes a self-congratulatory preface with a detailed account of how the 1985 soldiers-vs.-zombies epic was made: with more butcher scraps than millions. While Karr was not present during the two-month shoot, one wouldn’t know it judging by the wealth of info the day-by-day diary contains, running the gamut from bone-dry minutia to juicy gossip. Much of the latter is devoted to effects legend Tom Savini’s unbridled penile antics; his libido is surpassed only by his ego. Speaking of effects, Greg Nicotero lends further credibility with a foreword, and no spread goes by without some sort of photo or illustration. Personally, I find Dawn of the Dead to be the far superior sequel, but Karr’s love lay with this Day instead. If yours does, too, tear into it sooner than later.

megarevengeMaybe it’s just me, but if you’re going to write a book about movies in which the whole point is characters seeking vengeance, shouldn’t you be able to spell “vengeance”? Sometimes Danny Marianino does, but many others times he doesn’t, and the whole of The Mega Book of Revenge Films — Volume 1: The Big Payback is so every-page-riddled with typos, run-on sentences and other egregious errors that it’s obvious he didn’t select “Check Spelling” on his self-published manuscript. What the man — I can’t quite bring myself to label him a “critic” — lacks in panache, he makes up for in passion, running through a seemingly random selection of payback pictures with a fanboy verve so true and strong, one practically can hear Chris Farley sheepishly end each capsule review with, “That was awesome!” As much as I knock The Mega Book for its rusted coat of grammar and questionable taste (“retarded” is an oft-repeated adjective), I still enjoyed reading it and will buy 2016’s promised Volume 2.

creaturechroniclesLikely because it aims — and succeeds — to be the definitive, end-all-be-all account on its subject, The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy has been given the deluxe treatment from McFarland & Company: a full-fledged, sleeved hardback with glossy, spot-color pages. As if you couldn’t tell by now, Tom Weaver — with co-authors David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg — dives into documenting the history of Universal’s 1954 classic Creature from the Black Lagoon and its two sequels with everything there is to know about the Gill Man. Skip the synopses and instead marvel at such finds as the list of proposed titles for the first film, audience comment-card reactions from its sneak preview, photos of the costume that thankfully didn’t make it to the screen, and more. The authors even spend time detailing every abortive attempt at a remake, the brief life of a Black Lagoon fanzine (courtesy David J. Schow) and flicks spawned in Creature’s wake (Octaman, anyone?). The downside to McFarland’s spruced-up edition is the price tag, but tried-and-true Monster Kids may not mind, given the sheer depth of the writing team’s result.

zombiesonfilmZombies on Film: The Definitive Story of Undead Cinema also strives for authoritative status — it’s right there in the subtitle — but falls short of that. Part of that is because there are too many other great books on this well-worn subject (Glenn Kay’s Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, in particular), but the bigger, better reason is just the structure of the publisher, Universe: It makes coffee-table books, and Ozzy Inguanzo has constructed a damn fine coffee-table book that just happens to center on movies full of rotting flesh, exposed brains and spilled intestines. That’s not a dismissal of Inguanzo as a writer, either; he’s a fine host to time-machine readers through Hollywood’s long fascination with these invaders from the grave, touching on all the usual suspects (Romero, Raimi, et al) and then some, without quite digging as deep as previous volumes have so well, especially in the realms of the cult and obscure. Zombies on Film is at its strongest when it casts its dangling eye on the fare of foreign shores and the ’80s’ VHS floodgates. No matter where the journey takes you, however, the visuals — heavy on posters and photos reprinted large and in full-color — are the oversized tome’s real selling point.

fangoriacoverFinally, the least likely subject for an art book might be the blood-splattered covers of Fangoria magazine — you know, the ones that repulsed your mother so much, she refused to buy it for you at the grocery store. And yet, just in time for the horror pub’s 35-year anniversary, Cemetery Dance unleashes Fangoria: Cover to Cover, a terrific volume that reproduces every issue’s purposely garish cover, obviously in chronological order and wonderfully granting each a full page. (So what if it’s already out of date?) The book is as much as a history of post-1979 film horror as it is of Fango itself, regrettable cover choices and all — not to mention the occasional typographical use of Comic Sans. Its former editor Anthony Timpone contributes notes for each issue, which are almost as entertaining as Bruce Campbell’s foreword. Fango’s iconic filmstrip adorns so many of the issues, it’s a tad sad to see it retired. Another trend you’ll notice: select titles vying for cover space for three consecutive issues, even if it’s just a two-word teaser. You’d have to be mad to read every word of every cover here … and that would be I. —Rod Lott

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Jul 17 2014

Alex Cross (2012)

alexcrossHaving never seen previous Alex Cross movies (Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider), I cannot comment on their merits. Being otherwise well-acquainted with Morgan Freeman, I’m inclined to believe he serves as a quiet yet commanding centre, lending his power to films that sorely need it (see also: Lucky Number Slevin, Unleashed, Hard Rain … the list goes sadly on).

Having never seen any Tyler Perry films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman, For Colored Girls, many others), I cannot comment on their merits either. I judge Perry solely as an actor, which, based on his Alex Cross performance as replacement Freeman, is akin to swapping Harrison Ford with Taylor Lautner, Sigourney Weaver with Tara Reid, Javier Bardem with a summer squash … you get the idea. In a film riddled with bad, Perry’s casting is the worst offender.

alexcross1Based on the James Patterson crime novels — a series I am familiar with, beyond atrocious in style, plot, and writing ability — Alex Cross re-images the titular character as a young(ish) police detective with the never-proven-but-always-remarked-upon analytical skills of Sherlock Holmes and the never-remarked-upon-but-always-on-display charisma of unflavored ice milk. A maniacal assassin played by a shredded, illegal-MMA-fighting Matthew Fox (the only actor who realizes how awful the movie is, thus the only actor having any fun) has taken to leaving clues in abstract art sketches.

Cue desperate game of overfed-housecat-and-mouse, directed by hack maestro Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious) with all the passion of an insomniac with substance-abuse issues. Cohen is unable to wring even the minutest amount of pleasure from all the ridiculousness. The finale [SPOILER], a fistfight betwixt Perry’s doughy teddy bear and Fox’s zero-percent-body-fat hitman, should be at the very least a laugh riot, like pitting John Candy against Jason Statham.

The only true enjoyment comes (inadvertently) from Perry; while most of his scenes battle to out-dull each other, there are times when his performance nears camp classic value. At one point, while Fox taunts him on the phone, Perry literally huffs and puffs with rage. It’s hilarious, and a pointed reminder of Freeman’s unsurpassed ability to project anger through stillness. Freeman is the calm at the eye of a hurricane; Perry, for all his livid wheezing, barely summons up a breeze. —Corey Redekop

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Jul 7 2014

The Legend of Hercules (2014)

legendherculesThe first of two Hercules projects to hit the big screen in 2014, The Legend of Hercules is so bad, the other one need not do much more than simply show up to the battle to win.

And mind you, “the other one” comes from Brett Ratner.

But back to the first-outta-the-gate Legend. Directed by the once-promising Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), the film errs in many ways, but most notably through miscasting. Whereas the other Herc flick casts Dwayne Johnson (né The Rock) as the Greek myths’ ultimate hero and god of strength, Harlin has Kellan Lutz, a Twilight franchise second-stringer. Lutz looks like a frat boy who overdid the bronzing tanner, but his mortal enemy, King Amphitryon, is played by Scott Adkins (2010’s Ninja), a real-deal martial artist who commands the camera. Lutz likely commanded the on-set iPod playlist.

legendhercules1The two deserve to have to switched roles, but my preference would be to nix Lutz entirely. Free of charisma, he looks no more convincing chasing a babe (Gaia Weiss, TV’s Vikings) than he does choking a CGI lion. So dull and flat is the 3-D would-be epic, viewers may wish they were the lion, quickly put out of misery before the curtain falls on Act 1.

Lou Ferrigno, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Sorbo: You are forgiven. —Rod Lott

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Jul 5 2014

Reading Material: 7 New Film Books for the Summer Movie Season

worldgonewildDespite summer movie season being in full swing, I’ve been uncharacteristically lax in visiting the multiplex for air-conditioned audiovisual action, and what little I have seen has underwhelmed. As the seven reviews below prove, I’ve been reading about the movies more than watching them. After all, the rewards can be greater and you don’t have to worry about teens texting.

The definitive book of the increasingly popular subgenre of collapsed-society cinema has yet to be penned. Until then, we’ll make do with David J. Moore’s World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies. Admirably heavy, the Schiffer Publishing hardback casts such a wide net, Ishmael would be proud, as Videoscope zine contributor Moore digs well below the surface level of Mad Max and its imitators to mine the obscure, forgotten and never-known. Capsule reviews are arranged alphabetically and supplemented with Q-and-A interviews (Roddy Piper and Stuart Gordon are among the bigger names; others will ring no bells and have little of value to share) and gloriously illustrated with full-color posters from ’round the globe. Trouble is, while his love for post-apoc flicks is unparalleled, Moore just isn’t a compelling writer — certainly not enough to justify the pretension of never capitalizing his name, à la ee cummings. I cannot figure out which irks me more: That the work is rife with run-on and incomplete sentences or intentionally ruined endings. Let’s call it a draw; for sheer visuals alone, World Gone Wild is worth holding onto for bunker and/or toilet reading.

verywitchingFor McFarland & Company’s The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema, Gregory William Mank has rounded up a baker’s dozen of articles dedicated to fright films of the 1930s and 1940s. While the result is a mishmash of subjects, its appeal is to the serious student of horror’s infancy is undeniable, and he or she will find the contents infinitely readable. From the classic Cat People to the crass Murders in the Zoo, Mank chronicles behind-the-scenes stories with a bent toward studio-era minutia and Shock Theatre nostalgia. Anyone left wondering, “Who the hell is Helen Chandler and why should I care about her?” should move further down the shelves; this collection is not for them.

creaturefeaturesNow reissued in an affordable paperback edition of McFarland’s original publication of 2008, Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies finds William Schoell exploring the terrain of what I like to call “animal-attack films.” As the Empire of the Ants cover suggests, however, the book is like a picnic to which you’ve long looked forward, only to see it spoiled by uninvited pests. Schoell divides his examination of these flicks by species, but the narrative is too loose and scattershot to spark that all-important reader joy. Such a subject would be better-served if presented as reference with individual titles getting their own reviews vs. what we do have: an occasionally interesting but meandering trail through bug-and-beast cinema. Creature Features‘ forced narrative is overly weighted with plot synopses, and while well-illustrated, it simply lacks the fun exuded by the B films themselves.

foundfootageAs she did with her 2011 study of Rape-Revenge Films, Australia-based author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a gratifying, thorough and wide-in-scope look in Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality, also from McFarland. Thanks to Paranormal Activity turning about $20 into nearly $200 million, Hollywood’s most profitable trend du jour shows little signs of slowing down (especially as more big-ticket blockbusters fail to register). Heller-Nicholas could have written a fine book on that financial level alone, but rather than settle, she probes the deeper meaning of why audiences respond to the no-frills approach, not to mention why now, as the movement dates several decades. Unsurprisingly, she has done her homework and then some — titles are discussed that even I haven’t heard of — and makes her case in a way that does not require prior consumption of the movies. Even better, watching them after reading the book will enhance your experience by coming armed with her insight.

subversivehorrorOne could argue that the entire horror genre is subversive, given its historical treatment as either one notch above pornography or sharing the same step. In the McFarland-pubbed Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, Jon Towlson narrows his focus to those filmmakers who exhibited “political engagement with the issues of the time and their use of the horror film as a form of protest,” and argues that such movies connect with viewers most in times of national crises. If that sounds like a lecture, loosen up! Towlson’s terror trip through history yields plenty of fascinating examples, from how director James Whale’s homosexuality made its way into Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Frankenstein monster, to how Tod Browning’s Freaks can be seen as an allegory for the Great Depression’s legions of the disenfranchised. More recent examples include the usual suspects (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead), but also left-field choices (Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine and both of Brian Yuzna’s Dentist slashers). Learn and enjoy.

sexsceneWhile we eagerly await historian Eric Schaefer’s sexploitation follow-up to 1999’s essential Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!, the new Duke University Press collection he has edited makes for a spicy, satisfying appetizer: Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution. While Schaefer has penned only the introduction and an essay on Swedish “sinema,” that’s hardly a negative, as he’s assembled a stellar lineup of academic authors who know their stuff. That their stuff includes everything from MPAA ratings flaps and “party records” to the (ahem) rise of porn chic and how TV’s The Love Boat struggled to hint at cabin couplings, means the book is like a class you wish existed, just so you could audit the entire semester. Collectively, the text is the smartest person at the party without also being the snobbish dick at said soirée, and it makes for a perfect, if wholly inadvertent companion to Robert Hofler’s recent, recommended Sexplosion, which covers some of the same, semen-stained ground.

shadowwriterFinally, Paul Kane’s book on the Hellraiser franchise was such a smart and detailed analysis that I looked forward to his first collection of film criticism, yet the Kane of that 2006 work stands in stark contrast to the Kane of Shadow Writer: The Non-Fiction — Vol. 1: Reviews. Clumsily titled, the Bear Manor Media paperback champions a fair share of indie gems; that said, there isn’t much its author doesn’t like. In fact, he likes some things too much. If everything is ranked on a 10-point scale, yet The Cabin in the Woods somehow earns an 11 (and worse, Marvel’s The Avengers, a 12), what’s the point? That kind of fanboy gushing leaves a bitter aftertaste, as do the flood of incomplete sentences, factual doozies and a problematic crutch on formula that is apparent immediately — spot the trend among these phrases culled from separate reviews:
• “I wasn’t expecting much from this film …” (page 11)
• “I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting a great deal …” (page 13)
• “I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much …” (page 32)
• “I have to admit, I was expecting to hate …” (page 53)
• “I have to admit, by the end of this …” (page 54)
• “I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much …” (page 93)
And, I have to admit, that’s far from a complete list. —Rod Lott

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