Jan 19 2017

Bats (1999)

Bats is like every other animal-attack flick that fortifies the Syfy broadcast lineup, except that this one somehow hit theaters first. It’s bad.

Really bad.

Lou Diamond Phillips bad.

Because of a “secret government project” — a device all screenwriters employ when they wish to weasel their way out of credible explanations — a Texas desert town is overrun with thousands of lethal, hideously deformed bats. They don’t look so much like bats as they do Ghoulies with wings. Not that viewers get to see them all that well, as during scenes of supposed action, director Louis Morneau (Werewolf: The Beast Among Us) shakes the camera as violently as drunk nannies do with babies.

Cleavage-baring Dina Meyer (Saw) has all the answers as resident bat expert Dr. Sheila Casper, while Cliffhanger’s Leon — just Leon, thanks — serves as her minority sidekick, saying lots of things that we’re supposed to find hilarious, like, “I’ve been doin’ some thinkin’ … and this shit is fucked-up!” Together, with big-belt-buckled Sheriff Kimsey (Phillips, 2000’s Supernova), they get into predictable, laughable, CGI bat attacks and grapple with predictable, laughable lines of dialogue (courtesy of eventual Skyfall scribe John Logan), including:
• “Wait a minute! You’re telling me a bat did this?”
• “But bats don’t kill people. This can’t be!”
• “We’ve gotta evacuate this entire town!”

Early in the movie, we get a brief and decidedly out-of-place cutaway shot of Phillips visibly grimacing, as if the camera caught him messing his britches, and Morneau opted to keep it. I’m glad he did, because it’s a moment most priceless and thereby, unlike the bulk of Bats, engaging. I’ve been doing some thinking … and this shit is fucked-up. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 17 2017

Killzone (1985)

Having burst into the straight-to-VHS scene with the 1983 shot-on-video “classick” Sledgehammer, director David A. Prior upgraded to actual 35mm film for his sophomore effort, Killzone. The man-on-moon leap in image quality is its only superior element to Prior’s prior engagement.

With opening credits complete, Killzone zones in on an Asian military leader (Daniel Kong, Surf Nazis Must Die) teasing a bunch of white American soldiers with drinking water. It’s a hot day, see, and they’re bound to wooden poles, like prisoners of war. This, however, is no war — it’s a mere training exercise, but either someone forgot to tell McKenna (Fritz Matthews, Prior’s Killer Workout) or the man just has snapped. (Considering viewers aren’t privy to this info for a long while, I think it’s a toss-up.) The scenario prompts McKenna’s Vietnam flashbacks to feel like Vietnam here-and-nows, so he starts fighting back and killing for real.

This deviation from the rules doesn’t sit well with the cigar-chomping Col. Crawford (David James Campbell, Scarecrows); rather than just bitch-slap McKenna back into reality, he orders his men to shoot to kill. But this plot begs the question: Are McKenna’s flashbacks of Crawford killing our hero’s wife and child legit or phony?

Actually, I take that back; I don’t need to know. If Prior doesn’t aim for clarity, why should I ask for it? Viewers of his Deadly Prey will note Killzone’s eerie resemblance to that 1987 flick’s look, feel and cast (including Prior’s bro, Ted, and the aforementioned Campbell, who plays the same part in everything but name), but this one is missing that one’s overall shot of cutout-bin adrenaline. Only in the third act, when McKenna booby-traps the jungle (including the world’s most perfectly and conveniently timed death by boulder), does Killzone catch up to Prey’s pervading sense of fun. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 16 2017

Fire (1977)

Producer Irwin Allen kept his once-Towering cinematic credibility in flames with Fire, a virtual remake of his previous year’s telepic Flood — just with another basic concept from your high school chemistry class (or a then-rather popular 1970s R&B-funk band).

The real-life town of Silverton, Oregon, comes under siege from a massive blaze sparked by the cigarette butt carelessly discarded by a greasy convict (Neville Brand, Psychic Killer) doing chain-gang cleanup work in the forest. In the line of fire — literally! — are such soaped-up characters as a widowed lodge owner (Vera Miles, The Spirit Is Willing), the well-below-her-league old man who has tried to get into her pants for decades (Ernest Borgnine, The Poseidon Adventure), and a teacher (Donna Mills, who clenched a bigger role two years later in Hanging by a Thread, another Allen tele-epic) on a field trip with her young charges.

And speaking of Hanging by a Thread, Patty Duke again assumes the role of an unhappy wife, here married — for the moment, at least — to a fellow doctor (Alex Cord, Chosen Survivors). Perhaps their love will be, um, reignited? Dur.

An Allen touchstone, the well-stocked cast is fun to watch, including Erik Estrada (Airport 1975) as a prisoner who uses the smoke as convenient cover for an escape. Director Earl Bellamy (Walking Tall Part II) puts Estrada front-and-center as much as he can, assumedly realizing the soon-to-be-CHiPs star’s chiseled good looks are Fire’s most special of effects. It’s certainly not the lazy stock footage of terrified townspeople — some in horn-rimmed glasses, to show just how mismatched the material is. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 12 2017

Blair Witch (2016)

Welcome back to Burkittsville, Maryland! And this time, we really mean it!

Sixteen years after the misbegotten Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 retroactively decimated moviegoing America’s collective enthusiasm for 1999’s revolutionary and wildly influential The Blair Witch Project, Lionsgate finally sought to right the franchise ship with a long-overdue threequel bearing the plain-Jane, abbreviated title of Blair Witch.

Perhaps the wait was too long overdue, as the film proved unable to live up to the studio’s hopes. Whatever the reason, its being seen as a failure is a shame, because despite that unimaginative title, Blair Witch is a damn fine horror film that continues to surprise and subvert.

Believing that his older sister, Heather (the original film’s iconic snot-dripping female lead), still may be alive, young paramedic James (James Allen McCune, Snitch) dares to venture deep into Black Hills Forest where she disappeared. Among those accompanying him are his kinda-sorta-maybe girlfriend (Callie Hernandez, Machete Kills), who is shooting the excursion for her college documentary class. In a broad sense, you know where this is going, but the how is more of a question mark.

Continuing to work in tandem after successful at-bats with You’re Next and The Guest, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett face having to meet the expectations of viewers who want to see a continuation of the story and further exploration into the mythology, but also something they haven’t seen before. To achieve that balance is precarious, yet somehow, Wingard and Barrett manage, starting with a way to utilize the found-footage conceit in a different manner.

That said, their style is not for everyone. Although perfectly accessible, it is too experimental and trope-tripping to be branded with certainty as mainstream-friendly; therefore, if their previous collaborations were not made from the recipes you desired, then Blair Witch is apt to not be the trilogy capper for which you’ve waited so long. It wasn’t what I had been anticipating; it was far better. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 11 2017

Reading Material: Mars in the Movies: A History

With movies, as with potential mates, everyone has a type toward which he or she instinctively gravitates. For me, it’s heists or spiders. For Thomas Kent Miller, it’s that angry red planet — a lifelong fascination that culminates in the publication of the book Mars in the Movies: A History.

Released by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback surveys nearly 100 Mars flicks, roughly from the 1910 Thomas Edison silent short A Trip to Mars to 2015’s blockbuster The Martian. With the latter making a mint and taking seven Oscar nominations, you’d think Miller would find Ridley Scott’s populist smash to be a source of unending joy. Instead, he had “zero emotional response to the film. When I should have felt elated, I felt nothing.” And that call-’em-as-I-see-’em approach is all part of the book’s hours of fun.

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