Shot on video in Baltimore, “Unitied States,” Scary Tales achieves 50 percent accuracy with its title, in that more than one story exists — three of them, in fact — yet none of what writer/director Doug Ulrich presents is even remotely frightening, except perhaps the men’s dated haircuts.
The opener, “Satan’s Necklace,” is about “no ordinary necklace — it’s Satan’s necklace!” Despite such a devilish pedigree, the cursed jewelry is found with a run-of-the-mill metal detector by a guy with more pockmarks than this movie has words. “Sliced in Coldblood” is your very basic tale of a husband going full-on nutso upon learning he’s being cuckolded; one of the victims of his resulting murder spree is a beer-swilling, Foodtown cap-clad schlub on whose cavernous belly button the camera dwells in increasingly nauseating close-up, yet blessedly not always in focus.
Finally, like The Lawnmower Man on $1.98, we enter “Level 21,” in which a man obsessed with a new video game (whose screens we are not privy to) gets sucked into it. The fantasy world of the game looks like a neighborhood greenbelt, but populated with a dwarf, an orc in a bald cap and one “dark overlord” clad in a purple cloak and sporting the widow’s peak made famous by Eddie Munster.
The less said about Scary Tales, the better — not because its narrative paths are laden with surprises aplenty (quite the opposite), but because at all of 68 amateurish minutes, it is too inconsequential to merit much discussion beyond saying what it is. Hey, I remember trying to make a Creepshow-style horror anthology with a VHS camcorder, too; my excuse is that I was 12 years old. I’m willing to bet my dialogue was better than “Hey, that Raisin Bran’s pretty good! Get a box,” but Ulrich does have one thing on me: the per-the-credits participation of “Dundalk Taco Bell.” —Rod Lott
Moseying away from the genre that established his often-brilliant career, indie-horror darling Ti West (The Innkeepers) saddles up for a simple tale of a Civil War vet en route to Mexico. Accompanied by his trusty attack dog (Jumpy, Pups United), Hawke’s Paul stops in the one-horse town of Denton, Texas (where the traffic has yet to suck), to sit a spell. The local bully, Gilly (James Ransome, Sinister 2), takes offense to this stranger not showing him the respect he believes he is owed, all because his bum-legged father is the town marshal (John Travolta, whose recent I Am Wrath revels in similar vengeful themes). Gilly and his yellow-bellied trio of lackeys commit two horrific acts of violence (true to the title), for which Paul vows revenge … assuming he lives through it.
There is not much to this Valley, which is entirely West’s intent as writer and director — not just here, but his work in general. The picture is streamlined, efficient — a straight-and-narrow cowboy’s hat tip to Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of spaghetti Westerns, starting with co-opting its animated credits. It is John Wick set in the 19th century, trading neon for dust, business suits for boot spurs.
“Those men left me with nothin’,” Paul says. “I’m gonna leave them with less.” And the film shines as an example of less being more. While not totally giving up elements of horror (read: blood spurts and spills with gory aplomb), West proves his minimalist approach to visual storytelling works as well on the frontier as it does in provoking fright. Hawke is reliably strong, while Travolta is tempered from his tendency to ham. The pic, however, belongs to Ransome, stealing the spotlight as he adds another role of weaselly menace to his mantle. —Rod Lott
Methinks this coloring-book craze for adults has gotten way out of hand, and it was questionable to begin with. Now we have Die Hard: The Authorized Coloring and Activity Book welcoming itself to the party, pal, and it is at once a coattails-riding cash grab for 20th Century Fox and a knowing parody of the fad by stand-up comedian Doogie Horner, who wrote and illustrated and clearly has more talent than should be allowed for one human.
Easily one of the best flicks in the Troma Entertainment library, When Nature Calls looks like it was concepted, written and shot all within a day’s time. At any rate, it’s still fairly funny. Although it tries to be a scattershot spoof in the Airplane! vein, it works best when director and co-writer Charles Kaufman (1980’s Mother’s Day) doesn’t try to cram a jillion things into the frame.
No plot exists; the shell of the picture follows a suburban family as its members move from the big city to the great outdoors for no particular reason, other than to thumb its nose at many an outdoor family film, from Old Yeller to the Adventures of the Wilderness Family. For example, in one of its best sight gags, animals from the whole of both hemispheres reside together in the forest.
The daughter rapes a bear and becomes pregnant. Some four-legged friends are tortured. Stock footage of a vicious cougar threatens the family unit. C-level celebrities like Morey Amsterdam, Willie Mays, John Cameron Swayze and G. Gordon Liddy make pointless cameos. In an early-career role, future Oscar nominee and Bourne Identity franchise player David Strathairn plays Weejun, “the Kaopectate Indian,” who befriends the fam.
If you make it to the intermission sequence, you’ll be treated to a wickedly funny parody of that classic animated commercial that enticed drive-in patrons to hightail it to the lobby for sticky and/or sugary concessions. It begins with the usual dancing candy bars and soda cups, before a couple of frankfurters snort coke and commence bodily gratification. Although sloppier than a sloppy joe, When Nature Calls possesses enough good throwaway gags like that to merit a viewing. —Rod Lott
Nearly a quarter-century before he famously dared Washington, D.C. to pry his rifle “from my cold, dead hands,” Charlton Heston tried to separate a sniper from his weapon of choice in the sports-world thriller Two-Minute Warning. Talk about a political flip-flop!
In his fourth disaster film (following Skyjacked, Airport 1975 and Earthquake), Heston stars as Capt. Peter Holly, in charge of the LAPD’s plan to foil a gunman’s plot to open fire on the L.A. Memorial Coliseum’s crowd assembled for a championship football game. Perched atop a scoreboard and in preparatory mode, the sniper (Warren Miller, Married to the Mob) is glimpsed first by the camera blimp overhead. Cops are alerted, and enter Holly and SWAT Sgt. Button (John Cassavetes, Rosemary’s Baby). The two talk strategy and mention no fewer than three times the unfortunate maintenance man who got “butt-stroked off the ladder.”
The sniper’s target? Oh, just about 100,000 pigskin fans, but to guess who will bite the bullet(s), place your bets on the bleachers’ numerous famous faces, including Walter Pidgeon (Forbidden Planet) as a pickpocket, Jack Klugman (TV’s Quincy, M.E.) as a gambler and Beau Bridges (Max Payne) as a hothead father who slaps the shit out of his young son for revealing Dad’s employment status (read: not) to the pennant salesman. Playing themselves are Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, Merv Griffin and Andy Sidaris, then an Emmy-winning sports director vs. the Russ Meyer of action flicks he would become.
Per disaster-genre regulations, director Larry Peerce (1989’s Wired) continuously revisits the dozen or so subplots like so many spinning plates. It’s tough to tire of a film that walks that tightrope in double time. It is easy, however, to tire of Two-Minute Warning‘s maddeningly repetitive musical cue. I forgive Peerce for dropping the needle on it so often, because the eventual melee triggered by the villain’s squeezed trigger is a smorgasbord of fallen (and falling) spectators. —Rod Lott