Apr 26 2017

Wolves at the Door (2016)

Whereas the Manson Family’s murder spree registered as terrifyingly true in the nonfiction best seller Helter Skelter, the out-of-date dramatization Wolves at the Door is merely a welter — by definition, a confused mess. For a motion picture that barely cracks the one-hour mark, to be so mired is no mean feat.

On Aug. 9, 1969, five people were slain brutally at the L.A. home of director Roman Polanski. In depicting the events of that instantly infamous night as a horror-thriller, the polished Wolves reeks of bad taste. Characters are based on the real-life victims — most notably, pregnant sex-bomb actress Sharon Tate (Katie Cassidy, Taken), coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Elizabeth Henstridge, TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (Miles Fisher, Final Destination 5) — but minus last names, as if the omission makes all the difference in respectful distancing.

As the good guys and girls move about the Cielo Drive home like fish swimming cluelessly in a barrel, we glimpse the menacing visages and ominous stares of Manson’s minions outside as they pass windows and mirrors. The evil doll of Annabelle, director John R. Leonetti’s previous spook show, possessed more personality than these cardboard-cutout criminals who have been retrofitted with the Stock Movie Villain’s uncanny ability to be hiding in all places at all times.

Beyond exploitation of subject, the most problematic element among Wolves at the Door’s litany of them is that it offers no point, nor has reason to exist. Post-dinner, Sharon and her party enter the house to end the evening; the killers invade and slaughter them one by one; the end. No closure, no comeuppance, no courtroom drama. Leonetti does conclude his film with black-and-white footage of the real Charles Manson uttering one of his wackadoo phrases that perenially make him the least popular person in the room — specifically, the one where the parole board sees fit to hold its hearings. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 24 2017

Guest List: Thomas Kent Miller’s Top 11 Other Graphics Left Out of Mars in the Movies

I turned in 69 graphics to potentially use in my new book, Mars in the Movies: A History; the publisher used 43. My previous Guest List for Flick Attack shared 13 that sadly didn’t make that cut, mainly due to resolution concerns. Here are 11 more, kicked back mainly for the same reason. However, unlike the last batch, it is probably just as well that these were not used, as nearly all are not as clearly focused on Mars as the ones that did get printed in the book.

1. From the 1918 Danish film A Trip to Mars (Das Himmelskibet). Unavoidably blurry, once the spaceship Excelsior lands on Mars (see my previous Guest List) and the crew emerges, they are fêted by throngs of happy Martians. The costuming and production design are impressive.

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Apr 13 2017

The Dungeon of Harrow (1962)

Before a lengthy career drawing many a Charlton Comics title, Pat Boyette tried his hand at filmmaking. Although he technically succeeded, in that he directed three movies in two years, he failed spectacularly. His best-known film, The Dungeon of Harrow, is harrowing only in trying to sit through it.

Looking not unlike Nicolas Cage dipped in Clairol Natural Instincts for Men, the weaker-than-milquetoast Russ Harvey overwhelmingly underwhelms in his starring role as Aaron Fallon, a trust-fund wimp who is one of only two shipwreck survivors stranded on the island of Count Lorente de Sade (William McNulty), our obvious madman whose requisite Gothic castle predictably includes an array of guest accommodations (read: torture chambers).

When I tell you that the shipwreck is rendered via toy boat, or crashes of lightning achieved through the flickering of light, I do so not to encourage viewing, but to testify against it. The extra spaces inserted randomly in the opening titles should be considered a bellwether — one warning of “incomprehensible dreck ahead.”

As director, co-writer, editor, composer and supporting player, Boyette was aiming for something in the snazzy style of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The result is The Terror, but on Medicaid assistance. Shot in San Antonio, The Dungeon of Harrow proves that precious few Texas-lensed terrors can be a Chain Saw Massacre. This is one of those public-domain titles that even the public domain took a gander, turned up its nose, made a shooing gesture and said, “Nah, I’m good.” —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 10 2017

Eliminators (1986)

Eliminators presents itself like the pilot episode for a series the network suits decided against ordering, so they burned it off as a TV movie of the week. It even concludes with the we-don’t-have-an-ending freeze frame of our heroes smiling and laughing — in that beyond-clichéd way Ron Burgundy and his Channel 4 news team parodied in Anchorman: “We are laughing and we are very good friends. Good buddies sharing a special moment … laughing and enjoying our friendship.”

Of course, Eliminators was not a television show; it’s a feature from Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, directed by Peter Manoogian (Seedpeople), but the real creative force at work is the screenwriting duo of Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson. One can see the fun-loving seeds of their later superhero projects take sprout, including The Rocketeer and the 1990 TV series of The Flash.

Based not on any pre-existing property, Eliminators assembles a ragtag group of five disparate do-gooders:
• Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds, Battle Force), who’s half-man, half-android;
• the bra-less and brilliant scientist Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby, Pet Sematary);
• her pet robot, R2-D2 Spot;
• pirate captain Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine, Terror Circus), whose powers amount to being surly and steering a boat;
• and Kuji (Conan Lee, Gymkata), a martial-arts master on hand to lend diversity just before the movie ends.

Together, they seek to end the evil bidding of Mandroid creator Dr. Reeves (Roy Dotrice, 1972’s Tales from the Crypt) and his time machine. There is little more to it than that, and Manoogian ably gets the crew from point A to point B. Crosby has never been more forthright or adorable, and Prine, ever the pro, gives a performance as spirited as if he had landed a million-dollar payday. His angry monologue midway through this trifle serves as its ideal description and review: “What is this, anyway, some kind of goddamn comic book? We got robots; we got cavemen; we got kung fu! … This is some kind of weird-ass science-fiction thing, right?”

Correct! As rousing as this adventure is, it’s a shame Eliminators never got a second chapter. But the Mandroid sure as hell did, as concept-recycler Band resurrected the machine man for a pair of inferior Full Moon films: 1993’s Mandroid and its immediate sequel, Invisible: The Chronicles of Benjamin Knight. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 6 2017

Aftermath (2017)

As far as I have surmised, Arnold Schwarzenegger does three things really well:
1. Be an unstoppable killing machine (either human or cyborg).
2. Poke fun at himself.
3. Secretly impregnate the help.

Unfortunately, only two of those relate to onscreen activity, and neither is required of him by the demands of Aftermath. Instead, the dramatic thriller finds the one-time box-office champ in Maggie mode: dour, dreary and even depressing.

In Aftermath, the near-septuagenarian Schwarzenegger portrays Roman, a blue-collar family man anxiously awaiting the return of his wife and daughter on an overseas flight. When he arrives at the airport to pick them up, he is greeted not with the joy of a reunion, but the tragic news that an accident has occurred: the midair collision of two descending planes, one of which carried his loved ones. Blame is placed on white-collar family man Jake (Scoot McNairy, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), illogically the only air traffic controller on duty at the time, although technically, faulty equipment is the real culprit.

But every tragedy needs a villain’s face, and Roman is intent on hunting Jake down to confront him and demand the apology he has received from no one. Meanwhile, the weight of reality bears heavily on Jake’s shoulders, threatening to tear his family asunder as well. (Perennial Taken victim Maggie Grace hits some nice, understated notes as his wife.)

Having successfully directed one Expendable through a more serious ringer before (Jason Statham in Blitz), Elliott Lester faces an uphill battle with Arnold in Aftermath. Schwarzenegger simply hasn’t the acting chops to pull off this kind of high-stakes drama, and his discomfort with trying appears more evident the thinner the material gets. McNairy is reliable as ever, but underserved by a script (from Javier Gullón, 2013’s unconventional Enemy) that keeps its thrills as separate as bookends and fills in all the minutes between with the maudlin processes of a grief-recovery workbook.

When our two leads finally meet toward the film’s conclusion, you may wish Schwarzenegger needn’t have bothered with knocking on the door, when the simple blast of a bazooka would have done just fine 30 years ago. That is the loss I feel. —Rod Lott