Sep 28 2016

Ghoulies Go to College (1991)

ghouliesgtcAs one of those Bush presidents famously said, we must stand up and demand that no Ghoulie is left behind. Ergo, Ghoulies Go to College. Sometimes this sequel is referred to as Ghoulies III, but to do so only minimizes the great strides they have made in higher education.

At Glazier College, school is in session … and everyone is majoring in wacky pratfalls! (Their minor? Three Stooges sound effects.) It’s Prank Week on campus, which means Beta Zeta Theta fraternity man Skip Carter (Evan MacKenzie, Scanner Cop II) has been busy setting the water fountains to spurt at crotch level and altering the benches to eject those who dare sit a spell! Don’t even get me started talking about the inflatable crocodile he’s hidden in the lectern of dean of students and humanities professor Ragnar (Kevin McCarthy, UHF), because I just might die of laughter!*

ghouliesgtc1Not a prank, but certainly well-timed to the institution’s informal culture of zaniness, is the arrival of three Ghoulies — resembling a rat, cat and fish — through the pipes of the BZT toilet. Predictably, they like to party. They also exclaim, “Beer run!” and then burp and fart accordingly. One of them tricks another into chugging Drano: “Tastes great!” “Less filling.” Most uproarious.**

The creatures are denied further high jinks and sent back to the magic shitter from whence they came, once Skip and his girlfriend (Eva LaRue, Mirror Images II) utter the ancient spells found in an old comic book. Meanwhile, former Academy Award nominee McCarthy has to say, “Ghoulies have no dicks!” aloud and on camera, for all the world to (hypothetically) see, which may have been an ad lib requested by director John Carl Buechler (Cellar Dweller). Former Playboy centerfold/Andy Sidaris heroine Hope Marie Carlton (Hard Ticket to Hawaii) appears in a supporting role, but her ass might garner more screen time than her face, which — even with the franchise’s pivot from horror to comedy — definitely qualifies as Exploitation 101.*** —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

*Consider this a lesson in sarcasm.
**This, too.
***But this, students — this is true.

Sep 27 2016

R.I.P. Herschell Gordon Lewis

hglIn honor of psychotronic film legend Herschell Gordon Lewis, who died yesterday at the age of 87, we’ve raided our vaults to present every review we’ve run thus far involving the groundbreaking “godfather of gore.” Rest in pieces, sir!

• Doctor Gore (1973)
Gods of Grindhouse: Interviews with Exploitation Filmmakers edited by Andrew J. Rausch
• The Gruesome Twosome (1967)
How to Make a Doll (1968)
• The Uh-Oh! Show (2009)

Sep 26 2016

The Break-In (2016)

break-inBased on the evidence that is The Break-In, we may assume that do-it-all filmmaker Justin Doescher saw Paranormal Activity — and perhaps even one or more of its sequels — and said aloud to himself, “Heck, I can do that!”

But he cannot. The Break-In is a rank-amateur, found-footage thriller that deserves to stay lost.

Built upon the flimsy-even-for-fiction premise that Jeff Anderson (Doescher, who also wrote, directed and produced) has a cool new phone and feels the need to record his every move, the movie presents itself as a week’s worth of police evidence. With a rash of recent burglaries plaguing the neighborhood, Jeff installs a security system to better protect his fiancée, Melissa (Maggie Binkley), and their unborn child. Cameras keep tabs on exactly four rooms: the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room and the “lounge room” (known to the rest of the civilized world as “a lounge”).

break-in1Whenever the movie’s POV shifts away from Jeff and his goddamn phone (not often enough) and to these security cams, the screen denotes which room we’re looking at, presumably in case viewers are unable to process obvious visual cues that a bed indicates a bedroom; a refrigerator means a kitchen; and so on. But mostly, The Break-In is Jeff yammering away as he eats dinner, shops for a crib, takes out the recycling — you know, the special moments to preserve for Baby!

Whether he is by himself or with “my boy”/best friend/next-door neighbor/fellow athletics-obsessed meathead man-child Steve (J.P. Veizaga, 10 Rules for Sleeping Around); with Melissa, who applies glitter to her eyelids, yet works as a teacher and not a stripper; or with the buzz-cut Det. Garcia (Ted Fernandez, at once the standout performer and the screen’s least convincing police detective), Jeff records it all.

thebreak-in2The way in which Doescher tells his story is maddening: He speaks all the exposition, as if he were reading stage directions from a script. Despite the writer’s axiom of “show, don’t tell,” Doescher figures, “Hey, why not both?” In essence, he narrates actions that need no narration, shares information that needs no sharing and, most damning, externalizes his internal thoughts, as if he does not trust his audience to know that, for example, seeing Melissa stretching in workout clothes and sunglasses on the front porch suggests that a run either has happened or is about to happen.

And to say anything “happens” in the no-budget microindie is being awfully kind. On occasion, we get a glimpse of some mysterious figure in the corner of the frame or far in the background, yet what all that leads up is no mystery: It’s right there in the title! How a found-footage project possibly could capture a dream sequence, however, there’s your mystery.

Many a found-footage film falls flat, but The Break-In usurps the likes of The Gallows and 8213: Gacy House as the subgenre’s worst. If a sports bar could make a movie, the result would be The Break-In. And yet it’s all out of cheese fries, so what’s the point? —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Sep 22 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

magseven16To put a superlative in the title of your film is asking for trouble. When that film is a remake of a bona fide classic, you’re also inviting trouble in, setting an extra place at the dinner table and prepping the guest room with a set of fresh towels. Such is the problem facing Southpaw director Antoine Fuqua with The Magnificent Seven, his update on the iconic 1960 Western. Given that John Sturges’ “original” is itself a remake of another vaulted treasure of the cinema, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, Seven Samurai, it’s not a stretch to say Fuqua also has listed trouble as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy.

Following Training Day and The Equalizer, this new Seven marks the third collaboration between Fuqua and leading man Denzel Washington, who more or less has the Yul Brynner role here and certainly has the quiet intensity for it. His Sam Chisolm, “duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas,” eels out a living by collecting the rewards on wanted men. Although on the side of justice, when Chisolm accepts the assignment that gets this film’s engine cranking, he does so not out of empathy, but because it pays well. That gig is ridding the one-street town of Rose Creek of the snakelike land-grabber Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, Black Mass), whose takeover plan includes murdering anyone who dares raise a voice against him, thereby making an immediate widow of freckle-faced Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Girl on the Train).

magseven161It is she who offers Chisolm a literal sack of money to knock Bogue down several pegs. To assist in the highly suicidal mission, Chisolm recruits a cocky gunslinger (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World), a sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke, Sinister), a God-fearing tracker (Vincent D’Onofrio, TV’s Daredevil), a Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, TV’s From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series), a knife-wielding Asian (Byung-hun Lee, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) and an arrow-slinging Comanche Indian (Martin Sensmeier, TV’s Westworld).

The band-assembly process consumes the film’s first act, with the second devoted to planning for Bogue’s siege, and the third, naturally, depicting said siege. The Magnificent Seven starts fine and just gets better and better as it goes along, finally reaching that lofty adjective of its title. The siege of Rose Creek is an all-out battle of bullets and bombs, and it makes for an invigorating extended set piece of action cinema. Because, by that first-shot-fired point, the individual members of Team Seven have come to care for one another (or what passes for it in such a heteronormative genre that lionizes the he-man), so do we, setting high dramatic stakes.

magseven162As old as storytelling itself, the plot of revenge — especially one that pits the powerless against the powerful — is so primal, so universal, it does not take much work to get audiences all in on the protagonists’ side. Fuqua and his screenwriters Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) and Nic Pizzolatto (TV’s True Detective), could have coasted on that, but they are too smart to squander the opportunity of painting this blockbuster canvas. While the movie is guilty of several points of cliché, it continually surprises. Bennett’s headstrong Cullen is such a vital link in the chain, she practically makes the case for adding a one to the name. Stealing scenes and earning laughs is not Pratt, but D’Onofrio, in an out-there performance that somehow works as an emotional anchor. Washington enjoys the best of both worlds, in that he not only radiates the good-guydom of a genuine movie star (right from his John Wayne entrance), but gets to exercise his considerable acting chops, most notably exhorting Bogue to pray.

Imbued with mythicism and emboldened by its multicultural cast, The Magnificent Seven breathes new life into the Western while also sticking closely to its old template: same bones, just different meat. We are denied hearing Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated theme from the ’60 Seven until the end credits begin, as if Fuqua was waiting until he felt he had earned the right to play it. Once that forever-rousing number kicks in, you agree that he has, because you still can feel the rush held over from the previous scenes. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Sep 21 2016

Reading Material: Short Ends 9/21/16

comingbackOne-night-only engagements and George Lucas tinkering notwithstanding, nowadays it pretty much takes the death of a beloved celebrity to get old movies back on the big screens of the multiplex; witness the recent passing of Prince and Gene Wilder, and the immediate return of Purple Rain and Young Frankenstein to first-run theaters. Once upon a time, however — the days before cable TV and VHS, to be exact — reissues were likely the only way audiences would get another chance to see a particular motion picture. Brian Hannan examines this bygone phenomenon in Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014, published in trade paperback by McFarland & Company. In admittedly “forensic detail,” Hannan chronologically examines this business model of sloppy seconds — initially a financial necessity for studios yet despised by exhibitors (until television and James Bond double-bills changed their tune). While the author grants big-picture visibility throughout this unusual slice of Hollywood history, his case studies — using films as disparate as Gone with the Wind and Reefer Madness — offer the greatest entertainment value. So thorough is Hannan, the footnotes to chapter one alone number 470! Don’t think that dedication to research translates into a wan read; Coming Back is a lively look back, packed with scads of incredible ads and posters that illustrate a peculiar sort of Tinseltown ballyhoo.

viewcheapseatsMan, what can’t Neil Gaiman write? (“Poorly” may be the answer, although the question was rhetorical.) Although famous for his fiction across novels both prose (American Gods) and graphic (The Sandman), the fantastic fantasist got his start in nonfiction. Published by William Morrow, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction is not a collection of that early journalism, but nearly 100 essays he has penned — plus reviews he has written, speeches he has given, introductions he has contributed — since “making it.” The title refers to his surreal experience at the Oscars in 2010; attending for Coraline, an excellent animated adaptation of his 2002 YA work, the out-of-element author recounts crossing paths with Steve Carell, Michael Sheen and the Westboro Baptist Church. The movies constitute an admirable chunk of Cheap Seats’ contents, with an appreciation of The Bride of Frankenstein; three pieces on pal Dave McKean’s MirrorMask, for which he wrote the screenplay (with Gaiman’s Sundance diary being the best of the trio and somewhat of a companion to the title article); and, for the small screen, childhood nostalgia for Doctor Who. You’ll also find pages on music, comics and a lot of lit — all splendidly crafted, no matter the topic.

tvthebookAnd now for something that could start as many arguments as the current presidential election: TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time. Undertaking this rather intimidating endeavor with due diligence, noted boob-tube critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall have ranked and reviewed the finest 100 U.S. series in the history’s medium. After a maddeningly redundant introductory chapter that preserves their Google Chat debate on whether The Simpsons or The Sopranos is most deserving to claim that No. 1 slot (spoiler: Homer > Tony), the paperback functions as the kind of dynamic reference work that movies get all the time, while television rarely does. In our era of binge-watching and “peak TV,” their book is perfectly timed (if already dated) and rife with thoughtful, helpful, why-it-matters essays on such picks as Cheers, Twin Peaks, Batman, St. Elsewhere and Police Squad! Their taste is near-impeccable — How I Met Your Mother?!? — and extends beyond the top 100 to shout-out current newbies likely to land on the list in future editions, shows of “a certain regard” that didn’t quite make the cut (from the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker to season one of True Detective) and top-10 lists of made-for-TV movies, miniseries and live plays. Peppered throughout are looser lists to celebrate the finest in theme songs, pilots, finales, bosses, homes, ridiculous names and memorable deaths (Chuckles, we hardly knew ye). Despite the dead-serious approach (not to mention insane algorithms) Seitz and Sepinwall take to their self-imposed assignment, fun is first and foremost the name of their game. It earns the equivalent of the TiVo Season Pass.

thekrampusIt only took several hundred years, but that anti-Santa demon known as the Krampus finally has become an American celebrity, thanks to movies like A Christmas Horror Story, Night of the Krampus, Krampus: The Reckoning, Krampus: The Christmas Devil and just plain ol’ Krampus. Exactly from where did this unconventional leading man come? That’s the global-spanning goal — cleared! — of performance artist Al Ridenour in The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Using the baby-consuming creature’s recent cinematic surge as a launching pad, Ridenour explores the horrific goat-man’s European origins, town-to-town traditions (Buttnmandl, anyone?), stage appearances and more, all pithy and neatly arranged under subheads for easy-to-digest reading. Personally, I would have preferred more focus on the aspect of pure pop culture. One of the most appealing chapters introduces readers to the Krampus’ monstrous relatives, such as Pinecone Man. As is the modus operandi of outré publisher Feral House (whose recent volumes on Grand Guignol theater, sleazy sex novels of the 1960s and men’s adventure pulp magazines are all incredible), this trade paperback is a veritable visual feast of maps, photos and possbily insane vintage illustrations. So visual is The Krampus that it’s quite possible that functionally illiterate could spend time leafing through its pages and emerge satisfied, but why? They’d miss out on half the fun. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.